A Bonsai Epiphanyby Vance WoodIllustration by Will Heath
An epiphany is a heart felt realization of an external or internal truth that can be life changing. In most cases this event strikes at a fundamental belief or practice that causes the recipient of this revelation to re-examine everything related to the subject involved. This kind of event can be earth shaking to the recipient causing all manner of reactions; some good some bad. With bonsai, at some point the realization sets in that the trees in question are not now or ever will be first rate if the paths they now travel are not altered.
There is however, a hidden threat in changing something done one way for years; responding through a knee-jerk reaction embarking down a path unguided through actions taken not contemplated or examined. In essence trading one set of problems for another which may not be the same but equally unsatisfying or unsuccessful as those put aside. It is like medical issues where symptoms are treated but the disease is left to continue its destructive path.
When it becomes obvious in the life and development of a bonsai that something drastic must be done, the questions are what, and how. Without this process a bonsai does not become much more than a tree in a pot, even if it is a very old tree and has been in a pot a very long time. The problem for the rest of us mortals is in realizing that we have an old collection of old junk that no longer meets our new vision of bonsai or stands up to the scrutiny of the best of the bonsai community. There are many that knowing this would decide that they are satisfied with things the way they are. There are others that this article may have some meaning, finding it useful in their journey to make better bonsai. We shall make this journey together.
Realizing that a tree needs work is not the same as realizing that we need work; the symptom and disease scenario once again. The real epiphany comes when we conclude that the change has to be to ourselves; the way we think about bonsai, and the way we work. Thinking that we have all the skills necessary, even if we do on a technical level; if that were enough we would not be unsatisfied with our trees as they now are. I have seen in myself and others an arrogance and pride that will hinder development along this avenue. The longer one does bonsai the less likely one is going to be willing to change.
An unwillingness to believe we are fallible and the uncomfortable fact that we indeed do not know everything are the hurdles to be jumped. When we see our trees with new eyes we must of necessity look at ourselves the same way, realizing that we have been going the wrong direction. If we do not, we are dooming ourselves to doing less with our bonsai than we now believe can be done, and in not doing anything about it, we will find ourselves living in a state of miserable paucity, opting for excuses and rationalizations rather than taking chances, living on the edge with the hope of rewards to follow. To consider oneself a beginner once more, after doing bonsai for years, is both a sweet and sour morsel to chew--and hard to swallow. For me it is better to choke on the idea than to suffocate on the status quo, deciding it is better to fail in an effort than to succeed in doing nothing. Be warned: If you decide that things are fine as they are, even if in your heart you know they are not, failure to do something about it will eventually make you lose interest in bonsai.
Once one reaches the point where they realize that improvement is only made in accepting the premise that years of experience is not the same as years of accomplishment. To improve one must grow; to grow one must recognize they are not as accomplished as they may have thought themselves to be. The epiphany occurs when the realization takes root that great art does not happen by itself and what you have "aint it". A second rate bonsai design will not become a first rate bonsai just because it has become older. Actually I have found that sometimes age will make mistakes more prominent and worsen the already questionable design.
In my case I have identified a problem; a hesitancy to eliminate branches and secondary growth. This is one of those issues which is the product of uncertainty culturally and stylistically. Culturally, in that we are unsure how much we can remove without killing the tree and stylistically, in that we don't have a long term vision; or even a short one of how and where the tree is going, and the idea of removing one or more large well formed branches, trimmed, pinched, and manicured for years, is repugnant. Many years were to pass before I recognized the necessity to improve my trees and to acquire the courage to do it rather than make excuses not to. On the other hand I have seen this problem manifested in the other extreme producing trees where too much has been removed, leading to trees that are void of character, and in some cases looking like pom-poms on broom sticks
Experience is a great thing to have according to technical culture skills, but means little in the realm of the art of creating wonderful bonsai. Art is not an accidental occurrence where somehow over time an otherwise mediocre bonsai will morph into a masterpiece. It is true that some may look on this tree, ooh and aah at it, but when the artist knows the truth, the oohs and aahs are empty praise; this is epiphany, seeing beyond the praise of others and not being swayed by it.
Art is often manifested in acquiring the ability to recognize and exploit the potential art, in the revelation of those accidental occurrences provided by nature, with natural trees, or abuse provided by your friendly neighborhood nursery. Too often we think in terms of the traditional styles and forms handed down to us by the Japanese and more recently, modern authors and artists outside of Japan.
