Much of the urge to answer the slipperier questions of bonsai was the purpose of the book about my apprenticeship, Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk. Also I think the old Kodansha publication The Classic Bonsai of Japan is a great resource for those of a philosophic bent.
Following this intro is an Artist’s Statement. Then there’s a few thought puzzlers to nibble on. And finally, while most of my blog posts are technical, there are also those that go a bit beyond that, and I’ll offer a selection of them to wrap up.
Statement of Orientation
Most artists would probably refer to this as the ‘artist’s statement,’ so you can call it that if you wish.
Some of my work is traditional; a lot of it is not. The gifts of tradition are darn cool, and I’m grateful to my teachers Mr. Boon Manakitivipart and Mr. Shinji Suzuki for passing on that tradition. At the same time, my background as a painter and sculptor has me hardwired to fiddle. Also, my upbringing around scientists had me looking at the natural world in squinty-eyed ways from early on, making me a skeptical sort.
Maybe the combination of those three things—tradition, creativity, and science—has me making things like this Nurse Log. And this Vine Maple Tower, and Twin-Trunk Mountain Hemlock. While they use traditional bonsai concepts of balance and form, they also work within my primary creative tools of found objects and weird materials (the internal support of the vine maple and the slab of the twin trunk hemlock are from a nylon kitchen cutting board).
Conceptually, I’ve an ongoing fascination in the interconnections we see in the ecology of forests. I find most inspiration from what I see locally, like the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Like any art, bonsai is an opportunity to talk about our surroundings. For me, this is mostly about my home.
Often, and irrationally, I think of the Robert Browning poem that starts ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…’ as the perfect beginning of a poem about bonsai, but his poem runs off into other territory and doesn’t mention bonsai even once. Still, it’s a nice beginning.
‘Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.’ — The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
I’ve known newcomers to bonsai to wheel around and ask splutteringly and with amazed eyes, ‘What the blazes is going on here? What is this bonsai thing?’ I’ve been doing bonsai for over 35 years and ask myself the same thing nearly daily.
Bonsai confronts us in sneaky ways. Of these the following seem the most interesting, offered here as abstracts to much larger conversations:
- Our Relationship to Time. Working with bonsai we are immediately beset with the indignity of being on a leash to the seasons. Instead of rushing, we often have to wait. With bonsai we begin to work with time rather than be its tool.
- Our View of Nature. Health and restoration are some of the reasons we seek out nature. And while the inspirational view of bonsai is as a stalwart survivor of life’s storms—which is indeed inspirational—it also only relates to half of bonsai. Deciduous trees and accent plants often offer a different feeling, more one of nature’s healing and benevolence.
- Our Tool Choice. Tool choice predicts outcome. There is a reflex assumption that faster is better. And yet as with many things, time saving strategies create problems that weren’t there before. For bonsai, this is the ‘chaff information’ inherent in any tool mark that later must be removed to be natural looking. It’s not absent with hand tools, there’s just more of it with power tools.
- Our Notion of Success. Where do we claim our victory, plant our flag? To create and maintain bonsai is to engage in a win-less act, where to compete isn’t the point, where more things and bigger things aren’t better things. Success is ongoing. It grows. It changes. It isn’t what you thought it was. It’s better.
- Spirit. ‘Spirit’ is a pretty big word, but another way to say it is it’s anything bigger than oneself or one’s ego. Tradition, if you wanted it to, would give you an answer for what spirit is in bonsai, but you might not connect with the answer it gave. Two interesting things that tradition insists on, however, are technique, and the insistence that bonsai mean something beyond the act of bending a branch. Western practitioners are currently finding themselves with work to do within that frame.
A curated selection of posts that touch on bonsai philosophy:
And a few posts about my life, because bonsai and that are ‘inextricably mixed’, as Tolstoy would have it: