An arranged life

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An arranged life

Do you remember the last time you received flowers? Do you remember how that act lifted your spirits, made you feel special? Well, imagine what it would be like to spend a lifetime among flowers.

"I have been very fortunate to be able to work with beautiful flowers, said Im Wha-kong, 78, Korea's pioneering floral artist. "Doing so, I have made friends from all around the world."

It is hard to tell whether her name made her the woman that she is today or she strove to live up to her name. Ms. Im's grandfather, an accomplished gardener, must have gazed into a crystal ball when he gave his granddaughter, born in 1924 at the height of Japanese colonial rule in the peninsula, the name "Wha-Kong," which translates into "flower companion." Some may argue that with a name like that, Ms. Im was destiny-bound to spend her lifetime among flowers.

It was not a happy chance that brought Ms. Im to her lifetime companion. Ms. Im first started working with flowers upon graduation from the prestigious Gyeonggi Girls' Public High School. Although she had her eyes set on going on to college, she was stricken with a lung disease which kept her convalescing at home. The doctor prescribed either fishing or flower arrangement to calm her nerves and to keep her occupied. Flower arrangement was the therapy of choice and for the next two-and-a-half years she took lessons from a Japanese Ikebana master.

Although she never earned a formal certificate, Ms. Im was called on to give lessons, as word spread of her flower arrangements. Her big break came in October 1958 when she was asked to hold a flower arrangement show at the United States Information Service exhibition hall in front of City Hall. Korea was still reeling from the devastation of the Korean War, which had come to a halt with the signing of the armistice in 1953. "It was a remarkable thing at the time because flower arrangement was considered a luxury in post-war Korea, which was still bleak as ever in 1958," said Ms. Im.

As is typical of such breaks, one thing led to another, and that year Ms. Im found herself giving regular flower arrangement classes. Sponsored by a leading women's magazine of the time, Ms. Im's classes were the first of their kind for the general public. Anxious, after all she was without any formal certification, she bought numerous Japanese books on flower arrangement and studied them intensively as she prepared her lessons.

Soon, she was asked to record a series of flower arrangement lessons for KBS, a Korean television network, and Ms. Im established herself as the undisputed pioneer and leader in Korean flower arrangement.

She brought the art of Korean flower arrangement to the international community when she began teaching the wives of foreign diplomats stationed in Korea, and the Seoul International Women's Association, some 40 years ago. She was able to teach effectively even though she speaks little English.

Today, wives of ambassadors meet every Friday at 9 a.m. for their weekly classes. Attendance varies at each session, but the students appreciate Ms. Im's artistic talent and enjoy the opportunity to socialize informally. "I often make arrangements for the ambassador's residence, drawing on what I learned at the class. I also enjoy meeting my colleagues at the weekly session," said Abir Helmy, the wife of the Egyptian ambassador to Korea, who joined in December, shortly after being posted to the country.

Having also lived in Japan, Mrs. Helmy notes differences between Ikebana, the Japanese flower arrangement style, and the Korean way of arranging flowers. "The Korean style is much more relaxed and natural compared to Ikebana, which is very formal," she said.

Asked about the difference between the Western-style of flower arrangement, which is quickly catching on in Korea, and her art, Ms. Im said, "Korean flower arrangement places a heavy emphasis on seasonal changes and the classical literary context of the flowers being used." For example, a plum flower, to a Westerner, is a small fragrant white flower. For a Korean, the plum flower, which blooms after a bitter cold winter, signifies dignity, and it is regarded as the flower of the "great man" in Confucian classic literature.

Making sure that just the right materials and container are selected for the surroundings and the occasion is an essential element of any flower arrangement, and when all these elements are brought together in harmony, flower arrangement is elevated to an art form. Needless to say, endless hours of repeated studies and devotion to the work at hand are required of the arranger. It should also be borne in mind that the final arrangement is a reflection of the state of mind of the arranger. "Cultivation of character is a very important aspect of flower arrangement," Ms. Im said.

Ms. Im's quest to have everything "just so" led her to build her own botanical garden and a kiln in the countryside just outside Seoul in 1974. White porcelain from the Joseon period is this master's vessel of choice to complete her creations. At her kiln, Ms. Im recreates the exact process of producing white porcelain employed during the Joseon era, burning pinewood to fire the vases, basins and bowls, which she designs herself.

At the second floor of the three-story building near Gyeongbok Palace where Wha Kong Hoe Corporation was established some 40 years ago, is housed two large classrooms with rows of neatly arranged long tables topped with a white cover -- always ready for the next class.

For the old dame who insists on having all the pieces of gim, or roasted seaweed, cut in precise rectangles for her meal, her private apartment on the third floor is a curiosity. Beyond the formal reception area is a large room with boxes and old trunks piled to the ceiling. "I moved into this building more than 20 years ago, and I have not had the chance to unpack all my stuff," she explained, pointing to a brown storage box with the number 178 written on its side in black marker.

Yet even in this apparent chaos there is some order, an order that is sensible only to Ms. Im. "I can find anything I want," she said, pulling out a pink brochure of the 72d flower exhibition of the Im Wha Kong Flower Arrangement Society, held last January at the Westin Chosun Hotel, from some recess of the room.

Even with a pacemaker she got a few years ago, Ms. Im is still trotting around the globe holding exhibitions and meeting up with old "flower friends," friendships she cultivated through her flower arrangement activities. Over the years, she has also published a series of books on Oriental flower arrangement in Korean and English.

At the moment, she is working on two projects: the Korea-Japan Friendship Ikebana Exhibition scheduled for October in Seoul and an exhibition in Yonago, Japan, this fall, hosted by Ikebana International, of which she is an honorary member.

"I need to send a screen to Japan which will be used as a backdrop for my piece and I need to find one that is just the right size," said Ms. Im, with a sense of urgency in her voice. As for her room with boxes, the septuagenarian said, "I don't think I will ever sort it out in my lifetime. I have too many other things to do."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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