Bonsai as Art

I am seeing more Bonsai being exhibited as part of other art forms in what is generally referred to as an art gallery or a general art exhibition. This, in my mind is great, but we need to do more of it. One of the things we probably need to do as Bonsai artists is to promote it better as an art form. Where we see this happening, the results are normally outstanding. Without this general exposure to the general art public, the acceptance of Bonsai art in mainstream art circles, just will not happen.

From Pinterest

In my search for links between art and Bonsai to help with this infiltration into the general art world, I started by looking at definitions of what art is. See below.
Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
It will be so easy to slip the word Bonsai in there along with painting or sculpture. It is the second part of this definition that really speaks to me. For me Bonsai is appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. That speaks for itself. Bonsai does exactly that. The debate is over and all we now need to do is to get our Bonsai into mainstream art galleries. As mentioned, this happens, but I would like to see it happen more often and in a way where there is no debate and just a general acceptance of Bonsai as a legitimate art form that can hold its own in any art exhibition and not just for horticultural shows or Bonsai on their own.

Some useless, but interesting statistics:

An internet search for Bonsai art presented 3.5 million results.

Another search for Bonsai horticulture yielded 493 thousand results.

My deduction from that is that Bonsai is seen as an art form, but when that vast amount of results are further analysed, very few of those relate to Bonsai as a mainstream art form. We are getting there, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Please share your thoughts on this in the comment section on this page.

Top 75 Bonsai Blogs – We are on the list

Check this out. We are currently sitting at number 43 on the Feedspot Best 75 Bonsai Blogs list. That serves as a great encouragement to do even better and to bring you things that matter to Bonsai people. You can help further by reblogging my posts, liking some posts and I do encourage people to comment. It helps us all to grow as artists, horticulturists and Bonsai enthusiasts generally. Thank you for the support.

https://blog.feedspot.com/bonsai_blogs/

Cheers!

My Bonsai Test

I love watching Bonsai demonstrations, whether it be live or on You Tube. The quick transformations, the inspiration, the magnificent material that these artists work with, it is pure drama, pure theatre.

I do that as well. Pluck the odd tree out of a field or hunt for suitable nursery material to test my skills and knowledge and then compare my design outcomes with the artists who I follow or are exposed to. This is very satisfying and keeps on inspiring me and as said, tests my abilities.

This however is not my real test, my real challenge. My real Everest is the daily grind. The seasonal grind. Yes, those tasks that must be performed to keep your trees healthy and thriving. The weeding, the feeding, the watering, the wire on and the wire off. Especially the latter. Maintaining pots, tools, irrigation system and weather protection. Being able to do all of this is the real challenge, the real test.

It is therefor important to see it all as one. The not so nice work as well as the inspirational stuff. Hey, is that not life. The good days and the bad days. Look at the big picture, that is the reality.

The Bonsai Tree Journey – Our Roles

I have recently been privileged to get hold of a few older trees that has not had a lot of care and maintenance done on them. They came from an older person whose health is not that great and he cannot look after the trees that well anymore.

Just a plant in a pot. Some of the character is there, but growth is leggy and not well maintained.

Restyled as a semi-cascade to show more of the character. Jin and Shari still to be added. The stick on the left with the Jin protruding at the top is a different tree.

While studying the trees I had this overwhelming feeling of responsibility that came to sit on me and I realised that I now have to look after these trees better than the trees that I have cultivated from scratch. Why this feeling? I have been part of many discussions and even said it to many people in audiences wherever I go, that Bonsai is something that we get to enjoy now, but that we also start something for the next generation. I now realise that when it lands on the next generation, it comes with a burden, but it is a positive one. We are just caretakers of the Bonsai trees coming through our hands right now. It is part of our journey just as we are part of the tree’s journey.

You are privileged to receive a tree from the previous generation and you inherit with it, a responsibility to support that tree for the next generation. And on the cycle goes. All privilege comes with responsibility and this is no different when it comes to Bonsai. Is it more than just looking after your own trees? Yes, I do think so. The tree comes with a history, a story, and you might not be aware of this as I certainly have no idea what this looks like for my new (old) trees. That does not matter as we are lucky in that some of this history is told by the tree itself.

The roots will tell you how it has been struggling to hold on to the ground and how it searched for water and food. The bark, the angle of the branches, the presence of jin and shari and what it looks like, are all parts of this story being told. It is now my job to ensure that this tree’s story can still be told and then when it goes off to the next generation that my contribution to the life story of the tree is visible and seamlessly integrates with the tree’s existing story. This is privilege and this is responsibility.

There were only two living branches and the rest of its story will be told as a Literati.

Accept this responsibility, carry it and enjoy it!

Weeping Bonsai Trees – NZBA Convention Demonstration and Talk

I was asked to demonstrate at the recent 2019 New Zealand Bonsai Association National Show and Convention. I decided to talk about Weeping or Pendulant trees as these trees are quite scarce in New Zealand at show level. There was only one weeping style tree in the National Show, a native Kowhai tree.

The interesting thing is that many people spoke to me afterwards to tell me about their weeping Bonsai trees and even about going to have another look at taking cuttings from Willow trees, probably the easiest of trees for this style.

Below is a video of the presentation that I used. I started off by talking about the biochemistry and the role of geotropism (movement or growth caused by gravity) and the effect of that on auxins in the tree to allow branches to grow downwards. Next was a few slides of weeping trees in nature to show the most important principle of building an upwards growing structure first before you look at the weeping parts of the tree. This was followed by slides of relatively well-developed weeping style Bonsai trees.

I also showed a Willow tree from a cutting, a nursery sourced weeping Beech tree and another nursery sourced weeping Bottlebrush. I talked about wiring the main structure and then also the use of guy wires and objects to hang off the branches to pull the branches downwards. It also included examples of fishing line with weights attached and even the humble clothing peg to act as weight to help gravity do its thing.

Suiseki – my amateur steps bring victory

Surprise! One of my Suiseki is a National Champion.

I entered two stones for the New Zealand National Suiseki Show which was part of the National Bonsai show. This was done as I have two stones in Daiza gathering dust in the shed. It is all home made. Well, obviously not the stones, they were made by mother Earth. Here is the story.

About three years ago I discovered a box full of stones that my wife used in her Geography classes. She is a College Geography teacher. I took three of the stones and over the next two years the stones were at home and my intention was to use them as part of a Bonsai display. Never did it cross my mind that I was going to display the stones on their own.

During this time, I saw a video of a person making stands (Daiza) for Japanese Viewing Stones (Suiseki) and this triggered me getting into action. Out came the router, two pieces of timber and then the wood dust and splinters flew. Without going into too much detail, it was not easy and the end products do look quite homemade with the majority of the damage covered with wood stain and a varnish.

This year as I was preparing Bonsai trees for the show, I discovered the stones in my shed again and thought I would throw the stones in as well. I did do some reading and watched a few videos on Suiseki and decided to apply oil to the stones. I did have Camellia oil at hand as I use it to oil my Bonsai pots and stands. The stones were lovingly and regularly oiled and polished.

Off to the show I went and the two stones, now distantly resembling Suiseki, were placed on the appropriate shelving at the show for New Zealand sourced stones. In New Zealand there are two categories, the other one is for Internationally sourced stones. There is a trophy for each and also a Best in Show trophy.

The other stone named, Plateau.

I new my trees were not going to be awarded anything due to all of them being late to get into foliage. I completely forgot about the stones and did not even take photos of the stones until the last day. Huge was my surprise when the little black stone, named Black Mountain stone, was announced as the winner of the New Zealand sourced Suiseki section. Trophy, certificate and the title of New Zealand champion Suiseki! Needless to say, these were proudly displayed on the last day of the show and that is when I had a good look at the other stones on display. Photos were taken as proof, as few people would believe my story.

Receiving the certificate and trophy from New Zealand Bonsai Association President, Les Simpson.