The traditional forms we study and admire are essentially highly stylized versions of forms trees can take in nature identified by the Japanese artist hundreds of years ago. In bonsai, often these forms can become stylized to such a degree that their heritage in nature resembles little the natural model they seek to emulate. Much of our problem lies in our inability to recognize good bonsai, or our insistence in making excuses for bad bonsai. However; if you have come to this point you of necessity have come to grips with the fact that you now recognize good bonsai and no longer find it expedient to make excuses for bad bonsai. If nothing else, an epiphany is the revelation of truth; enlightening, revealing and painful.
Coming to the point expressed previously one is left with knowing something has to be done with the conundrum of not having a clue what should be done; how, where, when or why. A teacher or master, if one is available may be of help but sadly, I have noticed in the last few years a tendency toward accepting advice from the novice as a revelation from God. Make certain that if this choice is explored it is worth the journey.
Occasionally a knee jerk reaction takes place and desperate actions are taken that may mollify the psyche but do little to alter the real issues. It is not uncommon to see people coming to this stage in their development to toss everything and start over. The ensuing action of acquiring new and often more expensive material may treat the symptoms, making the afflicted bonsaist think he is doing the right thing, but does not cure the disease. There is no question that good material will make good bonsai but this is not always the case. Bad vision will make bad bonsai of good material if it was bad vision that made bad bonsai of inferior material.
The problem is not really with the material, it is usually with the grower and their personal issues. If the personal issues are not addressed new efforts will yield the same old results with the same old problems. There is an axiomatic proverb that states; believing that doing something the same way a second time will bring different results is and indication of insanity, and the definition of a fool. To put it into simpler terms; you can change your socks but if you don't wash your feet they will still smell.
I am of the opinion that anyone facing this fork in the road should keep their old trees, examine them, identify what is wrong and decide what can be done to change them; no matter how extreme. For the most part I believe there are few hopeless trees, just hopeless visions. Again I feel the need to say this; if the vision is not changed and the way work is done is not changed, new and expensive material will, in the end, turn out just like the material it replaced.
Starting with "hopeless material" is a good training ground for developing new skills even if it means that one or all of the trees are looked at as raw material. Abandon the previous vision once had for a particular tree it should be looked at with new and critical eyes, even as far as a drastic design and size change. It is better to make mistakes with material you were contemplating getting rid of than to agonize over some very old and very expensive material where fear may prevent doing even the obvious.
I believe that obtaining really expensive and old material will not make better bonsai if the grower is not capable of seeing the future in the tree. Finished bonsai are not much better sad to say. Finished and near finished bonsai are living things that are constantly changing and those changes need to be dealt with. Even a finished bonsai will need attention to style either to change or maintain. One dirty little secret in bonsai is the fact that it can be more difficult to keep a finished bonsai than to develop one. Everything you do to any tree is going to change it in some way, some of the things you do are necessary; with a finished tree these changes can be significant. It only takes a season or two for a finished tree to grow beyond the art that created it. If the fear and uncertainty that birthed the original problems are not resolved the finished tree will become unkempt due to an unwillingness to deal with the tree out of fear of damaging it or ruining its artistic form. So in trying to save and guard a finished beauty by doing nothing the opposite end result will be its reward.
So what are we talking about here? Like it or not the principles of art are the keys to all that is stylistic in bonsai. The things that make a great bonsai are not accidental; they are the results of human intervention, vision and creative craftsmanship. I am very much aware of the debate over the artistic merits of bonsai and the question of whether bonsai is an art or a craft. Regardless of what side of that debate taken, art is at the heart of the issue. So let's look at art. The traditional styles and forms are artistic representations of forms that occur in nature.
The traditional forms, at least from the Japanese perspective, are duplicatable because they have been written down, analyzed, diagramed, programmed, and taught by masters, taught by novices, bent, folded, stapled, and mutilated for at least fifty years in the Western culture. It is possible for someone to take a piece of material and turn it into a passable bonsai using the patterns they can study in books or on the Internet. However these same rules etc, are the end products of the work of artists from many years ago who produced bonsai that are representations of the forms trees take in nature. It is therefore possible that craftsmen can duplicate the work of artists, and through a diligent adherence to a stated model be able to make a bonsai. Regardless of craft or art, --- when there is something wrong with a bonsai design it is the art that is always lacking-- not the craftsmanship.
