When I was in graduate school learning ceramics, a friend of mine asked our sculpture teacher when he was demonstrating assembling a work with clay slabs, sticks, and coils, ‘When you’re making those decisions, what are you thinking?’ The teacher paused and replied simply, ‘I’m not thinking at all.’ And he looked at us and carefully warned us of creating and analyzing at the same time, ‘You’ll fail at that. It’s the worst trap of all, thinking while making.’
Well, that sounded like weird stuff to us. Why would we want to turn off the negotiating mind, telling us what’s right and what’s not? Only years later his advice makes a lot of sense. I’ve spent the last twenty five years meandering through various arts like painting, sculpting, making pots, and now creating bonsai—and in all of these visual endeavors, thinking was only useful after the work was done and the hands fell to my sides. Then I could begin to assess.
♦ A drumbeat, a poem, a dance, or a tree are not problems to solve. They are feelings expressed.
Artistic creation is an act of feeling. Putting a feeling into some other form. Probably the most challenging of arts use words, like poetry. Because, with words, we naturally get rather literal and think of ‘flower petals’ or ‘mongoose’ or ‘watch out!’ (for the mongoose) or whatever words the poet is using. The poet jostles words together to form not the thought but the feeling that cannot be really reached with a straightforward, ‘These words mean what I say.’ Poetry is not problem solving, not mathematics. And yet we often make that same literal mistake with bonsai.
♦ The tight skin of a drum speaks not of skin.
In bonsai we have hurdles that waylay us in expression. It is especially difficult because bonsai is a ‘traditional art’—two words which nearly contradict each other. We are taught that to make a tree a bonsai it must have a certain arrangement of branches in relation to the trunk, that without the proper order it is not a good bonsai. We are taught that a radial root system is preferred. That the trunk should taper upwards. Etc. These are our tools, the craft of bonsai. And yes, they’re all valid. And yet interestingly, the older the tree, such as truly antique collected conifers, the less these rules apply and the more open we need to be to exception, acceptance, expression and feeling. The guidelines of bonsai are useful. They also trip us up and can misguide us, especially with older trees. They keep us thinking, organizing with our minds, critical. The older the stock, the more we have to approach the work as a poet who jostles words around. Only we’re jostling branches. Deadwood. Inclination of trunk.
♦ What was built by the body is a challenge to the mind.
Another mistake I think we tend to make with trees is working too fast on them. Not that the manipulation is too fast, but that the ‘Forward ho!’ intention is too abrupt. Sit with your tree. Sometimes for a year or more. Feel out the possibilities. What is the trunk resonating in you? Where should the branches go? Lay out all the directions as if from a compass in your body (not your mind) and one direction will eventually keep rising above the rest. When you begin working this way, like my sculptor teacher, you too may not be able to put into words why you chose that way over another, because you weren’t really thinking about it. You felt your way there. And you might find, as the drummer and poet, that the body has a keen understanding that is inaccessible to our mental apparatus.
♦ A successful, evocative bonsai does not solve anything. It deepens the mystery.
A big part of being creative in the visual arts is to open the eyes without engaging the mind, too. It is easier sometimes to close the eyes. Sadly, we cannot easily do this, although I often think blind people would make wonderful bonsai.
The wry contradiction is that bonsai is about vision, yet when we look with our eyes we begin, unfortunately, to think. As bonsai artists, you are charged with the sleight of hand of opening the eyes without that voice behind them, directing, criticizing, analyzing.
Just open them.
(This post is Part II of a series. See also, The Hook To Hang Our Hat On: Part I)