In his sophomore year at Willamette, Christian Oldham ’14, MBA’15 spent two weeks living in a garage.
The unusual experience was part of an art show that Oldham created in the now-defunct Appendix gallery, a converted garage in Portland. Using the principles of the ancient Japanese flower-arranging art of Ryusei-ha ikebana, he filled the space with suspended boxes holding bamboo, glass and concrete bricks imbued with the scent of rose, tiger balm and ginger.
Ikebana — a fleeting art based on objects that inevitably wither away — allows Oldham to explore his interest in the concept of impermanence. In keeping with that aesthetic, Oldham rarely documents his work. Nonetheless, his talent recently earned him a prestigious Luce Scholar fellowship.
The first Willamette student to win the national award, Oldham receives a stipend, language training and other support to spend a year in Japan after graduation. He plans to study with an ikebana master to further develop his artistic vision.
“Creating art is an altruistic ‘thank you’ to all the people whose media I’ve enjoyed,” Oldham says. “I don’t want to just take in music and art without interacting with it and producing my own work.”
A Mixed Approach
Oldham works in a variety of media, including sounds, pixels and flowers. In keeping with his eclectic approach, he decided to pursue both art and business through Willamette’s BA/MBA program.
He says learning about business at Atkinson Graduate School of Management has helped him navigate the art world from the perspectives of both artist and entrepreneur.
“I’ve learned that business relates to all fields of interest,” he says. “It’s an incredibly flexible degree.”
Oldham stumbled across ikebana when he discovered a book on the subject at his grandmother’s house. Recognizing that the art involved physical objects with the same transitory nature as a digital file, he started making his own arrangements.
“I was figuring out how to communicate with objects for the first time,” Oldham says. “Objects hold significance, whether intrinsic or emotional. They become charged.”
Last August, Oldham started taking classes in Portland with Reiko Granade, the only teaching Ryusei-ha ikebana master in the United States specializing in the avant-garde Ryusei-ha school. This experimental approach can incorporate vegetables, dead flowers, metal and other materials into arrangements.
As an active member of the art community, Oldham brings art history to life in his studies and his own work. Art history professor Abigail Susik taught Oldham in several classes, and she noticed his penchant for synthesizing ideas.
“Christian will find something very particular and personal and make it meaningful,” she says. “He’ll explore it to the extent that it becomes a part of his own personal library of interests. It’s quite unique to learn in that personally motivated way.”
Stuart Read, a professor of strategic management at Atkinson, agrees. He says Oldham has a unique perspective on questions and problems, not to mention a sense of creativity not generally found in an MBA classroom.
By earning an MBA, Read says, Oldham has increased his marketability in the professional arena.
“An artist with an MBA has highly differentiated skills,” he says. “Understanding how organizations and commerce work might place Christian in a whole new space somewhere between art and business.”
Oldham says the personal relationships he’s built with professors — including Susik and Read — made his time at Willamette invaluable.
“I think people should engage with professors as human beings more often, rather than just people who grade your papers,” he says.
“A lot of my joy from Willamette came from professors who were interested in talking with me about what I was doing or taking part in outside of campus.”
After earning degrees in art history and management this month, Oldham will journey to Tokyo. There, he’ll study Ryusei-ha ikebana with master Kosen Ohstubo, whom Oldham met through Twitter.
“Kosen’s work has a playful sense of irreverence that I think is very important,” Oldham says. “I think his knowledge of ikebana’s history is invaluable to my interest in better understanding the art form.”
To that end, Oldham is writing a manuscript about the history of ikebana and its contemporary practices, which remain relatively unknown outside of Japan. He’s also planning to apply for a Fulbright scholarship so he can extend his studies in Japan. Other than that, he says he’s eager to explore new opportunities.
“I’m not sure if one year is enough time to work with Kosen, but I feel incredibly lucky,” Oldham says. “Having a year of stability is not something everybody gets.”
• Article by Emma Jonas ’15, creative writing major
Other 2015 Graduates
Halfway through his Willamette education, Jonny Saunders '15 discovered his love for neuroscience. Now, he's off to graduate school to continue his studies.
Moved by the death of a friend, Emily Miller '15 wants to help people heal. Willamette prepared her for UCLA medical school, where she'll study pediatric oncology.
Martha Sonato ’15 takes a person-to-person approach to engage the Latino community with environmental issues in the Columbia River Gorge.
An aspiring human rights journalist, Natalie Pate '15 is honing her writing skills this summer through a reporting internship with the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem.