By ELISE TAKAHAMA
Eleah Kang is an artist — at least, she hopes to be once she gets older. She has plans to pursue an art degree in college and one day wants to teach high school art.
That’s why the West Torrance High School senior was so excited when a few months ago her AP art teacher gave her class a new assignment: create a design to enter into the 2020 Torrance Rose Float Decorating contest.
When thinking about this year’s Tournament of Rose’s parade theme, “The Power of Hope,” she immediately thought of growth and nature. Eventually, she decided on sketching a design based on her city’s Pine Wind Garden, a tranquil Japanese garden that sits in the middle of the Torrance Cultural Arts Center.
She was shocked and thrilled when the Torrance Rose Float Association selected her design and offered her a spot on the float during the Rose Parade.
“When I hear about hope and inspiration, I think of growth, and when I think of growth, I think of plants,” said 18-year-old Kang. “It seems like you’re blooming into something you weren’t before.”
Kang was one of 32 students who submitted a design idea for the 2020 float, said Bev Findley, the board president of the Torrance association, which holds a float decorating contest for high school students every year.
This year, Kang’s Pine Wind Garden design particularly stood out because it represented an actual place in the community, said Lynn Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Torrance association.
Kang and her mother recently paid a visit to the space, which is lined with stone pathways and includes two waterfalls and a koi pond.
“The last time we went there, it was just the two of us,” Kang said. “I felt really peaceful and could enjoy taking my time. We didn’t talk much because [the garden]fosters this sense of calm.”
The final design depicts a pond — a watery illusion created by a bed of blue irises on the float — filled with decorative koi fish. It’s surrounded by stones, thousands of roses, cherry blossom trees covered in dried cranberry leaves and a traditional stone lamp, decorated with crushed rice, poppy seeds and onion seeds.
A small waterfall flows into the pond — on the float, it’ll be a continuous recycled stream of water — and behind that, a split pea bamboo forest, a pergola decorated with dill seeds and more cherry blossoms.
“We call it ‘Our Garden of Hope and Dreams,’” Robinson said.
Torrance’s Pine Wind Garden was crafted in the 1990s by the late Takeo Uesugi, an award-winning Japanese landscape architect who also famously designed the James Irvine Garden in Little Tokyo’s Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, the San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden and the renovation of the Huntington Library’s Japanese Garden in San Marino.
His youngest son, Keiji, said he and his family were delighted and humbled to hear that his father’s design would be the inspiration for the float.
“My father would undoubtedly be filled with joy that the beautiful and harmonious message of the Japanese garden will be shared across the world through the Rose Parade broadcast,” Keiji Uesugi said.
Keiji Uesugi said the Pine Wind Garden’s looping pathways and hide-and-reveal elements emphasize a “journey within the space,” showing that though the garden is nestled in a smaller courtyard space, certain design techniques make it feel bigger once visitors step inside.
“Japanese gardens, I think by their nature, are optimistic and hopeful,” he said. “They are inherently thought of to bring harmony between humans and nature. By that, they are bringing connections to people.”
Keiji Uesugi, who teaches landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, said the theme of hope is heavily reflected in both traditional and modern Japanese gardens.
When Japanese immigrants first arrived in the United States, for example, many of them found their first jobs in landscaping and horticulture.
In 1940, 43% of all West Coast Nikkei worked in agriculture, and an additional 26% were employed in agriculture-related activities, like produce businesses, according to Densho Encyclopedia. In 1934, about one-third of the Los Angeles Japanese labor force consisted of gardeners.
Japanese Americans also looked to gardens for resilience and a piece of home during World War II internment, Keiji Uesugi said. Many planted vegetables or designed rock gardens in the plots between their barracks.
“[The gardens during internment] are heartbreaking, but also inspiring, just in the way Japanese Americans evolved to survive and make these landscapes,” he said. “They’re threaded to that and the power of hope … They provided a livelihood and cultural and community identities.”
The Torrance Rose Float Association will also honor the family of Kenny Uyeda, the first Japanese American to serve on the Torrance Planning Commission and a strong advocate of the Pine Wind Garden project, Robinson said.
On the morning after Christmas, dozens of Torrance volunteers piled onto a bus to the Fiesta Parade Float warehouse in Irwindale, ready to start cutting flowers and gluing seeds onto the structure.
Don and Mary Jo Kohlmiller have been volunteers for 25 years, and this year, they’re in charge of decorating the float’s turtle — named Bijin, or “a beauty” in Japanese.
“We like doing it,” Mary Jo Kohlmiller, 80, said as she cut a bit of dried seaweed to glue onto Bijin’s legs. “It’s a lot of community spirit. And we like the people we work with.”
The couple usually signs up for three days of decorating — from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.
“Every year, for Christmas and New Year’s, we do this,” Don Kohlmiller said.
For others, it’s their first time volunteering.
Debra Murcia, 35, said she saw an ad in her utilities bill this year and decided to try it out.
“I love it,” Murcia said as she worked on decorating an orange and white koi fish. “This morning, I dusted the float, then had to cut flowers and now I get to glue.”
The deadline to finish the float is New Year’s Eve at 11 a.m., meaning they only have five days to paste all the materials onto the structure, said June O’Neill, the Torrance project supervisor who works with Fiesta Parade Floats. But she has faith in the decorators.
“Some floats are very cute and whimsical,” O’Neill said. “But this one is going to be very beautiful — a landscape come to life. Most are kind of cartoonish, but this is like a watercolor painting.”
Photos by ELISE TAKAHAMA