Lexington Minuteman Article
Inspired by flowers
Local artist journeyed to Japan to master the craft of dried orchids
By Eva Heney
Yellow, purple and white orchids in the painting in Judith Seeger’s living room look so vibrant the flowers seem real. On closer examination, it turns out they are real.
But the blooms have been pressed, vacuum-sealed and color-enhanced so that the colors can retain their vivid hues for decades. And then some brush strokes have been added to the background to produce an effect like a painting.
Seeger, a pressed flower artist with a background in horticulture, floral design, and Chinese and Japanese painting, has learned this unusual flower-pressing technique from an 80 year old Japanese man who has spent the past 50 years perfecting the preservation of orchids. Teizo Watanabe has never sold a picture but Seeger saw his work last spring at the Philadelphia Flower Show and fell in love with it.
“I felt like his flowers were alive ~ It was like they had their spirit.”
“I felt like his flowers were alive,” the Lexington artist said “It was like they had their spirit. You can see where the wind is blowing. Mine always looked dead to me. His work looked like a painting but when I read the blurb it said they were pressed flower orchids.”
Seeger was so inspired by Watanabe’s exhibit that she tracked him down and, with the help of translators, asked him to teach her his flower preservation methods.
The Japanese master, a former engineer who spoke no English, had never taught a student before but he responded favorably to Seeger’s passion for flowers.
And, after many negotiations with the help of third parties, Seeger flew to Japan last October where Watanabe and his wife met her at the airport. She had planned to stay in a hotel but when Watanabe realized she was traveling alone and had some dietary restrictions, he insisted she stay at his home.
A cook prepared fresh, sugar-free foods for Seeger every day and Watanabe had also arranged for a translator to be present. He would not accept any payment from Seeger for her food or translator.
“They treated me as a most honored guest,” said Seeger. “They acted as if they had nothing more to do in the world than to teach me and make me comfortable.”
During her two-week stay, master and student began the day at 6 a.m. with a 30 minute walk in the adjacent rice fields and orchid greenhouses with Watanabe stopping along the way to pick fresh flowers to be put into vases at home.
She explores the secrets of dried flowers
After breakfast Watanabe and Seeger would get down to work.
While Seeger presses all kinds of flowers in her Lexington business, Dancing Flowers, Watanabe only presses orchids which are very difficult to press because they are “so meaty and moist with some parts that are not pressable in the traditional way,” according to Seeger.
So in this country people who press orchids resort to dissecting them in order to press them or they put them in the microwave oven. But Watanabe has perfected a technique that allows the orchid to be pressed intact. The same technique, which cannot be divulged without his permission, can be applied to other flowers.
I thought the other day he gave me wings to fly.
The pair would work all day until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. Then it was time for a nap before dinner. After dinner it was back to work for Watanabe and his student.
“I learned all these techniques and I learned all about him as a person,” Seeger said. He used tweezers to touch the flowers. He had all these little brushes. He was so clean, so meticulous. His work habits were immaculate. He took a soothing bath before bed. His way of living had such an impact on me.”
Watanabe’s flower-preservation techniques prevent light and humidity from causing the flowers to become discolored, according to Seeger.
And now Seeger, who spent $8,000 on special equipment since her return, can press flowers in seven hours instead of the three weeks it used to take. She is experimenting with the techniques she learned in Japan, making cards and small pictures, but so far she has not produced anything she considers good enough to send to her Japanese “father.”
“I had reached a point (in flower preservation) where I couldn’t make it better,” she said. “There’s no limit now. His wish for me was to work hard, study hard and make many mistakes. He wanted me to use his techniques in my own art work. I thought the other day he gave me wings to fly. He brought me to another realm.
“I feel he’s part of who I am. I feel such a connection with this man. I’ve never met anyone so loving, so kind and so giving.”
Watanabe’s orchid preservation is unheralded in his own country and Seeger’s visit from the United States to learn from him amazed neighboring orchid-growers. But Seeger is the only person in this country who knows how to press flowers the way Watanabe does.
Although the master has exhibited at flower shows in England, Australia, Germany, France, Thailand and the United States, he has never sold a work.
At home he keeps his screens and pictures in a gigantic, light and humidity controlled refrigerator as well as in a large studio. But the fact that no one is enjoying such beauty makes Seeger feel sad when she thinks of the pleasure her work gives to her clients.
“My business is the preserving of flowers of sentimental value so there’s the double significance, the beauty of the flowers and the memories people have,” she said. “It’s a dual connection.”
She is hoping to arrange an exhibit of Watanabe’s work next June when her teacher plans to visit Boston. And maybe he will sell his first work.
“His main purpose is to continue to teach me,” Seeger said. “If I can show his work that’s good.”
Flower preservation is considered a craft rather than an art form in this country, according to Seeger. “What Americans do with pressed flowers is create other things like owls, birds or Snow White,” she said. “They use them to make something other than what they are.”
Her Japanese experience “opens up such new avenues for pressed flowers,” she added.
“He allowed himself to enjoy all flowers,” Seeger said, adding that often when she works on a picture or project for a client the flowers, whether they are from a wedding. funeral, engagement or anniversary bouquet, have usually passed their peak before she puts them in the flower press.
Thanks to the Lexington Minuteman for the use of this article.