What next? I cannot see myself becoming an avid Suiseki hunter, but will always, as in the past, be on the lookout for good stones. These are for displaying with Bonsai and some for creating root-over-rock style Bonsai.

On returning home after the show, I looked at some of the other stones with a different perspective and realised that the other stone which came out of the same Geography box, also has potential. Now I have to get the router out again for a stand…….

The International Suiseki with one which was awarded the BCI award of Best in Show.

More on Suiseki here: http://www.suiseki.com/about/index.html

The World Around the Tree – getting a Bonsai tree to a show

On returning from the New Zealand National Bonsai Show and Convention, I reflected on my experiences and performance in the run up to the show, during the show and on getting back home.

The context is that I had one tree in the National Show and four trees in the regional show. I also had three more nursery material and cutting grown trees with me that I wanted to use as part of my demonstration at the show (more on this in a blog to follow).

My tools came with, stands of various sizes and shapes were packed, cameras made it into the van as well as a laptop to be used during the demonstration. Cleaning materials, a 5 litre water spray bottle and accent plants filled the last bit of space up and then I realised that I needed to take a bag with clothes and toiletries for three days. What a mission!

The focus is always on the tree and to get that focus right, you need a lot of things to make that tree look good. I have listed my extras above and I must say that I did myself proud in the sense that once I arrived at the venue and unpacked, setting the trees up, I did not rush around missing things. This comes with experience, but more so from thorough planning and organising everything in advance. Use checklists to be safe. Make a list for each tree as each tree might have its own specific requirements. Set your display up in the weeks before the show. Take a photo of the best possible configuration and make sure you have packed everything securely as per the photo.

I have always wondered why people with babies have more bags and things packed for the baby when they travel than for themselves. Now I know, a Bonsai tree demands the same care and preparations to look good at the destination.

Ps. I forgot to mention that I also had two Suiseki and their stands with me. One of which was awarded the top prize / trophy for the best New Zealand sourced Suiseki. More on this in a blog to follow.

Show them off – Preparing a tree for a show

To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.

The Tree

The tree must be in excellent health and show the characteristics of the species. Al dead and not so healthy looking leaves and needles must be removed and all excessive and not needed wiring should be taken off as well. It is OK to have some wiring, but this must be discrete and only used to refine minor things. Wiring must be applied correctly as it can detract from the overall scoring if not done so. Also ensure that all leaves and needles growing downwards (species and style specific) are removed and that foliage clouds are distinct and neat.

Ensure that the main trunk line is clear and clean (the whole tree must be clean). Look out for insects and spiders and remove these. A smooth trunked tree can be cleaned by spraying a little bit of vegetable oil on it and rubbing gently with a paper towel.

The nebari and roots must be checked as well. All of the above apply to this area also.

Deadwood (Jin) should be clean. This can be done by brushing it with a toothbrush and using tweezers to get small pieces of debris out of narrow and hard to reach places. Lime sulphur should be applied a few weeks out from the show to allow it to settle. If needed give it a brush for the colour to settle in with the rest of the tree.

Soil

All weeds and fine protruding roots must be removed. Take weeds out and the finer roots can be covered with moss if it cannot be removed. Moss should be in pristine condition. This is one of the tasks that cannot be left to the last minute. If you do not have moss ready, you can grate old moss and apply this to the soil surface, even better if it is on a layer of fine sphagnum moss. Pay as much attention to this aspect as you would a prize-winning lawn.

Pot

The To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.

Display

All components making up the display must be clean and in good condition. The so-called three-point display technique will compliment your tree. This usually consists of the tree on a stand, an accent tree or plant and a scroll. One of the two non-tree elements could be a Suiseki. The dimensions and placing of the three elements are crucial to get a view of one, but to still emphasise the tree as the main focal point. My best advice with this is to have a few stands, scrolls, accent plants and even Suiseki at the ready and to try different combinations.

