Finding a Soul in Bonsai
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Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 8:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Finding a Soul in Bonsai

Finding a Soul in Bonsai
by Vance Wood

Illustration by Will Heath*

This is meant to be a follow-up to The Problem with American Bonsai article. Outside of the cultural difficulties I pointed out in the above mentioned article, which I will not repeat here unless absolutely necessary, artistically there is another issue at work that transcends culture. It is a lack of soul. If you want to talk about the proverbial issue of "stepping in it" I believe that is what I have done here. However I have never stepped away from a powerful discussion and even though I believe I have as much to learn here as anyone that may read it, I want to look at the issue and see what we can discover about our bonsai and about ourselves.

The Japanese have a word known as Kami. As far as I know I am about the only person who has chosen to associate this word with Bonsai. Other Bonsaists choose to use Wabi and Sabi when defining the quasi-spiritual aspects of bonsai. Kami is for lack of a better definition defined as spirit or soul, an almost personality that inhabits things of great beauty, power, and artistry. It is a force that almost gives a thing a life of its own that supersedes a tree or a pot or a sword, or a landscape. All of these aspects of Bonsai are very real in their effect on the finished tree but very difficult to define.

Having to rely on opinion and observation we can make judgments about a tree often defaulting to the so called standards of design and form most of us have studied for many years. In doing so we may create really nice Bonsai that resemble really nice Bonsai seen elsewhere. They may be picture perfect in their adherence to the rules but in the end they are copies of themselves. I hear students of bonsai, when discussing a tree with me in a workshop, start by saying things like: "This is going to be my first branch and this is going to be my apex and this is etc." What this is telling me is that the student being pressed by either the constraints of time, or the constraints of an inability to imagine beyond the traditional, are willing to start with the so called rules and make a "by the book" bonsai by design.

If there is one major factor hindering the artistic development of Bonsai in America it is one crucial point; a pathetic lack of imagination. There is a cultural problem in this area in the fact that art education in this country is being cut from public school curriculum due to monetary difficulties. American children are not raised with an appreciation for art, or an experience in its expression in their own lives. If it does not go bang, or does not make money or does not help the homeless or the environment it is not worth the effort to learn. Instead of reading and letting their imaginations take them into a story they watch TV and play video games.
From this point of view it is not hard to understand why American Bonsai may in many cases measure up to anything else by the numbers, but most of the time they are soulless imitations, the ubiquitous "Cookie Cutter Bonsai". There are those who claim to think and work outside these guidelines but their efforts are more the fruits of not caring or thinking about what they are doing as opposed to really creating things that have Kami, a life of their own. Most of these bonsai don't speak they just kind of sit there and take up space, being neither cookie cutter nor art. I know this sounds kind of harsh and who am I to make these judgments?

Before we continue much farther let me point out that I am not omitting myself from this assessment of artistic poverty.

Before proceeding much farther let me point out something else. Not everyone into bonsai will find this important, relevant or even interesting. However, as I pointed out in the core article there are precious few programs or methods whereby someone seeking to advance beyond the intermediate stage of bonsai can access. Those seeking to advance are left trying to answer questions many have not thought to ask. Once attaining to a mechanical, horticultural and technical competence many will remain there and seek to maintain or casually refine the trees they have been working on for many years. Others will look at those trees and come to the conclusion, as I have, they don't measure up. There is something missing, they are like empty suits lacking the kind of artistic substance that will make them great. It is to this group of Bonsaists that I address this thesis.

I guess the first place to start is to look at one's collection as objectively as possible and ask this one question: Are you pleased with what you see? If the answer is yes there is no need to proceed further. If the answer is no then you have to ask yourself why. If you can look at what you have and see all the technical aspects of bonsai are in place and there is nothing wrong with what you have then it becomes the center issue of this article, finding that elusive thing that is missing. In this case I believe it to be a soul, a purpose beyond the correct placement of branches and the carefully groomed foliage pads and the beautiful, just right pot.

It is the ability to make a bonsai sing, to use a metaphor, which makes the difference between the advanced grower of bonsai and the true master artist. To many, and I am not sure I am not included in this number, this is an intangible element that cannot be taught. It must be acquired, through deep thought, observation of those trees you perceive to have this element, and a willingness to look at your own trees through the eyes of one wishing to improve them; even if this requires a total redesign.

