Bonsai Economics and Creativity

As wonderful as it is to see highly managed bonsai using the latest techniques, in expensive antique or modern handmade pots, it can also be discouraging. Especially if you don’t have the means to get that skillset training or to buy those lovely pots.

We see, for the most part, results from wealth-produced bonsai at the top of Facebook or Instagram feeds. And they’re beautiful. In collaboration with others I’m a part of that, and proud of those efforts.

But if you don’t have that kind of money, don’t lose heart. Invention isn’t owned by money.

I know a bit about what I’m talking about here. When I was a potter I got familiar with frugal thinking as a way to spur creativity. As a sculptor I worked with found objects a lot. It was convenient to say I liked them, though at the time I didn’t have many affordable options. I did often enjoy where I ended up, though, and learned a good lesson: that having unlimited options isn’t the only way to make good work. Wealth produced sculpture wasn’t better, it was just different.

When I started composing forest plantings on cheap nylon cutting boards, it was because other things in the business were taking priority to expensive custom slabs. So we got inventive with alternative supports. And we found some new paths to explore by doing so. Now I still use some of those techniques, though more refined now, for current work.

I also did a lot of yamadori tree collection early on—in fact, most of my better bonsai I collected myself. Cheap, compared to bought stock. This is the bonsai equivalent of the found object.

What I learned from my years of limitation:

  • forget about comparisons
  • investigate what you do have
  • be willing to step away from tradition
  • be willing to take risks, to fail
  • wander around thrift stores and keep your ‘what if?’ wonderer intact 
  • start somewhere: one piece will inform and lead to the next
  • that exploration will enable wiser and more confident work
  • those who have unlimited resources don’t out-create those who have few

Be bold wherever you find yourself. On the far end of the art world spectrum is Outsider Art, or Art Brut—works created by those outside the establishment. These artists make paintings, sculpture and even buildings that are unconnected with familiar resources, but their work is often compelling. Much establishment work has to do with money ladders. If you’re on a one-legged stool, embrace going sideways. Keep working in bonsai, don’t give up. And share what you do. We want to see it.

More about art: Listen to a fantastic podcast episode with art teacher Cheryl McAlister and podcast team member Jonas Dupuich, who speaks from his own broad creative background.

Also the June 4, 2021 post floats a creative concept, courtesy of Stephen King.

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  1. Great post Michael! I’ve had some thoughts along these lines but have been too lazy to share them with a wider audience 🙂 You were more eloquent than I would have been anyway.
    Thanks for all you do for the bonsai world and keep up the good work!
    PS: Will you be at the National?

  2. AMEN !!! I believe having to scramble together randomly found wild bird eggs actually drives creativity MUCH MUCH more than purchasing nice eggs and making a perfect soufflé. And another quick word about “comparisons”: “COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY !!!” Yes… YES I SHOUTED that for all to hear… well at least anyone within reading distance 😉

    Michael, thoughts like these are part of what makes you among my favorite artists (bonsai and otherwise)… Most of my customers have shallow pockets (but even shorter arms) and I gladly and freely teach thrift as a driving force of creativity…

    Keep On Keeping On !
    Wisco Bonsai

  3. Tom Kruegl says:

    Michael, excellent, insightful article.

  4. ron heinen says:

    I have been doing bonsai for 30 years. As a retired art teacher raising a family, I too was strapped for resources. I HAD to be creative. I have resources now, but I have come to prefer the PURITY of collecting yamadori, and I can now afford to go to good grounds. I have the resources, but I choose to make my own pots. I have the resources, but i make my own fertilizer and anneal my own copper. This is MY bonsai. I have been following you forever and I GET what you said. I believe the direction of bonsai in America is going HIGH BROW . I suspect it is the nature of the beast, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be aesthetically rewarding. Thanks for a timely article.

  5. David Wheeler says:

    Thank you Michael……. Too often I get sucked into the world of the ‘dollar bill mentality’. ……..thinking……”damn, this is an expensive hobby(in my life)” But then again, there are daze when I see new buds on a plant that I thought I had killed. Or cutting an old plastic nursery pot to make ‘ a bonsai pot’ So I appreciate your post….. Thank you

  6. O Ryan Finkbiner says:

    You, sir, are a treasure. Thanks for this post.

  7. Melvin Zamis says:

    Thank you Michael for these words.

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Dana says:

    Awesome encouragement! I am one of those thrift store, unique container finding bonsai gardener.

    I have been learning bonsai for more than a few years.

    I was able to buy a few decent pots online more than a decade ago before the prices went into orbit but have come to see the pot as a frame to a painting.

    As such only this past couple of years have I been putting some trees into some nice pots.

    I use everything from plastic concrete mixing tubes to ornate candy bowls with holes drilled in them with diamond holesaws to cultivate trees.

    I appreciate your post today on your blog.

  9. Mitch Fennell says:

    Thank you for your inspiring words of wisdom and perspective.

  10. Tom Gibson says:

    Well said.

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