Ikebana Artist and Instructor, Sài Gòn (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Auralynn Nguyen is an ikebana artist living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She was born in Los Angeles and visited Vietnam often as a child. Auralynn first became intrigued by ikebana when she picked up a book on the subject at her college library, with no realization on how to approach the art. She became part of the Sogetsu school of ikebana—the philosophy expresses it can be done “by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” The art of ikebana has given her an unknown confidence and the knowledge of knowing what she wants from life and relationships with others. Auralynn has a growing interest in past kingdoms and minority groups in South and Southeast Asia. She has visited the ancient Bagan valley in Myanmar and finds inspiration from the Angkor Kingdom. In ten years, Auralynn sees herself living in Saigon or Hanoi.
Guidance Into Ikebana
Thanks to social media, ikebana is becoming reintroduced to the younger generation worldwide. I’m happy to see that ikebana can cross international boundaries, and more importantly, an age gap that has been becoming more visible in the ikebana community.
The Sogetsu school’s aphorism is that “Ikebana can be created anywhere, anytime, by anyone”. Here are a few tips that go further into this philosophy. I believe they are important for those that want to pursue ikebana as a hobby, career, or artistic practice:
Learn From an Experienced Teacher
Anyone can create ikebana on their own, but with a limited understanding. However, once you learn from a teacher, a relationship is formed. The teacher will mentor you how to assess materials for their unique characteristics, elevate your artistic approach, and help develop your own personality with nature. Ikebana is like any other art; one can paint, sculpt or create music on their own, but refinement will only come with formal training. (I know, not many people like to read this but it’s the truth!)
Once you start ikebana, almost everywhere you’ll go you will imagine what you could create with your environment. Recently, I was in Singapore looking out of the car while on the PIE. All I could do was imagine what kind of arrangements I’d create with the branches and lush tropical leaves I saw. Currently, there are a select amount of flowers that are used in all kinds of floral arrangements because they are in style. These flowers are beautiful, but ikebana involves exploring the materials that you are surrounded by in your current environment. Every flower, leaf, and branch has a quality that differentiates it from the rest. Even weeds!
Expressing Yourself Freely
Ikebana explores the transient beauty of nature and mankind, but it’s also about evolving oneself. Some days we want to arrange, yet we continue to make compositions that look derivative of one we previously created, or even of another person’s. Our heart and mind change over time, and they are all different from one another. Don’t feel confined into making an arrangement within certain stylistic boundaries. If you follow this rule, when you finish an your piece you will discover a warm and fuzzy sense of fulfillment. To come in contact with nature and feel a closer connection by artistic practice is one of the best experiences, hands down.
Can you tell us where you were born and how you decided to move from Los Angeles to Sài Gòn.
I was born in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I “returned” to Vietnam with my father (born in Sóc Trăng province) when diplomatic relations with the United States were formed. I had been to Western countries to see relatives, but this was my first time in a foreign and visibly distraught environment. I was five or six years old. For years I continued to visit my remaining family there and become acclimated to the cultures of both the city and countryside.
I took a break from going to Vietnam for a decade. My ikebana studies began in 2012; in 2014 I decided to visit Japan to see the culture upfront. I concluded that it was necessary to study ikebana extensively for the spring of 2015 in Tokyo. It would have been a shame to not visit Vietnam for Tết (the Lunar New Year) and see how the country had changed. Vietnam and Japan are so close, compared to the 20-hour flight from California. With my childhood memories, seeing Vietnam again was eye-opening. Globalization and technology had made many parts of the country unrecognizable. I missed the old buildings but found the entrepreneurial attitude infectious. While in Tokyo to study, all I could do was think about how Saigon has a promising future ahead. The young generation is not looking back, yet it is still incongruous. It’s finding its way on its own terms.
Los Angeles already has a number of established ikebana teachers, along with a set idea of what ikebana “is”, not what it “can be”. Meanwhile, Vietnam does not have any†ikebana teachers. To become an ikebana instructor, you must be certified by your ikebana school’s headquarters. (Sogetsu) ikebana is a new concept to the people. I see this as an opportunity for the current generation to explore creative expression and communication with plant materials.
How did the passion of Ikebana come to you?
Originally I went to college to study art history. Like many young people in the States, we have exposure and understanding to the arts of the West. One day I realized that I knew very little about Japanese traditional arts, which requires not only a studious effort but also a specific kind of mentality. Japanese art needs a specialized understanding that has growing profundity over time. I picked up a book on ikebana at the library, with no idea how to approach the art. I found out I could learn more directly with a class in Pasadena, California, so I contacted the teacher, Kaz Kitajima out of the blue. He ended up becoming my permanent teacher. He informed me that there are numerous ikebana schools that have their own styles, rules, and history. Ikenobo is the school that ikebana originates from. Currently, they are in their forty-fifth generation. The school I belong to is Sogetsu.