From this point on the quest is for the soul of the tree. How do we find it? How do we recognize it? Is it something I can do? Is it something within me that works the same way musicianship works within the great musical masters? Have I reached a point in my development where I have been cursed with the ability to see this wondrous thing that exists in some bonsai but unable to attain to it myself?

The first place to start is to find bonsai that have this mystical quality. As things are now I have found two modern masters who are not Japanese that on a regular basis create bonsai that have this quality. One is Walter Pall and the other is Cheng Cheng Kung. I have picked out these two individuals because their works are readily available to be viewed on the Internet and I refuse to comment on other people's works I have not seen. I have started with Mr. Pall because he has for a long time posted the development phases of many of his trees. It is possible to see what he starts with and of course the more or less finished product.

Walter almost never starts out with anything having in mind things like informal upright, formal upright, slanting, wind swept or any number of the recognizable forms we were brought up on when we started bonsai. If anything can be indicative of Mr. Pall's style it is his total adherence to his own set of ideas where by he seeks to create representations of the kind of trees he sees in the European mountains. Time and again I have heard him discuss that he does bonsai that speak to him, or tell him a story. From the beginning it would seem that he is dealing with the issues of soul and not just achieving some sort of representation of an established shape. His shapes are driven by his imagination and not his imagination driven by a form to be imitated.

The difference here is an approach and a way of thinking that could almost be referred to as neo-primitive; if one were to define a primitive style as one of those forms that existed before someone found the opportunity to put a name on it and put it in a chart. Understanding most collected trees are so old and unbendable that making major structural changes to trunks and major branches in order to conform to some recognized style are all but impossible. Some Japanese sources have called much of what he does the collected tree style.

It must also be remembered that most of the early bonsai were collected trees, so it could be said that the early bonsai were in fact some sort of primitive style. These people designed bonsai without a heritage to draw from outside of the Chinese influence. Early Japanese bonsai must have been more imagination driven than form driven. It is a return to this type of thinking that must be sought out and applied where possible. I have said it before many times; forms are nothing more than the attempts of us lesser humans to define the artistry of those who achieve greatness in any art. I will also restate something I have said many times in many places for years: Forms are the by the numbers interpretation and analysis of the successful ideas born from the imagination of an artist that the rest of us mortals think worthy of emulating. There is not now or has ever been a Bonsai Moses that came down from the mountain with the rules of bonsai engraved in a set of stone tablets. Instead we have defined a set of rules and forms that are basically the encapsulated analysis of beautiful bonsai forms developed by past artists.

As a student of bonsai I feel it is important to learn these forms, even going so far as to design trees that fit these styles and shapes. It is an exercise in discipline to set out with a design goal and sticking with it till that goal is achieved. Without that discipline and experience getting there, even if by the numbers, it is impossible to think and create in that esoteric and foggy area people are fond of calling "outside the box." Those things that do manage to find beauty outside the box are the rule makers for the bonsai artists of tomorrow. These trees are the most likely to have that Kami quality because they are designed from the heart and not from a book or set of rules.

I hate using the word meditation because that holds with it the idea of the metaphysical and suggest taking the issue into the realms of religion, magic, or some other esoteric discipline where some may feel uncomfortable or left out. However a better word would be contemplation. How many people actually take the time to look at a tree without trying to prejudge it according to some preconceived desire to have it fit into one of the recognized molds? About the only time a tree gets a good look over is when someone is forced to do so because of a work shop or making a selection in a nursery. This isn't bad as far as it goes but it rules out looking for the good possibilities in favor of the convenient ones.

As I pointed out earlier the standardized forms are not bad but they are limited and tend to limit our imagination to conform to them. I have discovered that one of the best places to start this study is in viewing and analyzing collected trees. Because collected trees most of the time cannot be made to conform totally to any of the standard styles the Japanese have a style category just for collected trees. It is within the realms of these trees, when done by masters of the art, you start to see the possibilities outside the forms you may have been taught. It is in this area masters like Walter Pall and Cheng Cheng Kung excel.

From what I understand from what Walter has written, his influences come almost totally from observing the trees growing in the Alps. His education in bonsai, according to him, has bypassed most of the standard designs the Japanese influenced bonsai books expound as almost gospel. Considering that most of us start with nursery trees, and I said most not all, we tend to think in terms of the standard rules. If I were to be so bold as to recommend a standard form to start with it would be the literati form. This form is an expression and exercise in minimalism. This will force the student of bonsai to do more with less. Most people try to do too much and save too much ending up with a tree that looks like two styles together in competition with each other. I have a tree like that which is going to get worked on heavily this year.

For me I have come to the conclusion that the path to making a good bonsai is to start to think of raw material as though it were a collected tree. To look at trees already in your collection as collected trees and start to work them according to those shapes unbound by traditions and rules. Remember the Japanese learned bonsai from the Chinese but they developed the art according to their own way of seeing things, there own sensibilities and their own order of importance.

In the past when discussions of this sort have come up I have quoted myself, finding no one else who has said anything significant on this subject, a bonsai must first and foremost be beautiful. Even if it is scary like Walter's Larch, or Nick Lentz's maleficent tree it is still beautiful. Beauty trumps all laws and forms and styles. If the tree does not attain to beauty it is still without a soul regardless of whether it follows the rules perfectly or totally disregards them. If the tree disregards the rules and is beautiful no one will notice that it breaks all or some of the rules. If the tree follows all the rules and is in essence an empty suit, having no grace or quality that makes it stand out, it is not much more than in imitation of everything that has preceded it.

After reaching this point in this article you may be scratching your head and thinking so what? Well, me too. If anything of importance can come of this compilation of words it is the challenge and the thought that---maybe you can make your bonsai better. But I think the real challenge is going to be in looking with fresh eyes on old projects you may have become comfortable with.

* bonsai and photograph by Vance Wood

Author:  Walter Pall [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 12:05 pm ]
Post subject: 

I certainly agree to the overall theme of this article.
For my taste you are bashing American bonsai too much here though. Not that I think there is not some truth in what you are sying. But it certainly also applies to most of European bonsai I can assure you.
I have used the word soul to describe the key property a bonsai has or has not since many years in my lectures. I think this concept of soul is the best kept secrete in the bonsai world. The overwhelming majority of our bonsai education teaches forms and craft and does not mention that soul is indispensable for a bonsai to make it a piece of art. The presence or absence of soul makes the difference between a piece of art and a piece of craft.
In other threads you are repeating that all that matters are not rules but that the bonsai is beautiful and it does not matter how that happened. I have a problem with 'beautiful' here. If you said that all that matters is that a bonsai has a soul I would agree.
To state that a piece of art must be beautiful before all is a call for kitsch accrding to most art theory. Beauty is frowned upon in many art quarters. Attila has written about this.
A bonsai can well be ugly and be great as long as it has soul.
We have heard this before about the literati style: " the generally accepted rules can be broken in the bunjin style as long as the tree looks good". I preach since years that this applies to ALL bonsai, not just the literati style. So what makes it good. You have mentioned before that beauty makes it good. I dare to differ. I think soul makes it good.

Author:  Mike Page [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 12:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Walter Pall wrote:
A bonsai can well be ugly and be great as long as it has soul.


Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 1:08 pm ]
Post subject: 

We must expand the definition of beauty. Ugly can also be very beautiful. And beautiful can sometimes be very ugly.
So, I agree with Vance that bonsai have to be beautiful, but with the qualification that this beauty must include ugliness as well. Using the same logic, I would also add that I don't like beautiful bonsai that is ugly.
Am I making sense?
In the example below, this little guy is very ugly, I certainly wouldn't want to look like him. But I find him very beautiful in the same time. It's very confusing.

105-083[1].jpg [ 4.64 KiB | Viewed 65485 times ]

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 1:31 pm ]
Post subject: 

In the previous post I wanted to make a point by making a distinction between real-life beauty and artistic beauty. The two have nothing to do with each other.
If your main purpose is to create real-life beauty, then you are ignoring the soul, and the result can be labeled as Kitsch.
But not always. It can easily happen, that you are reflecting the soul, and, incidentally, it happens to be beautiful in the common sense.
So, artistic beauty is the goal. Real-life beauty has to be incidental.

Author:  Dan Cormican [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 3:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Attila Soos wrote:
We must expand the definition of beauty. Ugly can also be very beautiful. And beautiful can sometimes be very ugly.
So, I agree with Vance that bonsai have to be beautiful, but with the qualification that this beauty must include ugliness as well. Using the same logic, I would also add that I don't like beautiful bonsai that is ugly.
Am I making sense?
In the example below, this little guy is very ugly, I certainly wouldn't want to look like him. But I find him very beautiful in the same time. It's very confusing.

