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

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.

Sacrifice Branches

I currently have a few trees that do not look very refined. As a matter of fact, they look like shrubs and in some cases like Bonsai trees with one or two branches that were missed at the previous pruning. This is all done deliberately for very specific reasons. The sacrifice branch is a necessity in Bonsai growing.Sacrifice branches 008

Why do we need to do this? The main reason is to enhance growth in a specific area. The theory is that the branch that is allowed to just grow and increase in length will have more sap flowing through it, therefore more nutrients and in turn you get a much faster growth rate compared to regularly pruned branches. One specific case would be to thicken the main trunk. This could be either during the early years after a seed has germinated or a cutting has struck. The more side branches you have that can grow, the thicker the trunk will become. The leader is of importance here. Let this grow until you get to the desired thickness and then cut.

Another reason is to improve taper. If a branch or two are left on the trunk to grow out, the area below the branches will thicken more than the area above it. This leads to a thicker bottom half if the branches were left halfway up the trunk, compared to the top half of the tree.

Another reason for letting a sacrifice branch grow is to get a side branch to thicken in proportion to other branches. An example of this could be that a branch is needed lower down on a trunk and the branches above are all thicker than the lower one. The lower one is then left to grow until the desired thickness is attained and then it is cut back.

There are a few things to keep in mind when sacrifice branches are used. The first one is to remember that the sacrifice branch will create more shade than other branches and this could impact negatively on the growth patterns underneath this branch. A second point to remember is that sacrifice branches that are cut back, can leave quite large scars that will have to heal over time. For trunk thickening it could be best to use a branch at the back or in a place where the design of the tree will hide the scar. A third point to mention is that side branches will start to grow upwards. This growth needs to be controlled if the branch is suppose to be horizontal or even growing slightly downwards.

In the examples below, sacrifice branches were mainly used to thicken side branches to either fill a gap, create a new branch or to correct parallel branches.

Top left: There are two vertical branches parallel to each other growing from the main trunk as well as two bar-branches at the bottom.

Right: the one parallel vertical branch was removed and a new branch allowed to grow out at an angle, removing the parallel effect.

Bottom left: The sacrifice branch and the vertical branch in close up to compare the thickness. This is one season’s growth for this maple.

 

 

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.

Tanuki – Cheating or Design Technique?

Wikipedia defines Tanuki Bonsai as a technique where a living tree is joined to an
interesting piece of deadwood to create a composite in the

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From: artofbonsai.org

driftwood style. It goes further to state that the deadwood usually has the form of a weathered tree trunk. The tree is attached to the deadwood by making use of screws, clamps or wire. Over time, the tree will grow into the channels created  and in so doing will disguise the fact that it is a separate entity.

In Japanese folklore, Tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog. are shape-changing tricksters. It is also known as Phoenix-grafts in the West. Personally, I think it is a good artistic technique to either enhance a piece of deadwood or a tree. There is no difference in attaching a tree to a rock compared to attaching a tree to a piece of deadwood. I had to try my hand at this. My experience is written up below.

A0B7514F-C852-4AA4-9296-EDDF2C729AC2I first had to find the right tree. I decided on a young Juniper with a lot of flexibility. The next project was to find a suitable, characterful piece of deadwood. I managed to get a piece on the beach. A note of warning is needed here. If driftwood from a beach is used, it is important to get rid of all salt on and in the wood. I submersed the wood for three weeks in fresh water and regularly changed the water as well as used a high pressure stream of water and scrubbing on it. It was then left in the sun for another week. The third component was a pot selected from my pot collection.

The first job on the pot was to get enough tie wires in place asA47DF033-8C01-4C66-9DDC-E2A8D839DB39 the deadwood and tree must be secured very firmly. It is wise to get a hardener on the deadwood. I treated it with lime sulphur as the bottom part will be in the wet soil. I have read that the end could also be placed on a solid object like a tile to minimise the part in contact with the soil. My first challenge was to drill extra holes in the pot. For the first time in my life, I had a pot which is so hard, that the drill bit did not even make an indentation on the pot. The tie wires therefore had to be attached through the drainage holes.

The next phase was to ensure a flat structure at the bottom of the deadwood to make it stand more solidly in the pot. This was done by simply determining the angle, marking the wood and using a handsaw to make the cut. Next I had to drill holes into the deadwood for the tie wires. Advice found was to use a router to create channels in the deadwood. This was not necessary on this piece as it had natural channels that could be used for the tree to be placed in snugly.

The tree was now prepared by  preparing the roots and cleaning up the trunk. It was put in place starting at the bottom and fixing it to the deadwood with non-reacting (copper) thin screws. I pre-drilled the tiny holes as the tree is very thin in places and did not want it to split. Branches which came in the way of this process were removed. I decided to leave the growth at the top as is as I did not want to stunt the growth too much at this stage. The whole idea is that the trunk fattens up to secure itself into the channels and adhere to the deadwood. Branches were wired and now the maintenance work of feeding and watering begins. No pruning will take place until the two entities become one (hopefully).

Cheating or a legitimate technique? You decide! I found a reference on bonsainut.com that mentioned that Masahiko Kimura designed Tanuki and it also mentioned that John Naka once threw one out of a display and told the owner to go and get a real Bonsai. I will update this post as the Tanuki showed here progresses.

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Deadwood inspiration from Driftwood

In a recent Blog post by Harry Harrington (Bonsai4me), I was amazed by this artist’s technique in creating deadwood. His carvings are superb. On the same day, I happened to be at a beach on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand (Paraparaumu). The beach was filled with driftwood and I could not resist studying them to find inspiration to style dead wood when I get back home. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me and took the following photos. There is nothing like nature (and Harry Harrington) to create the ultimate natural deadwood designs. In studying these photos I did get a few ideas and now have to get the practice in to recreate this on trees.

Creativity and Bonsai

rs2

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.

lindsey-bebb

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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Scientific knowledge supports Bonsai cultivation

The old debate of whether Bonsai is Art or Horticulture is actually a non-event as we all by now know that a dead tree cannot be designed as a Bonsai and be admired as a living sculpture. We need both. The tree must be kept alive and sculpted to enable the Bonsai within to be shown.

I am in the process of re-reading a lot of my quite sizable Bonsai library. The majority of these books and magazines focus on the Art side of Bonsai cultivation. It is rare to find a good solid article or chapter in a book, dedicated to the Horticulture involved in Bonsai development. A quick search on the Internet shows more of the same. There is a bit more to be found on the Internet, but a lot of this is not necessarily linked to Bonsai specifically. A few examples are of importance here.

The first to mention is the practice of defoliation. When we remove the leaves from a tree, we drastically reduce the level of transpiration (loss of water through leaves), which is an important process supporting the flow of water through a plant. Partial defoliation obviously does the same, but just less. Then there is the practice of leave cutting. This will reduce the surface area of the leaves, which in turn will also have a reduced transpiration level as an outcome. Photosynthesis levels will also drop. There are very good reasons why we do this in the cultivation of Bonsai, but it is a process rarely seen in the cultivation of other plants.

Another of our Bonsai specific activities is the process of deadwood carving or carving in general. Deadwood is dead and nothing much needs to be taken into consideration except for aesthetic principles. When we carve into living wood, things change a bit. Tree tissues are laid down in layers. On the outside we have bark and under this we have the phloem, the tissue that conduct the nutrients produced in the leaves through photosynthesis. The next layer is the cambium. This tissue is responsible for the secondary growth in stems as well as roots. The next layer is the xylem. This tissue transports water from the roots to the leaves. Then we get to the lignin. These are dead cells and make up what we refer to as “wood”. This is the stuff we carve. To get to the lignin, we have to go through the living layers. This needs to be done carefully as we are interfering with some very important processes when we start carving. Not only do we interrupt the flow of nutrients and water, we directly impact on growth. This works well for us as well, as the cambium layer is the one that will help with the healing on the edges of the carving. 

My advice is for Bonsai enthusiasts to read and learn about the science behind our activities as well. Not only will this knowledge help to keep more trees alive, it will help us understand the design process and principles better as well.

Japanese Design Elements

Five Japanese Design Concepts

Dawid de Villiers (PhD)

I have recently seen a poster depicting five general Japanese Design Concepts (www.piktochart.com) and it started to make me think about how these concepts are utilised in the design of Bonsai. These concepts are Wabi-Sabi, Iki, Ma, Mono-No-Aware and Kaketsu.

Wabi-Sabi

This concept is the one that is quite often discussed in Bonsai literature. To find the exact meaning of this is quite difficult and as a non-Japanese speaker, I have to rely on definitions and descriptions from the literature. It is quite clear that there is a wide variety of interpretations of what it exactly means and the literature acknowledges this fact. A concise summary of a possible meaning is that it is a Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi). It is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all (www.utne.com). Susuma Nakamura (Neff, 2012) relates wabi to calmness and quietness and sabi to simplicity and oldness (age).

Morten Albek (shohin-europe.com) describes it best in relation to Bonsai. He summarises it as a concept embracing beauty, simplicity, silence, age and imperfectness. In my mind it is that quietness that embraces one when you look at a Bonsai and it brings a stillness and a peacefulness, and at the same time a restlessness due to imperfections that add to the overall beauty of the living artwork. This can be seen in a rustic pot, the naturalness of the tree, not all branches or roots being in the perfect spot, the power exuded by a tree due to its age. It gives a sense of balance between perfection and imperfection with a deep appreciation of nature and the art depicted in that tree. That balance could be observed as a perfectly formed branch and on the trunk a shari. Perfection vs imperfection that all adds up in a deeply satisfying experience of interaction with this tree. It is the calmness and quietness embraced when in the presence of a Bonsai tree showing simplicity and character.

Iki

According to the poster mentioned, it means original, calm, exquisite and sophisticated, but without being perfect or complicated. A rough translation means chic or stylish. This is a term not found in Bonsai literature as it probably is encapsulated in the Wabi Sabi concept. It could mean the design of a Bonsai should be original, in other words, to allow the tree to determine the design, not to copy other trees, but to allow the roots, trunk and branches to dictate the style and movement of the Bonsai. If naturalness is pursued, it should lead to an exquisite and sophisticated tree. This probably will only be seen in mature trees, but is a concept that must be kept in mind during the design phases, spreading across years to reach the ultimate phase where the exquisite nature can be experienced.

Ma

This concept refers to whitespace or emptiness. It defines the element around it and it in turn also is defined by the element surrounding it. The concept of holism comes to mind here. An empty space cannot be defined as such without something bordering it. The design element of empty spaces is a very important one in Bonsai design. The description of creating spaces that will allow a bird to fly through the tree, brings the example of especially Tui that can fly without effort through a tree, to mind. Emptiness or negative space defines the solid structures around it. It is part of the design. We are sometimes so fixated by getting a branch in the right place in relation to the trunk and other branches, that we forget that the branch is not only defined by these structures, but also its own shape in relation to the space around it. Foliage clouds can only be defined when there is open space around them. The size and placement of these spaces is as important as where the parts of the trees are placed.

Mono-No-Aware

This concept refers to the “pathos of things”. It means being aware of the passing of things and the bittersweet feeling that goes with it. This is very noticeable in Bonsai. A Bonsai tree starts somewhere, either from seed, a cutting or wild material. From here it is nurtured, neglected, designed, restyled, appreciated and it could die (hopefully outlasting its designer). It goes through phases, each with its own characteristics, much like a human being developing from birth to old age. As humans we have empathy and we can admire this development. The same happens with Bonsai. “Before and after” photos are popular and personally I think it is awesome to visit Bonsai gardens, displays and conventions to look at the development of individual trees over years.

This concept also relates to the impermanence of things. The flowering phase that in some species only last for a few days, also seen in deciduous trees and the changes that go with that. From no leaves, to green leaves, to autumnal colours to no leaves again. These changes should be embraced and studied as they are forced by nature and hormones. It also gives us the science behind the horticultural management of our trees. Nature is never very far away from art.

 Kanketsu

This concept stresses that true simplicity is often achieved through a complex process. The opposite of simplicity is complexity. This design concept therefore means that to create a “final” design of simplicity it is possible that complex processes could be used to achieve this ultimate goal. To achieve simplicity in Bonsai design, it is important to be as naturalistic as possible. The complexity in the process lies in decision-making. What to cut, what to shift, what to leave in place? The answers to these questions will ultimately determine the design and whether it is simplistic or complicated. A tree in nature is simplistic; roots, trunk, branches and leaves, all in place due to nature following a simple pattern. There are external influences (climate), but overall it is quite a simple design. The processes of getting it there is complex, photosynthesis to name but one. Overall this concept urges us to keep our designs simple, to look at nature for inspiration and to follow the mantra of “less is more”.

Conclusion

This article very briefly describes five Japanese design concepts. There are many more. The concept of Wabi Sabi is well known in Bonsai circles, but the others are not so much known in the western world. The concepts are not new, but it is good to know that they are actually known and acknowledged in wider design and artistic circles. As said, there are other concepts or qualities that can be applied to Bonsai. One of these, “ga”, meaning elegant and graceful, is proposed by Susumu Nakamura. He also says that such watchwords can sustain the caretaker as well as the tree (Neff, 2012).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Japanese Aesthetics. It is my recommendation that all Bonsai enthusiasts should read this work as it gives a deeper foundation of what Bonsai design should be based on. The link is http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/.

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi

http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi.aspx#axzz3Mf7pJ6lp

http://shohin-europe.com/ARTICLES-wabisabi.htm

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/

http://www.piktochart.com

Neff. T.A.(ed) 2012. Bonsai, A Patient Art. The Bonsai Collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Yale University Press: New Haven.