It's the day before the Upper School Art Show, and for most of the advanced art classes, their creative work is complete and the excitement shifts to displaying their masterpieces in the Simms Reception Room and nearby hallways. This year, for students in Advanced Ceramics, however, their masterpieces are just beginning to come to life. Their ceramic vessels stand in wait on sparse tables as students survey massive plastic bins of flowers and greens, searching for the perfect branches and blossoms—the ones that will show just how much they have learned this year about ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arranging.
Over the summer, ceramics teacher Nandini Giridharadas had an idea for a bold new student project. It sparked from an exhibition at the Japan Information & Culture Center called "Floating Islands: Ceramic Ikebana Vessels." The educator had long admired ikebana from afar; its spare, sculptural style; its marriage of elements both inanimate and full of life.
When Giridharadas got a closer look through an exhibition talk and demonstration, she was blown away. "During the lecture, all the language the teacher used to describe ikebana is what I use while teaching ceramics: color, line, form, negative space. This light bulb went off for me," she says.
Giridharadas loved the idea of helping her students branch out into a complementary medium and art form—"and at a school where we are teaching students to be globally minded, I thought it would also be wonderful for them to be exposed to another culture in the process."
This fall, supported by Holton professional development funds, Giridharadas began taking ikebana classes to deepen her understanding of and fluency in the art form. In the winter, she began to introduce the craft to her students and brought her teacher, distinguished master artist Sheila Advani of the Sogetsu School of ikebana, to campus for a demonstration. Students created their own ceramic vessels inspired by and intended for ikebana, and worked with Advani during the second half of the year to learn this Japanese art and develop a concept for their final arrangements.
As golden beams of sun streak across Simms and onto her face, Kate Bohigian '21 hovers over her broad, wide-toothed vase, finessing lemon-hued lilies and snipping at stems of greenery to shape them just so. She and her classmates have practiced these arrangements in an earlier class. "But every time it's just so different," she says. "It's constantly changing...you have this image of what you want, but the flowers and branches are never the same."
As in a jazz improvisation, students have a sense of where they're going and what elements and structure will get them there. But the details? Well, as Kate notes, "I'm freehanding it."
The idea of completing a project during the art show installation period might sound stressful, but Kate isn't fazed. "Ikebana is so meditative and calming," she says.
This doesn't mean the project was without challenges. Several students noted just how many facets an artist has to consider in ikebana; everything is interconnected. This ups the project's difficulty level—as well as the potential for student growth.
"It made for incredible results," Kate says of the project.
She says it's taught her most about the value of negative space. "Before, I thought you'd want to fill everything up with flowers, but this has really taught us how negative [or empty] space can transform an arrangement. Ms. Advani taught us to think so carefully about all the lines and how you can trim things off to better showcase the flowers and vessels."
Kate sees how this lesson carries over into all things. "In life and in art," she says, "sometimes less can be so much more."
The Upper School Art Show Opening and Scroll dedication is today, Wed., May 22, from 5-6:30 p.m. in the Simms Reception Room, Adalman Gallery, Archive Gallery, and Administrative Hallway. Art in Simms Reception Room will remain on display until May 31. Art in other spaces will remain on display until Fri., June 7.
View photo highlights from students' final arranging and penultimate arrangements below (studio photos by Jeff Mauritzen).