Hmmm, sense you make, Attila. :)
I think it's a matter of arguing about semantics beuatiful vs ugly vs soul. Ultimately we are all looking for something that connects with the viewer and gives a strong feeling about the tree. Even qualifying it as soul is tough because what is art to one person can be kitsch to another.
I've always thought of it as personality. I used to play in a band with a very good guitarist. No matter what guitar you gave him or what amp he played through it always sounded like him because he was able to communicate so well through the instrument. I think there's an element of that to Bonsai as well from what I've seen the past year or two of doing it. I can see a Walter Pall tree and tell it's his. I can see a Nick Lenz tree and recognize his work (and not solely because there's a tank under the tree:). I can tell, I think, not only because they impart a personality upon the tree, but also because there's a little bit of Walter of Nick or Kimura, etc. in there as well.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:14 pm ]
Post subject: 

Interesting comments guys. I have used the word beauty because most people trying to grasp an understanding of Soul would require a definition I am trying to really figure out for my self to a certain degree. It is one of those things that you know when you look at it but cannot describe. However the remarks about the beauty of the ugly is a prime example. There is something beautiful about the wrinkled, weather worn face of an old man who may have spent his life at sea catching fish, whose twinkling eyes sparkle with spirit and understanding and even humor. Here again it is the soul that makes the face beautiful. Maybe we need to find the twinkling eye.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Dan Cormican wrote:
I think it's a matter of arguing about semantics beuatiful vs ugly vs soul.

That's right. I was switching back and forth between beautiful and ugly to show how meaningless those terms are. At worst, they just confuse the issue. At best, they are just useless.
It's easy to say and agree that "bonsai must be be beautiful", but it's another matter when we have to define what that means.
"Soul" is a better term because it implies that there is something that we cannot easily describe. At least, it alludes to our inability to describe it in unequivocal terms.
The term "soul" also tells us that this is the farthests that words can take us, and beyond this, we are on our own: nobody can hold our hands and help us grasp the essence. And so, we need to leave it at that.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Vance Wood wrote:
It is one of those things that you know when you look at it but cannot describe.

Yes, it's true.
Yesterday I was listening Deepack Chopra talking about the Indian Vedas, and their message. The essence was that "humans suffer because they do not understand the true nature of things".
When the student asked, "so what IS the true essence of things", the answer was " it is IT, and that's all it is to it".
All those thousands of pages boil down to this: one either gets it, or not. There is no use of trying to describe it.
Of course, we always try.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:36 pm ]
Post subject:, using a Vedic term,
we could define beauty, or soul, as "showing the true nature of things".

Actually, I like the above definition very much.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:38 pm ]
Post subject: 

I'm not ready to throw my hands up in defeat just yet. We may not be able to put this thing in a box but we may reveal enough about it to understand that there is more to bonsai than first branch, second branch, back branch and apex. If in some way others may read this and learn as well, that they must examine their trees and stop analyzing them from the paint by numbers play book and start looking at them as living things with a soul and a purpose to their lives.
You are of course right some will not get this, but just knowing that there is something there that falls outside the literal approach they have pursued for perhaps years may make the useless debate at least marginally profitable.

Author:  Dorothy Schmitz [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 5:50 pm ]
Post subject: 

good definition,also commonly known as "character","personality" or
"essence". I do not agree though in placing"beauty" and "soul" on the same level.
Whether we perceive something as beautiful,ugly,boring and so on
actually has to do with aesthetics.
Beauty is a perception and can be culturally conditioned.Beauty also depends on the context and can be very relative.
Francois Jeker describes successfully in his book the principles of applied aesthetic elements in connection with bonsai.
And you are right,usually we do not have to analyze the presence of
"soul","character" or "personality" in a bonsai-unless it is missing.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 6:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Dorothy Schmitz wrote:
And you are right,usually.

Thank you, that's a big compliment. My wife thinks that usually I'm wrong.

Author:  Dorothy Schmitz [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 6:13 pm ]
Post subject: 

I am sorry,but I think you misinterpreted the first part of my sentence.
But I am glad to hear you listen to your wife,at least one female you
seem to correspond with..

Author:  Attila Soos [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 6:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Dorothy Schmitz wrote:
I am sorry,but I think you misinterpreted the first part of my sentence.

I wasn't.
But I was glad to take it out of flatter myself.
My job requires me to be very serious all the time, so I am taking any chance I can get to act silly.
Hey, you should give me more credit than assuming such a gross misinterpretation from my part... :)

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