One of the best things you can do is to study as many displays that you can get your hands / eyes on. This is not difficult with the internet at our fingertips. All the top shows across the world are represented in thousands of photos on the internet. Happy showing!

Lime Sulphur and Bonsai – multitasking chemical

Lime Sulphur is usually used in the Horticulture industry to control scale insects, moss, lichen and fungal diseases on plants. It can be used for all of these issues when it comes to Bonsai. A use that is not listed on the container is to whiten deadwood / Jin.

As always, safety comes first when you use any chemical. In this case, it is not just the smell (rotten eggs comes to mind), but also the fact that this chemical is corrosive. It is a good idea to wear gloves and to protect your eyes. Wash your hands very well afterwards and keep your hands away from your face.

Follow the instructions on the container for all uses. As said, the whitening of deadwood is not listed as a normal use of lime sulphur. One thing to keep in mind is to also protect the soil surface from lime sulphur dripping or being spilt on the surface. Remember, this chemical is also used to kill moss! You do not want to kill of your lush green carpet covering the soil surface. I usually use plastic wrap for this purpose.

I dilute the lime sulphur 50/50 with water and I do this in a plastic or paper cup as it is easier to just throw it away afterwards than trying to clean it and getting rid of the smell. I also use a 12mm brush for most applications, but can go smaller or larger depending on the size of the job.

I also find it easier to apply if I slightly wet the surface of the deadwood. The Juniper that I worked on here had a bit of rot at the bottom where the tree meets the soil surface. This was cleaned well and the lime sulphur was liberally applied here. The chemical protects the wood against rot by acting as a preservative.

After application, clean the brushes well and get rid of the container. Wash your hands and allow the lime sulphur to dry and work its magic on the tree.

Creating a Windswept Style Bonsai

This Juniper was dug from a friend’s garden two years ago and it struggled to get to grips with life in a pot. The main reason could be that there is quite a bit of rot at the base of the tree and the live vein is quite narrow at that point. The main focus was to strengthen the roots through Proper soil maintenance, fertilising and having a disciplined approach to watering.

After a previous blog post I was inspired to design a Fukinagashi or windswept Bonsai tree. https://bonsaiplace.net/2019/04/21/fukinagashi-windswept-bonsai-style/

As most of the branches were leaning towards the left, it was an easy decision to let the flow all go to that side. A few more weak branches were cut and jinned. This job took about two hours with the help of a knife and a Dremel. The tree was left overnight and lime sulphur applied the following day.

Wiring was applied on the right hand side to enable those branches to be twisted to the left. The tree will now rest and be planted in a very shallow slab, tapering to the left as well. The base will be planted to the far right of the pot. Until then, fertiliser will be applied and the tree will be placed in full sun to maximise growth. Fine wiring will come later during winter. I do believe in little bits more often, rather than doing a lot of work in one go and risking the health of the tree.

Bougainvillea: From climber to Bonsai, first steps.

A friend of mine is going to make alterations to his house which includes demolishing the garage. As my luck would have it, a relatively old Bougainvillea climber is growing on the side of the building and it was going to end up at the dump when building starts. I kindly offered to remove the plant for him. So today was the day, overcast with the odd light rain falling. Perfect conditions for the operation.

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The first part of the job was to take the plant down to stump level. This took about an hour as this Bougainvillea had a lot of quite large thorns. Once that was done, the stump was wiggled and I found that it had two large roots going to either side of the plant. One of the surprises was that the wood is quite soft and this extended to the roots. The spade went right through a two-inch thick root with one go at it.

One of the roots grew underneath the building and as it was quite close to the building, I decided to pull the stump over to the front. On the one hand this was a mistake as the large root tore in two which left it with quite a large wound (was going to have one anyway due to the cut), but on the other hand, it left me with a smaller plant now separated from the larger stump. Not bad, two plants for the price of one dig.

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I quickly cleared the area up and did not wrap the roots as I would normally do as it was a ten-minute drive to get home. At home, the two plants were placed in a bucket with water in which I dissolved some aspirin. Aspirin has the same active ingredient that is found in willow bark and this is said to be supporting root growth stimulation, just like hormone rooting powder.