The school of Sogetsu ikebana was started in 1927 by Teshigahara Sofu. He decided that ikebana needed to progress with the times. Doing this means leaving the tokonoma†(Japanese alcove) and working your ikebana into a modern environment. Sogetsu Ikebana came at a time when the Americas and Europe were undergoing their own transformation with artistic styles and politics. In order to do this, he reinvented ikebana to be comparable to the painting and sculpture of the 20th century. The basic philosophy of Sogetsu Ikebana is that it can be done “by anyone, anywhere, anytime”.
Over 90 years, some of the most important artists, composers, architects, etc. have been associated with the Sogetsu school. The “East Meets West” movement that occurred post-war would not have happened without the assistance of Teshigahara Sofu and his successors, Kasumi and Hiroshi. (It is worth noting that Hiroshi is the same Teshigahara Hiroshi that directed films such as “Woman in the Dunes” and “Face of Another”). Naturally, finding out the rich history and philosophy of ikebana, and specifically, Sogetsu, has ignited a creative spirit I cannot walk away from.
Ikebana, as most of the Japanese disciplines, follows its rules and codes. How do you apply these in your everyday life?
Strip away anything unnecessary first. Focus on the foundation. Step back and look from a distance. Ikebana has given me an unknown confidence. Now I know what I want from life and relationships with others. Feelings, thoughts, and ideas are more sincere, direct and from the heart.
Where do you like to find inspiration?
Rock gardens and ancient ruins.
The most famous rock garden is Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. It has inspired numerous people throughout its existence with its composition of fifteen stones. Whenever I am in Kyoto, I make a visit to contemplate. I am also fond of the gardens by Shigemori Mirei, which can be found throughout Japan, predominantly Kyoto area. The whole universe is contained in these dry landscapes. I have a growing interest in the various kingdoms and minority groups of South and Southeast Asia. A few weeks ago, I went to Bagan valley in Myanmar. It was an overwhelming and amazing experience, but I still find the most inspiration from the Angkor Kingdom. In regards to artistry, engineering, construction, history: The Angkor Kingdom was awesome. They can easily be comparable to the Mayans. I would like to see Bamiyan ruins in person, but I am in the wrong era for that kind of expedition. If only people could look at history and realize we are all very, very similar.
Saigon is a growing city, in your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest points of that city?
The strongest point is that it wants to get better. The people are determined and working hard at their goal. They know the limits of what they can and cannot do. Their ideas of how the government operates are realistic.
The weakest? Like any other place, there’s many. Most obvious is the rapid development with no afterthought. The city is already suffocating from an influx of private cars (Land Rovers and Mercedes SUVs are prominent) and motorbikes on dainty French colonial-era streets. With development comes the destruction of heritage buildings and sites. Due to age, weather conditions and neglect, some buildings have to meet the wrecking ball. The city is losing its gritty exterior it once had. I understand why many people like the new skyscrapers that are being erected, but they are built without purpose. The second is the lack of new ideas. Many businesses want to be similar to what the States, Australia or the UK already has. Some places are directly copying a concept with poor execution. I wish a business could just “be”. Thankfully, more art spaces are opening in Saigon (Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital in the North, has plenty of cool galleries, shops, etc.). Creativity isn’t endorsed when it leads to free thinking, but this is all part of the challenge.
In 10 years, I meet you again, where are you?
Saigon or Hanoi.
I went to Hanoi for the first time this year and found it to be rather charming. Saigon can swallow a person whole. It doesn’t stop for anyone. Hanoi seems to be a bit more on the sleepy side; the perfect place to get settled for a few months for an artistic excursion.
If you met a gentle Genie that offered you one dream, which would it be?
Ability to speak directly with animals.
Your idea of happiness?
Being comfortable and doing what I enjoy: making art, eating fruit, lying in hammocks.
Your idea of misery?
Lack of cognitive thinking.
If not yourself, who would you be?
One of my faux-relatives, such as my Amerasian sister from Paris, or Japanese mum via New York..
What is your present state of mind?
Determined and conflicted.
Bedside table books?
The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 by Donald Richie
What do you do if you can’t sleep at night?
Roll over and over until exhausted.
Do you collect?
Cute tins, then I have to find nonsensical trinkets to store in them.
Tea or coffee?
cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) or sencha
What is the strangest thing you believed as a child?
Socotra Island. Small enough it could be a city.
What are your plans for this weekend?
I will be working on making new ceramic vessels.
“Afternoon Tea” by The Kinks
Right or left handed?
What is the best dish you can cook?
Canh chua cá (Vietnamese sweet and sour soup with fish, pineapple, tomato, bean sprouts in a tamarind broth). Each spoonful brings a Vietnamese of the South nostalgic memories, so I’m happy I can excel in it.
What is your middle name?
Ashley. It doesn’t flow but Mum insisted.
What do you do in your free time?
Read with my cat on my lap.
What inspires you?
Those who show respect for one another and nature.
What do you do for money?
Make a temporary composition from plant materials.
What do you do for pleasure?
Take off my sling backs and have an Old Fashioned.