The subtle art of Ikebana. A master gathers carefully, arranges quickly, deftly

A quiet, serious Oriental gentleman approached a 15-foot-tall clump of dried-up, browned pampas grass at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Two Japanese assistants stood silently and respectfully at a distance. Suddenly, armed with a small pair of clippers, the gentleman disappeared into the tall grass. After several seconds of rustling about, he was back in the sunlight smiling, clutching a fistful of foot-long, bright green vegetation. ``The grand master is very pleased,'' said one assistant, retrieving the fresh stalks. ``Outside the grass is dead. But inside he has found life.''

Kazuhiko Kudo is a ``No. 1 grand master'' at the Ohara School of Ikebana in Tokyo.

Ikebana is the generic term for Japanese flower arranging.

Professor Kudo and his entourage were here under the co-sponsorship of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and the Japan Society of Boston Inc.

At the arboretum, Kudo gathered branches of ``Okushimo'' maple, red-berried ilex, heart-shaped hydrangea, and a variety of grasses, leaves, and pine boughs.

Down by a small pond, he uncovered some iris leaves protected from a recent killing frost. ``Yesterday the professor bought iris at the flower market, but without leaf. Now he will borrow these for arrangement tonight,'' an assistant whispered.

``Always in Japan, we use greens with flower,'' said Kudo, returning from the pond with a few wet, glistening waterlily leaves.

As each maple branch was selected and cut, an assistant would quickly scrape the stem and dip it in a jar of sake. ``It preserves and makes the leaves `blush,''' Mr. Kudo explained through an interpreter. Other specimens were dipped in vinegar, peppermint extract, or plain or salted water.

Later that evening in the elegant ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel, Kudo trimmed and snipped six hundred years of ikebana history into a dazzling two- hour demonstration.

Dressed in an understated, elegant, olive brown silk kimono, Professor Kudo mounted the long low stage as trays of flowers and branches were set before him.

The grand master didn't waste precious time on the centuries-old history of ikebana, steeped as it is in culture, Buddhism, philosophy, and art. Instead, he went right to work with deftness and alacrity.

Kudo teaches the Ohara method of ikebana. Established in 1897, this school is relatively new to this ancient art. Rather than the classical ``twisted and tortured'' method, the Ohara school developed a style more subtle and sympathetic to nature.

This style is often done in large, shallow containers. It reflects and sometimes improves upon nature, said Kudo. The ``improving'' comes with the bending of branches and judicious snipping of a few leaves here and there. This may be done to bring visibility to, say, a flower in the background.

A few stiff materials gathered by the pond were placed asymmetrically in one shallow container. Grasses were added to soften the effect. Some were bent, ``so you can feel the wind.'' A few flowers in bud are added for color.

The grand master has taught in China, Australia, and South America, but this was his first trip to the United States. He had just come from Los Angeles, and was on his way to Chicago and Honolulu.

Thirty-five years ago Kudo was a practicing geological engineer. When that industry ``dried up,'' he said, he entered an amateur ikebana show. He won, and the twig was bent.

In another display he trimmed the woody stems of hydrangea and dipped the tips in powdered alum. ``The alum will force the flower to drink,'' he said, tucking the basketball-size blossoms in a summer arrangement of hydrangea, blue iris, maple, and white daisies.

If you don't have alum, Kudo suggested, burning the stems has the same result.

With clippers in hand he snipped away a perfect pink and white lily blossom, leaving only closed and partly opened buds. ``We praise the flower that is about to open. It has future,'' he said as he placed the spare stalk in a high, white, antique porcelain vase. ``Fully opened,'' he added, ``the flower has gone past.''

The two assistants - ikebana teachers in their own right - were kept busy moving in trays of materials and carefully lifting out the finished pieces. Occasionally they would gently lift a sleeve of Kudo's kimono as he worked to keep it from knocking over a delicately balanced arrangement.

Flower arranging is as much a part of Japanese life as a bowl of rice. Every older home has an alcove where ikebana is displayed. Even in newer homes, where space is at a premium, a small arrangement graces a low table or stool. Especially fine floral arrangements are created to celebrate the new year.

Before that holiday, Kudo not only decorates his own home, but stops in at the Imperial Palace and creates no fewer than 13 floral pieces for the emperor.

Kudo was especially pleased to find a witch hazel in bloom. He placed the cascading, yellow-flowered spray in a delicate Japanese basket which, he said, could be a standing or hanging piece.

Kudo moved with surprising quickness, creating 12 exquisite arrangements in a variety of seasons and styles. ``He makes it look so simple,'' said Mabel-Maria Herweg, who kindly lent many of her rare and precious vases for the demonstration. ``I studied with Professor Kudo 20 years ago in Japan, and let me tell you, it's not easy.''

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