From here I prepared two pots by adding drainage material (stones) at the bottom and then filled the rest with 1 part compost and two parts pumice. I also shortened the larger stump. More rooting hormone powder was applied, planted, watered and placed in a good, protected spot. The good old human attribute of patience will be applied while we await the outcome.

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Simplicity is the goal in every art.

I do believe that there are concepts in any art form that are universal. With that believe, I also explore other art forms for inspiration, ideas and motivation as well as skills and knowledge. I have recently embarked on trying to improve my photography skills as I am notoriously bad at it. In the process of reading up on this topic, I stumbled upon this statement:

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is easily the most essential.”

What does this mean for Bonsai? Bonsai in its simplest form is a tree in a pot that resembles an old tree in nature. That then probably takes us back to the original design concepts as proposed by Chinese and Japanese scholars and masters from the beginning to today. My own opinion is that the strictness of the original, especially Japanese rules, have been watered down over the years as Bonsai art started to spread to other parts of the world since World War II. Western ideas of what art looks like and what it should be as the individual philosophies of artists as well as the type of Bonsai material that they can work on has shaped this over time.

Simplicity can also refer to the horticultural side of keeping trees alive. It comes down to water, nutrients, climate, inclusive of light requirements. Yes, it is that simple, but take any one of these for granted and you end up with a deteriorating or dead tree.

From a design perspective it is important to know something about the different styles or forms of Bonsai and by then adhering to the style “rules” in its purist form, simplicity in design will be shown. Part of this is to follow the basic shape and growth pattern of the original tree if it comes from nature or has been in a pot for a long time. Radically changing the shape or form of a tree away from its natural flow, can not only stress the tree, but also lead to a quite complicated design that might need constant maintenance or interference to keep it in that shape. This means that the tree is kept under stress for a longer period of time.

A tree that does not show these characteristics or one that can be shaped from seedling or cutting stage will be easier to shape and still adhere to the concept of simplicity. What does this look like?

  • Establish a flared, radial root system growing from a wider buttress and is exposed at soil level.
  • From here a gradually tapering trunk will grow depending on the style.
  • The first branches will start about a third of the trunk height from the soil and will alternatively grow on two sides of the trunk with every third one to wards the back.
  • These branches will gradually become shorter and thinner as you move towards the top or apex of the tree.
  • The apex could be in-line with the nebari or base of the trunk.
  • Finer branches are grouped to allow the leaves or needles to form “foliage clouds”.
  • Empty spaces or the spaces between the branches will balance the tree to form a whole or one unit to look at.

That is bonsai design at its simplest or most basic. We do know that it is never that simple. Branches do not necessarily grow in that pattern and nature sometimes play cruel tricks on plants (this could be great for Bonsai) to alter growth patterns and directions. This is where the artist comes in and it leads to a second quote from a photography resource:

“Photography is not looking, it is feeling. If you cannot feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

I am not too concerned about what other people think of my trees. I need to be moved or have an emotional reaction to a tree for it to make impact. I also do believe that it is this, the fact that a Bonsai tree can invoke a feeling, an emotional reaction, that makes it art. I also do believe that it is usually the simplicity in a design or form that triggers the higher emotion. Less is more. Wabi-sabi. Literati. The emotion of a trees that looks old, feels old, shows character, fits its pot and as a whole make you stand still and study it, is a piece of art.

A lot of very complicated designs, excruciating bending, very heavy wire and at times heavy machinery (not really, just power tools), are used to get a tree to look like a Bonsai tree. Is this part of our instant generation? It has its place under the right conditions. I just wonder whether going back to the original simplistic view of Bonsai, the pure meaning behind the art form and taking a longer view or approach to the development of the tree, might not stir a stronger emotional reaction and make more people fall in love (also known as addiction) with this pure, simple and very rich art form.

What do you think?

Juniper Progress.

This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.

From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.

I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.

Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.

Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.

I like to study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.