Joyce Tomonari pulls clippers from a pocket on the front of her black apron as she feels her way around her latest flower arrangement at the entrance to the museum’s café. She strategically snips wayward twiglets and unruly orange lignum vitae pods then stands back and assesses her work. Beside her is a gray toolbox filled with scissors, spools of wire, a selection of cutters that all do specific jobs, latex gloves, ratchets to attack thick branches, a small saw, ties, and many other things.

The clusters of pods are from a tree in her yard. “I schedule tree trimming according to my flower-arranging plans,” says Tomonari, who leads the museum’s volunteer flower arrangers. She likes to take “ordinary” plant life, like the tree seeds, and make them stars. As she works, nothing is by accident. Each cluster of lignum vitae pods hangs just so, forming orange clouds around the shapes and lines of vivid Christmas heliconia, stark branches and kelly green fishbone-like ric-rac cactus tendrils.

Most Mondays, Tomonari and her team are at the museum at 8am, creating the floral head-turners that are a museum tradition. The museum’s flower program is such a trademark that Kaui Philpotts wrote a book about it—Floral Traditions at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The 1996 publication is filled with gorgeous photographs by Linny Morris.

Trained in Sogetsu ikebana, Tomonari is recently back from her annual trip to Tokyo, where she goes to keep up on the latest flower arrangement trends and take a class from a Sogetsu master. “In November, there are a lot of Sogetsu exhibitions. Flower arranging is a lot like fashion, it changes, so I like to see what Sogetsu is doing, and try to go in the direction they’re following,” says Tomonari.

On this trip, along with peers from Sogetsu Hawaii, she was able to take a class with Tetsunori Kawana, the internationally known artist who creates giant bamboo sculptures and says things like, “Always I am listening to the heartbeat of the earth, and my creations echo this pulse of nature.” Tomonori likes him because he’s a stern taskmaster (it also helps that he speaks English).

“It’s nerve wracking,” says Tomonari. “I’m on vacation, and before class I always wonder, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ But then I get so much out of it. They really critique your work.

This year, Tomonari went to class aiming to redeem herself from last year’s session with Kawana. “Last year he gave us a whole bunch of camellia branches,” she recalls, “and when I was done he looked at my arrangement and all he could say was, ‘What happened?’ I started to laugh because sometimes when you do an arrangement it really comes to you, other times it just doesn’t come. Well that class was one of those times when I felt it just wasn’t right. He looked at it and said, ‘I can’t even work with this.’ It was that bad. But it was good—I learned from that experience.” This year’s arrangement was a success.

Yet Tomonari, who has seriously studied with the Sogetsu school for about 18 years (the Kaua‘i native started taking classes at a community center while living in Califoria and realizing she knew little about her Japanese heritage), doesn’t see an end to her skill development. “I find that flower arranging is really about learning. I don’t think you ever reach a point where you feel you’re really good at it. Everything is always changing—you can’t predict nature.”

For the last 10 years, Brian Choy oversaw the flowers at the museum, and also organized the popular Celebration of Hawaiian Lei Making events at the Art School. When he was looking for someone new to join his corps of floral arrangers, Tomonari volunteered. She had previously chaired the museum’s benefit gala Kama‘aina Christmas (her husband, Alan, is also a museum trustee), and would “see the flower ladies doing the arrangements and I found it so interesting, the styles and materials they used.” Then when Choy was ready to step back and take a breather last spring, Tomonari agreed to lead the group of five regulars—Leila Diamond, Priscilla Growney, Heidi Ho, Kitty Wo, and…Brian Choy. “He has stayed on and helps me a lot,” says Tomonari.

She works a couple of months ahead, planning out the designs by reading up on floral arrangement news, checking with growers to find out what will be available when, and assessing the budget. With those parameters in mind, she draws concepts in her sketchbook, lists the materials she has in mind, then emails them to the group the weekend before an arrangement is due. “Then we come to the museum and arrange together. They’re all very qualified—they make my job easy.”

Tomonari has also started letting the other arrangers take the design lead and this coming year she hopes each one will take the reins on at least two arrangements. “That way museum visitors can experience different ideas and styles,” she explains.

This week, you can look forward to floral Christmas colors, says Tomonari. “I ordered red anthuriums and I’m cutting seagrape leaf from my yard. I call it a weed because I didn’t plant it—but it’s such an interesting looking leaf that I let it grow.”


Would you like to help keep a museum tradition going? Consider making a gift to our flower fund—it costs about $500 per month for Joyce and her team to create their stunning displays. Make a donation by calling 808-532-8715 or by going online (On the “Designation” drop-down menu, choose “Flower Fund.”)

Sogetsu ikebana–trained Joyce Tomonari concentrates on her composition.

Sogetsu ikebana–trained Joyce Tomonari concentrates on her composition.