If you are a "bonsai is a craft" person how do you go about executing your craft? Most people that follow or engage in a craft follow a plan of some sort. People that make furniture, houses, or bridges follow a plan of construction. Most plans of this sort are based on the work and research of those that preceded them. Because the originators of these disciplines had to invent this stuff out of whole cloth they were of necessity artists, creating something that had never been done before. They had to take necessity and imagination and convert it into some sort of reality. From there the art became craft because it was duplicatable, even though the artists in this discipline could make aesthetically pleasing changes within the craft they practiced. So it is with bonsai, you can make bonsai that follow a pattern, the ubiquitous cookie cutter bonsai, or you can go beyond this and create art that gives the results of, labor expended, a voice and soul of its own.
This leaves the concept of vision. Obviously if there is an interest in what this article has to say, there must be an interest in the issues of vision, where the bonsai artist has started to see beyond his or her original concepts and come to the realization that things are not as they should be. How or when this is reached is a highly personal thing impossible to describe in generalities, or define along the lines of this and that as one might describe individual styles and the work of different masters. If it were possible to put this subject in a box it would have been done before now. However I will try to describe and offer some suggestions along the lines through my experience.
1.) It is important to keep old trees and improve them if possible. Redesign them if necessary even if what you now see or envision is drastic and far removed from the original design.
2.) Study good trees that ring your bells. Study the old Japanese models, mostly because the literature is available and understandable from an abundance of sources. It is better to fall back on basics than to grope in the dark. This does not necessarily mean that you go cookie cutter but that you now re-examine old principles with new eyes.
3.) Compare the traditional with the naturalistic. Note how they agree and where they do not.
4.) Identify these differences and define why they work or don't work and make note of your preferences.
5.) Study balance and proportion, depth and perspective. Learning about the Golden Mean might be helpful.
6.) Question everything you know and do. Why are you doing what you are doing? What results do you hope to achieve from your actions or modifications?
7.) Pay attention to details from base to branch tips. Take pictures, a lot of pictures. Photos will show you the truth your mind may fool you into thinking is not as it really is.be
These are some of the things I have been finding of use. Try not to let yourself believe you are inventing a new style. What ever you come up with will either traditional or naturalistic. In most cases where I have run into this thinking it is nothing more than a rhetorical exercise used to excuse and justify an unwillingness, or inability, to understand the basic principles of art. In the extreme it is an attempt to justify some really ugly bonsai that do not follow the rules on purpose. Remember; it is alright to disregard the rules but if it is done on purpose just to tweak the rules and those who adhere to them, it usually makes for an ugly bonsai, some would call this kitch.
The idea here is to make the best bonsai possible and to improve yourself as you do so. I am sure this has been said before but I will restate it here: It is essential that you know the fundamentals and how they work, and why they work before you can go beyond them. Not knowing or understanding the fundamentals is probably what caused the original problem you now find yourself dealing with. Being happy with the way things are, is of little consequence, being unhappy with the way things are, is monumental.
I can speak only for myself but I believe that being able to imagine things beyond that which I now see is an indication that not only do I have inside myself the vision to go beyond but the ability as well. I have been doing bonsai long enough to realize that there are few technical issues I cannot grasp, but bringing vision into reality is a bit more vague, elusive and seen as a shadow before me. I know there are those who will argue talent, and they would not be wrong, but I think that sometimes talent is wrongly defined as a gift. There are those who will aspire to greatness because it is in their bones, but there are others who will reach the same place because it is in their bones to work hard to get there. For one the talent is manifest in the ease with which they create art or what ever they strive for. For others the talent is manifest in the willingness to work, study and try hard in an effort to attain the same goal.
Look at it this way. It seems that for some, nothing is impossible, while for others chipping away at the mountain seems to be their lot in life. The ironic justice in this is that the chipper continues to chip away, not knowing an easy way forward, while those who seem blessed, with that thing called talent, reach their chip zone and give up. Not being given to hard work and disappointment, the thought of reaching beyond what to now has been easily reached, is a concept foreign to them and not easily taken to. It is an easy thing to say that's all there is; it is not so easy to say I expect more. The rewards are in the details. The details come through hard work, careful contemplation and the determination to continue when others will tell you it can't be done.