World of freeze-framed flowers at Mitsukoshi

by Mami Maruko

Despite a long history dating back to the 16th century, when botanists in England and Italy began systematic collection of specimens, the art of flower pressing still tends to be treated as a mere hobby or handicraft in many countries. In Japan, too, although the number of oshibana (pressed flower) artists and enthusiasts has increased in recent years to about 400,000 (perhaps due to the surge of interest in gardening), oshibana has not yet been acknowledged as a legitimate art form.

However, Nobuo Sugino, 34, an up-and-coming Japanese oshibana artist, is trying to change that. Organizer of an exhibition of his work and international pressed-flower artists, currently showing at Ginza Mitsukoshi, Sugino says he would like to help popularize oshibana worldwide and upgrade its status.

The Ginza Mitsukoshi exhibition features about 160 oshibana works from 16 different countries, including England, Ukraine, Iran, Korea, Taiwan and Denmark. In addition to Sugino, Japanese artists such as Kiyoko Suizenji are also represented. In some works, the flowers and plants are used in a natural way, while other works resemble oil paintings, with the flowers and plants arranged to form a person’s face or a landscape.

Although there are some fascinating works by artists such as Heidi Garnello from the United States and Christiane Schlussel from Germany, Sugino’s works are by far the most striking. These include the pieces that won him the Grand Prix at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 1997 and 1998. All of his works are delicately presented, and the bright colors of the flowers and plants stand out from the subtle washi (handmade Japanese paper) or fabric backgrounds, mainly in black or white.

Thanks to the efforts of Sugino and his father, who developed a groundbreaking method of using desiccant paper sheets to press flowers, oshibana works can keep their bright colors for years to come.

Sugino was born in Ohmuta, Fukuoka, to a family very close to the world of nature. His grandfather was a botanist, his father a researcher at a chemical company and his mother a science teacher. His parents are both oshibana artists, too, and it is obvious that their work has had an influence on his style. Some works of his father’s are included in the exhibition.

He was always surrounded by plants as a child, he says, so oshibana came very naturally to him. He started pressing flowers at an early age in primary school, but did not become deeply involved in it until college. His major at Nihon University was analyzing and desiccating food, and what he learned there turned out to be very useful in his subsequent work, especially his efforts to develop techniques to prevent discoloration of pressed flowers and plants.

Sugino goes to Mount Fuji, Akita and Nagano Prefectures and even New England in the U.S. to pick the flowers and plants he uses for his works. “The more I devote myself to oshibana, the more fascinated I become by the beauty of nature; the flowers at the florist look very artificial to me. A little flower or plant by the roadside is much more charming and appealing,” he says.

To Sugino, creating oshibana art is more than just a means of self-satisfaction. He would like everyone who sees his works to feel the beauty and the preciousness of nature.

In order to gather information and make contacts to aid him in his efforts to have oshibana recognized as a legitimate art form in Japan and abroad, Sugino started making trips overseas in 1993. He searched for oshibana works at flea markets and tracked down the artists who made them, and based on these encounters wrote the two-volume “International Pressed Flower Art Book,” which was published in 1997. He is also the president of the International Pressed Flower Art Society, which was inaugurated last year to help spread oshibana art all over the world.

“Even one leaf can become a work of art if it is beautiful. If people are deeply moved by what they see, then I believe that oshibana will surely one day be considered an art form,” he says.

“I want the plants and flowers of nature to live in harmony with the designs that humans create.”