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.

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!

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?

Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

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.

Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.

To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.

A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, IMG_0269crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.

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From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form.  Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.

Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.

A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it

comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.

This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.

IMG_0275You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.

In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • Watch many videos.
  • Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
  • Join a club.
  • Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
  • Create and maintain your own Bonsai.

References

Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.

Leonardo Da Vinci and Bonsai

Yesda-vinci-profile, you are correct. Da Vinci never designed Bonsai, as a
matter of fact, there is no evidence to indicate that he even saw a Bonsai. What is this article about then, you may ask. In my quest to understand more about the creative process and trying to better myself as a creative person, I explore a lot of different theories and principles and try to open my mind to as many influences as possible to find my own rightful place within the creative space. My chosen field is that of Bonsai creation. We all know that the roots of Bonsai are firmly established in Chinese and Japanese culture. We also know that Bonsai as a creative activity has now spread to all corners of the world and it is clear that other influences are being incorporated into the creative concepts serving as foundations for Bonsai. The recent Artisans Cup in the USA is an example of this, but there are many others spread throughout Europe. A very distinctive style is emerging out of Africa as well. Why not look at the seven Da Vincian principles as a source of inspiration or direction in relation to Bonsai design?

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There are seven Da Vincian principles that can be used to give direction to a person’s life in exploring creativity. These are:

  • Curiosity – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
    • This principle can directly be implemented in the life of any Bonsai artist. Being curious about life in general and then also the creative process surrounding Bonsai cultivation, is very important in establishing the next steps for growth. Asking questions, exploring concepts, trying new designs on the creative side, but also being curious about the horticultural process underlying Bonsai are all part and parcel of the Bonsai artist’s grounding. I encourage artists to make notes, read often, watch videos, talk to other Bonsai artists, attend conferences and to never stop asking questions. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks amount to over 7000 pages.
  • Demonstration / Independent Thinking – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes.
    • As Bonsai artists we are involved in a practical application of centuries of knowledge and techniques. The last few decades saw an explosion of information and it is our job as artists to make sense of all of this and to apply what suits your own philosophy and style to your own designs. Yes, you can copy other people, but I am convinced that real satisfaction and personal growth comes when you use all of your knowledge and skill and create something new. This can be applied in a very practical way in Bonsai as each plant is unique.
  • Sensation – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enhance experience.
    • According to Da Vinci, experience is delivered through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Bonsai creation is all about using your senses, especially sight, touch and smell. The more sense you can incorporate into your interaction with your trees, the more fulfilling the experience. You learn and experience through your senses. One of the problems that I experience is that modern day living is too noisy and very visual. So much so that it leads to sensory overload. Something that I need to work on more is to refine my sensory experiences by deliberately focussing on those sensory stimuli that matters during the creative process and to block or filter the “noise” out.
  • Smoke (Sfumato) / Embrace uncertainty – Becoming open to the unknown. A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
    • In her blog, Andrea Balt mentions that we cannot “make use of our full creative potential without the ability to embrace uncertainty. An open, always questioning mind is our creativity’s best ally.” In Bonsai there are many uncertainties, especially when it comes to severe styling processes. Will a tree flourish after severe root pruning, how will it react to wiring, did I cut too much, etc.? There are many different thoughts and ideas around when things should and should not be done when it comes to repotting, lifting yamadori, using chemicals, etc. Embrace the unknown.
  • Art and Science – Whole-brain thinking. The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.
    • Your brain operates as a whole organ. Society has been telling us for a long time that one half is more dominant than the other. As an artist you are using both halves. You are programmed to be creative, it is just a case of exploring and finding your creative roots. The capacity is already there. This principle can also relate to the two parts of Bonsai creation. There is the creative / art side and then there is the science / horticulture side. Both are equally important. Embrace both. It could be that one of these attracted you more to Bonsai than the other. It is your task as a creative Bonsai artist to get yourself up to speed with both aspects. A beautifully created dead Bonsai is as unappealing as an ugly, living Bonsai. Study the art of science and study the science of art. Da Vinci was ambidextrous, something you can try to help with the development of the motor functions of both halves of your brain.
  • The body (mind-body care) – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Balancing the body and mind.
    • This one is self-explanatory. A healthy body is needed to dig trees, cultivate the trees, carry them around, etc. There is more to it than just being fit enough to do what you have to do around your trees. There is also the healthy body – healthy mind concept that is so important in the creative process. This principle was taken very seriously by Da Vinci in his day-t-day life. Mild exercise and good nutrition with ample rest serve as foundations for what is needed.
  • Connection – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.
    • Da Vinci said: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” The growing medium that you plant your Bonsai in, the aesthetic effect of pot and tree, the light that all leaves get, the link between water and nutrition, your interaction with the tree, everything is connected. You are connected to the tree and everything the tree is connected to.

For you to be a better Bonsai artist and based on the Da Vinci principles, in summary: Be curious and never stop learning. Test yourself and be independent in a practical way. Use all of your senses when interaction with your creativity. Embrace the unknown and explore. Use your logical and creative powers. Look after yourself and realise that everything in life is connected.

References

Gelb, Michael. J. 2014. Creativity on Demand. How to ignite and sustain the fire of genius. Colorado: Sounds True

www.davinci.ac.za/

www.andreabalt.com/7-ways-to-think-like-leonardo-da-vinci/

Movement and Flow in Bonsai

Let us first define the two concepts to ensure that we are all on the same page during this discussion. Movement is what physically happens with the trunk and branches. In other words, whether the trunk moves to the left or to the right or in an S-shape to both sides alternatively. Flow is the general direction that the tree leads the eye towards. There are a few things that determine this flow.

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A formal upright tree does not necessarily show flow as the idea here is that the tree is symmetrical and well balanced.

Most sources recognise that it is the first or primary branch as

Homemade Bonsai

The primary branch’s movement is towards the right and the apex is also in that direction. Overall flow therefore is to the right. It can also be seen that the tree is planted towards the left of the mid-line of the pot.

well as the apex that determines the flow direction. I would like to add the trunk line to this as well. Although the trunk could be leaning towards the left, the primary branch could be moving to the right and the apex could be on that side as well. Overall the flow will be to the right. All the other branches and in some cases the nebari, will have to be designed to follow this flow pattern.  What if this does not happen? The main issue will be that the tree will look unbalanced and disturbing to the eye.

sample bonsai

This is an example of a tree with flow in all directions. The trunk on the right flows to the left, the trunk on the left, flows to the right.

Flow is important as it will determine the placement of the tree in the pot. Trees should be potted behind the mid-line of the pot, but the flow will determine whether it is planted to the left or right of the mid-line. As said, it comes down to the flow. If the flow is towards the left, the tree will be planted to the right of the mid-line. If the flow is to the right, the tree will be planted to the left of the mid-line.

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The primary branch is towards the right, so is the apex and therefore the overall flow is to the right. The tree is therefore planted towards the left of the mid-line.


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This tree has its primary branch moving to the left and the apex is on that side as well. The trunk is also slanting that way which makes it easy to determine that the overall flow is towards the left.

The display of the tree is also determined by the flow. The placement of the companion plant (kusamono) will be on the side of the flow direction. For example, if the flow is to the right, the kusamono will be placed on the right. This becomes very important when shohin are displayed in a multi-tiered stand. Trees should either be all adding to wards the overall flow of the whole display, or they should complement each other by forming a “closed” display. This means that they do face each other within the display. It all depends on the effect that the artist wants to create.

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The main tree shows its flow to the left and the companion tree shows its flow to the right. These two trees complement each other.


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In this shohin display the top tree is balanced with no overall flow. The next shelf down shows the tree on the left with its flow to the right and the opposite is true for the tree on the right. On the bottom shelf, the tree on the left flows to the right, the tree on the right looks relatively balanced and if anything, the primary branch could be moving to the right. In this case the companion plant to the right of the display, flows to the left. A well-balanced display.

The principle of flow and the calming effect that it can have on the observer cannot be underestimated. It is the same when one looks at a masterpiece painting. There is always some sort of flow to be seen. This is either in a specific direction (see kusamono placement above) or it is towards a focal point within the artwork (see shohin display above). This principle can therefore be seen as a wider artistic principle and not only applicable to Bonsai. For me it also has to do with the flow of energy. The overall flow of the tree indicates a flow of energy. This adds to the dynamic nature of a display or to a more relaxed feel. Where there is flow in too many different directions, the energy flow is all over the place which adds to a feeling of discomfort when observing the display.

