For the first time in Willamette’s history, an undergraduate student will spend a year in Asia through the highly competitive national Luce Scholar program.
Christian Oldham ’14, MBA ’15 is one of 18 fellowship scholars selected to spend a year in Asia, along with a stipend, language training and individualized professional placement.
The program, launched in 1974, provides an immersive cultural experience to students who have limited exposure to Asia and come from a variety of academic backgrounds.
“Spending a year in a country that I haven’t lived in and meeting new people will create opportunities that I can’t even imagine,” Oldham says.
Oldham wants to study a form of ikebana, a 500-year-old Japanese tradition of flower-arranging that blends minimalist aesthetics and spiritual aspects. He will work with Tokyo-based master Kosen Ohtsubo, who teaches at the Ryusei-ha school and specializes in avant-garde ikebana.
Two years ago, on a month-long trip to Japan, Oldham found a book about contemporary ikebana among the floor-to-ceiling stacks at a used bookstore. He was captivated by Ohtsubo’s unconventional work, which featured vegetables and even a bowl of soup alongside more traditional plant materials.
“Kosen’s work caught my eye because it was the dirtiest and ugliest work,” Oldham says. “Within any art, ugliness attracts me because it denies the audience beauty. A lot of people try to make their work beautiful, but that makes work too easy because the audience just accepts it.”
As a Luce Scholar, Oldham will have the opportunity to improve his craft with the person whose work inspired his interest.
Currently, Oldham takes classes with Reiko Granade, the only Ryusei-ha ikebana master in the United States—who happens to live in Portland. A love of impermanence drives Oldham’s interest in the art form.
“We’re a little too precious about art objects. We think that they’ll be around forever,” he says. “While I think it’s important to know our history, I think it’s not important to dwell on it. The fascinating thing about ikebana is that you can’t keep it—it dies.”
Oldham credits his success in winning the fellowship to the supportive professors at Willamette, as well as artists and friends in Portland and New York and abroad.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to be surrounded and supported by a number of sincere, compassionate, thoughtful and giving educators, artists, collaborators and friends. They have all helped in my development as a human being and artist,” he says. “Now I get to put all that development into action.”
• Article by Emma Jonas ’15, creative writing major