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?
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.
It is generally accepted and published on various websites that an apprenticeship can take between 2,000 and 12,000 hours to complete. The same websites mention that it will take between two and four years to complete an apprenticeship. It is also common knowledge that Bonsai cultivation apprenticeships can take many more years to complete than an apprenticeship for an electrician or a plumber. In my field of work, it takes four years to be trained as a teacher. This normally includes a three year degree programme as well as a one year professional Diploma in Education.
What do we get for all of this? You normally walk away with a piece of paper that announces that you are a qualified professional, a person that can do a good job to a good standard in your chosen area of studies. You also earn a salary. I have read somewhere that a Bonsai apprenticeship could involve 10,000 hours of work and study, mainly hands-on work under the supervision of a master. We usually find that apprentices in other fields of work also work under the supervision of a specialist or a master, at least a qualified person with ample experience. Let us break 10,000 hours down to get some perspective on the time factor.
I have found all over the internet that an apprentice should not work for more than 40 hours per week. We also anecdotally know that Bonsai apprentices work for much longer hours, especially those who complete their apprenticeships in Japan. Michael Hagedorn has written about this in his book which discusses his experiences as an apprentice in Japan. If we take a normal working week as a 40 hour work week, 10,000 hours will equate to 250 weeks and if we work for 50 weeks per year, this equates to 5 years. This is hard, physical work and one wonders why it takes so much longer than other apprenticeships. The only thing that I can think of is that it is so much more than just the technical aspects of Horticulture that must be mastered. The artistic and cultural side of things probably takes a lot longer to master than the mere application of wire, watering, pruning, fertilizing and a whole host of other things that are needed to keep a tree alive.
I assume that it takes many years of cultivating Bonsai before one can be considered to be a Master Bonsai Practitioner. How many years? I have no idea. Must you go through an official apprenticeship to work towards Master status? Anecdotally, yes, but again, I do not know, but can guess that it is not necessary. In Japan these things are controlled by the Nippon Society and I can understand why. There is nothing like that in other areas of the World. Does an apprenticeship in Europe or the USA, under a practitioner who knows his business and has a proven track record, carry the same status as an apprenticeship done in Japan? A Bachelors or Masters degree from a well recognized university anywhere in the world do carry the same status. Most countries now have a Qualifications Authority which assess these things and recognize similar qualifications across the globe. Is it time that the same happens for Bonsai studies? In the mean time, where does this leave an enthusiast who just engages in his Bonsai as a hobby? Does it matter? No, I do not think so as these people (I am one of them with a little business on the side) cultivate Bonsai for reasons that have nothing to do with the commercialization of Bonsai. And that brings me to my summary.
Does the proliferation of Bonsai “courses”, both in residence as well as online, show us that Bonsai and the educational opportunities that do arise from the wider commercialization of Bonsai across the world is maturing into a world-wide commercial empire? If this is the case, then the management or control of what these courses look like, minimum requirements as well as qualifications achieved, will need a good look at and probably needs to be standardized. Out of these educational encounters, titles come to the fore. Who then is a Master, an Apprentice, a Technologist or a Hobbyist / Enthusiast?
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, crawled 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”.
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.
You 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.
- Read profusely.
- 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.
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.
In the Bonsai Focus of September / October 2015 (136), Louis Bourdeau in an article titled “Silent communication”, mentions that the essence of Art is the use of raw material and the modification of it with the proper techniques to create an aesthetic creation. This is one of the better definitions or descriptions that I have come across thus far. My journey continues, but it will take take a lot to improve on Louis’ definition of the essence of srt.
As Bonsai artists, our raw material will always be the plant material that we work with. This is very different to any other art form where the raw material is not necessarily a living organism. Maybe body painting falls into this category as well. Other aspects of our raw material include the soil medium that is used as well as the pot. All of these aspects have their own dimensions and issues that must be thought about to bring about the desired aesthetic creation.
The next part of the definition is the reference to the proper techniques. This is where things become interesting. In all my years of teaching students the art of Bonsai, it is this part that for most, is the most intriguing. Maybe it is the use of tools or just the problem solving aspect, but I have yet to meet the student who does not want to learn more about the different techniques. These include things like wiring, potting or re-potting, bending branches, creating foliage pads, etc. Usually these are categorised as beginner techniques through to that of advanced or master techniques. It is interesting that it is done in this way as it probably fits the structure of apprenticeship quite well.
I would like to argue that all techniques are equally important. It depends on the material that is in front of the artist. If bending of thicker branches are called for, then the artist will need to have mastered the correct technique for this. If we want to place techniques in a system of hierarchies from beginner to advanced levels, we will have to classify raw material as beginner to advanced as well. Seems a bit unfair on the beginner artist as he or she might be in posession of advanced material and will have no clue to proceed. How do we deal with this? This is probably where clubs come in.
The next question then is whether we need a recognised curriculum to take club members through all the techniques, starting with the basics and going through to the advanced techniques. What happens when a club member joins three quarters through the curriculum and missed the early parts of the curriculum. Although this sounds like me just rambling along, I do think some thought needs to go into how we structure our teachings. Most Bonsai schools run different levels of classes to cater for the different expertise levels. These are run by professionals with the aim of making a living. This normally does not happen at club level.
In education there is a concept known as Differentiated Instruction. Roughly defined it means teaching towards meeting the needs of individual students. It means that you could have many different levels of expertise in your class, all with different needs, and you have to cater for that. What does this look like in a Bonsai Club or even a Bonsai School? The Japanese apprenticeship system is great, but it mostly relies on verbal communication or demonstrations to teach techniques. As said, nothing wrong with that and probably the best way to do it. Modern education do ask for structure and do ask for solid planning and execution during the teaching and learning process. This means curriculum. What would a Bonsai Curriculum look like? Food for thought.
Back to Louis’ description – the end result is the creation of something that is aesthetically pleasing. What is needed to get to this point? That journey from starting with raw material to the end product, inclusive of all the techniques necessary to get there, is the Bonsai Curriculum. Techniques are not that difficult to describe, demonstarte and teach. What will have to be included in the Curriculum to teach the aesthetic part of our Art form? Much has been written about the aesthetics of Bonsai, but how is this taught and incorporated in a Curriculum?