References:

I would like to acknowledge the websites that the photos came from as used in this blog post.

http://michianabonsai.club/sample%20bonsai.jpg

https://sanaakosirickylee.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/bonsai-17.jpg

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9a_9UTyb_T8ZVzWH445ALrtjodYvDzxgwOtL3JN6aJAsICNlD

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSIAPeSEvPE8vsZk9tD36gsAcAQQR_Ee7UPYtL0bwceqOcqU9KP

http://dupuich.smugmug.com/Bonsai/Exhibits/GSBF-XXXIII-Convention-Exhibit/DSC0047/1078632432_2rHzx-S.jpg

http://bonsaitonight.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/display-10.jpg

Creativity and Bonsai

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Tree by Robert Steven

There is no doubt that Bonsai is a Creative Art form. Once the horticultural needs of the plant is met, the creative and art side of Bonsai kicks in. In thinking about this concept of creativity and how it applies to Bonsai, I had a lateral thought moment that it is not dissimilar to what Maslow proposed as the hierarchical needs of human beings. The major difference is that we do not work with an organism that can think when it comes to Bonsai. The lowest level of needs around the Biological and Physiological must be met for the tree to stay alive and the next levels applies to us and not the tree. Higher levels of Maslow’s theory do refer to the need for creativity and maybe through that, a level of self-actualisation for us as humans. There is a need for us to be creative. Not all of us are in touch with our creative sides. Mine came late. I realised that I could grow things, that I am good at educating people and once I was exposed to the Art of Bonsai, I found an area where I could feed this need to be creative and become involved in another where I could educate and be educated.

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Trees by Lindsey Bebb

What is creativity? I have consulted the writings of some of the gurus on this topic and came up with the following:

  • It is the process of having original ideas that have value – Sir Ken Robinson.
  • The phenomenon whereby something new is created which has some kind of value – Wikipedia (probably not a guru).
  • Micheal Gelb suggests that for original ideas to provide value, they must be translated into action. He also refers to the term “creative energy”.
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Trees by Masahiko Kimura

How can we apply this to Bonsai? I see three movements in the Bonsai world. The one is the creation of Penjing – landscape scenes mainly out of China. Another one is the following of the rules and “laws” of the traditional Japanese style and the third one, which is growing rapidly throughout the West, a more informal, creative style. Whatever path you take, creativity is needed to pursue it successfully. Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of having original ideas probably leans itself more to the more informal style as one is not necessarily bound by the “rules”. Although I have made a thorough study of both Penjing and traditional Bonsai, I find that I do lean towards a more informal, creative style. Why? It could be that it suits my way of thinking or it could be that the material I have available to work with, leans itself more towards it. The New Zealand Bonsai scene is relatively young compared to the rest of the world and we are bound by regulations through which we cannot import trees and have to rely on what is already here and then work according to what these trees allow us to do.

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Trees by John Naka

Is this a problem? No, I do not think so. I just had the privilege of helping to select the trees that will be on display at the National Convention later this year in Christchurch. The trees put forward for selection are of good quality and very dissimilar to each other. The variety tells me that there is a creative spirit or energy (Gelb) present. The lesson that I get out of this is that once we throw the shackles of conformity and “rules” off, creativity is enhanced.

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Trees by Ben Oki

This is seen throughout the world. I am not saying that the rules and the foundations of Bonsai must be thrown away, what I am saying is that it is clear that where people have the opportunity to be more creative through what the tree allows us to do, the results are as spectacular as when we follow the traditional rules. It is fascinating watching our best Bonsai creators in action and studying their creations. Even the ones with a thorough traditional Japanese grounding show that you have to respect the tree and when we especially work with wild harvested material (Yamadori), the tree’s history must be respected in the design.

What does this mean for our creativity? You have to let the tree lead you, but within that you still have options. Some of these options will include the following of traditional “rules”, but where the tree does not allow this, one will have to apply original ideas (back to Sir Ken) and if this leads to a well-designed Bonsai tree, then creativity is seen in action. It has value as it has added to a body of knowledge, ideas and even new techniques that could be used in future. I can use the composition of Music as an example. The composer needs knowledge, technique and an open mind to compose. The composer would have studied Music, played it, composed it, made mistakes and would have experienced success. The same is valid for Bonsai creation.

Study what is available, practice a lot, work on minor trees and work on superior material as well, but above all, ensure that you have an open mind. What does the tree allow you to do? How do you use that to create beauty? Do you have original ideas? Do you add value?

My last thought for today: Look outside of Bonsai for inspiration. Read and use You Tube to learn about other creative pursuits and let these inspire you to be even more creative.

References:

Creativity on demand by Michael J. Gelb. A great read for general creative inspiration.

Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson. I am an education leader (something has to pay for my Bonsai addiction) and find that I can apply ideas from all over to my recreational and creative pursuits.

Wikipedia. It always gives me a heads-up when I start to wonder about things.

The photos on this page ashamedly (on my part) comes from this website: http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2009/06/09/tree-art-6-amazingly-creative-bonsai-artists/

I apologise if I have broken rules to use them here, but all I am trying to do is to promote Bonsai in general and certainly not for my own gain.

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