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Artisan: Wisdom in Flower

Study and discipline lead to a calling for Etsuko Phillips.


Etsuko Phillips, a master in the art of Sogetsu School flower arranging, moves from vase to vase as the women work, looking on with calm intensity, knowing just when to pluck away a leaf, adjust the position of a lily or add a stone to water. It is her approval that they wait upon, these physicians and executives and athletes and scholars. And they wait, wordlessly, as she smiles on their ideas. It is their creativity and expression that she hopes to develop, and the rules of ikebana offer the framework and discipline that lead to their understanding.

Hers is an art that came into being six centuries ago, begun by Buddhist priests as a specific form of floral design that was practiced mostly by men. Later it spread to nobility and finally to all of those willing to study. Though its methods are precise and detailed, its principles are simple:

Flowers can be arranged by anyone.

Flower arrangements can be displayed anywhere.

Anything at all may be used as material for an arrangement.

Etsuko Phillips began studying the Sogetsu style of ikebana in her native Japan when she was 23, unaware that this practice would become her life's calling. She continues studying now, 51 years later. "It makes me happy," she says. "It makes me young. You forget about everything else. The more you arrange, the more you learn. The learning can never end."

She has learned how to look at the world for form and line and balance, how to pluck material from unlikely sources, how to stimulate her students to see for themselves.

They are a devoted group, her students, bound by art but also by respect for their teacher and the wisdom that she has achieved.

As with other Japanese disciplines — calligraphy, tea ceremony, martial arts — there is a spiritual element in rigorously repeated practice. Beth Gillispie, who has studied with Phillips for 14 years, explains: "You study to integrate the principles, and once they get into you, you see the world differently. It changes you."

Phillips, soft-spoken yet strong, describes her immersion into the art, saying there's not a moment that she doesn't think about it. She keeps detailed journals of her classes and her work, and can remember the arrangements a student created decades earlier — something that causes her students to marvel. She is known to fill her car with materials for class — sweeping arcs of bamboo, clusters of nandina, cherry blossoms, and driftwood gathered from the beach. She rises early to prepare special dishes for her students, gently insisting that they begin each session with tea and refreshments, to relax and talk with one another before they work.

Then, when the work begins, concentration is optimal. Many students take two hours to perfect one arrangement, moving each reed or stalk into place with the deliberate grace of a slow-motion ballet.

This is art that will not last except in memory and photographs. "It's this exquisite, ephemeral moment, and then it's gone," student Gillispie says. "That's what's incredible about it. You try to honor the flowers with your own vision, and then it's done."

As with Buddhist sand paintings and other temporal creations, this fleeting aspect of the work enhances its power. This is here, now. And the artist is in it, fully alive.


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