Japanese art form finds beauty in plants

Joe Carlson

By wrapping dead tree limbs in white gauze, Japanese Ikebana sculptor Kosen Ohtsubo isolates the essential organic forms of the branches and calls attention to their earthly origins in the process.
“Natural branches are emotional because they have skin,” Ohtsubo said. “I want to erase the emotion from the branches … and this gauze is like an eraser.”
This sculpture, titled “Memories of Distant Trees of Minnetonka,” is now on display along with three others in the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum until June 2.
Ohtsubo is in town both to exhibit his work at the museum and to give a lecture about the relationship between Ikebana sculpture and natural beauty.
The lecture, which will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in room 375 of the Science Classroom Building, is the ninth part of an ongoing lecture series called “What About Beauty?” sponsored by the McKnight Arts and Humanities Endowment and the University.
Ikebana is a style of sculpture that uses living, “ready-made” materials like flowers as a medium, Ohtsubo said. The form originated in Japan about 500 years ago. But Ohtsubo creates a revolutionary breed of Ikebana sculpture, using materials that are not only dead, but often were never living in the first place. Even the places that he collects potential sculpture materials from are unorthodox.
“We went to salvage yards,” said Mary Kalish, curatorial assistant for the museum who accompanied Ohtsubo in the gathering of materials. “He liked the idea that things that people have thrown away still have value.”
All of the materials in the three exhibits at the Weisman are indigenous to Minnesota. Pieces of junk, like old furniture and fluorescent light holders, were collected from All State Salvage in St. Paul. His other major material, tree branches, was collected in Minnetonka.
He explained that his art is part of a second wave of avant-garde Ikebana concerned with the environmental crisis facing the world today.
“Twenty years ago, one flower was beautiful in itself,” Ohtsubo said. “But now we have to think of the earth at the same time.”
Ohtsubo said that although he begins sculpting with a rough idea of what he wants to create, his vision rarely matches the way the sculpture turns out.
In fact, he said he uses improvisational elements in his work as much as possible to give them a looser feel. He sometimes listens to American free jazz to spark his creative energy.
“Sometimes my mind grows stiff,” Ohtsubo said, “too stiff to find a good idea. The jazz music gives me a massage on my mind.”
Ohtsubo has not been working in solitude while in Minnesota. Not only has he been giving lectures and demonstrations in the art school, but he has also been receiving help from student volunteers in constructing the pieces in the Weisman.
For example, every piece that Ohtsubo has done here uses a steel or iron frame. Those frames were built by students in the art school.