Power Tools Optional by Michelle Dougherty
It should be clear from the beginning that this article was written by a woman. My argument may not be gender specific, but it probably is. I think women may handle these things differently. I have nothing against studly, macho guys who like to congregate on one side of the room and offhandedly throw around words like “torque,” “velocity,” and “RPM’s,” in the course of a discussion about bonsai creation. I know collectors of all manner of tools and gizmos that will expedite work on their trees. Some commercially driven product sales may be crucial to the progression of this art. I appreciate people who fuel the economy by purchasing the latest, greatest gadget the minute it hits the market. They can impress their friends by having it first. Bonsai presents a golden opportunity to collect all the tools, gear, and other stuff that go along with having a state of the art workbench. Clever marketing and ‘show me the money’ mentalities are part of every niche of the visual arts, and related offshoot businesses. Who wants to be the last to own an Ichiban, or a ball bearing turn table, or other ‘in the know’ bonsai status symbol, after all?
During a recent convention it was stated by a well known professional bonsai artist, with much authority and pontificating grandeur, that to carve deadwood to make a good tree, power tools must be used. Not strongly suggested, not highly recommended… ‘must be used’. Jin must be carved with the help of a machine!? Absolutes bother me to begin with. This one hit me square between the eyes. I am challenging this particular platform, agenda, and philosophy.
Because it has been much discussed that conventions thrive on high-powered, thrill-ride entertainment presentations and ego-driven personality appearances I will not make this a personal issue, but a conceptual point. I dare say that just because one eminent and distinguished artist* made a name for himself and shook up the status quo with a home modified piece of machinery, should not make that particular technique the only gold standard, strictly enforced modus operandi of an entire community of artists. Where does the machine fit in the triangle between heaven, man, and earth? I suppose it could be argued to share space in the ‘man’ plane, being man made. I do not appreciate a hard sell or peer pressure; it has been done, I have seen it demonstrated, and quite a few have jumped onto that particular bandwagon with gusto. Can we see something else now? Is there anything else out there to rev up enthusiasm, amongst those who need revving and enthusing?
A brilliant, yet quiet artist with simple hand tools and his (or her) own steady hand doesn’t fill the seats as quickly between the refreshments and the benefit raffle as a fast and flashy, scintillating spectacle that will transform the tree in mere minutes right before your very eyes. I wish the Bonsai of Cheng Cheng-Kung which demonstrates such amazing skill and talent made for a snazzier live show, but I suppose his work requires more patience and reverent appreciation. It is so discouraging to see a flash-bang demo: “Amateurs, don’t try this at home.” But wait, there’s more: a cloud of saw dust flying through the air, look - what’s that over there, the smell of charred wood, the smoke of the exhaust (lookout little lady in the front row, don’t stand too close, and don‘t interrupt me with questions…). I am a bit surprised no one has thought to play "The Ride of the Valkyries" in the background.
For argument sake: Bonsai and power tools are not good bedfellows, or symbiotic components, or even complimentary ideas. As likely as Sunday morning crossword puzzles are enhanced by neighborhood leaf blowers, the two are ill matched. Who would ever think to use an electronic IQ Innovations 51552 Fine T 4-Cup Gourmet Tea Machine to speed up the traditional tea ceremony?
Having the ‘right’ tools does not guarantee a ‘right’ bonsai. Part of the magic of bonsai is the application of ancient and time-tested methods, in combination with new techniques. Art is about innovation, moving forward, and staying a step ahead. Artists are taste-makers, and trend-setters, and inventors of new things. Bonsai is about communication, conversation inside of living sculpture, that transcends language and culture, our own understandings and perceptions, and to some extent time. The artist is challenged to think of ways to accomplish that goal. How can I make the image in my head, and the message I want to convey, into a living, physical reality? I want to attend conventions that challenge and inspire the part of my brain that creates solutions, not the part that follows directions through memorization and imitation. Watching a power tool in action is perhaps too easy a fix.
I am certainly not suggesting we do not move forward, or ignore all the progress made by our generation, quite the opposite. No reason to go back to the dark ages. Walter Pall clarifies our mission, "Tradition is not the custody of ashes but the propagation of fire." We‘ve seen what can be done with a chainsaw, with a drill, with a torch and tin foil, with all sorts of hyped-up tools. Now what is next? What are other or better or newer methods? Where is our American initiative to try other ideas? Conventions are an opportunity to share ideas, let everyone decide for themselves how or when it is appropriate to apply a particular technique.
For continued argument sake, let us examine the merits of the use of the Power Tool in expediting the creation of bonsai: obviously it is much stronger, and faster, it is exciting to hear the hum of the engine, the whir of the blade. Lumber jacks and carpenters know all about the speed and efficiency with which a chainsaw or a band saw can get the job done. This is the 21st century - we use machines for everything without even thinking about it! Every aspect of our daily lives is increasingly spent in interaction with a machine. Our society is infatuated with equipment, robotics, fabrication, production, and computerization. These machines fly our airplanes, operate on our bodies, generate energy in plants, check out our groceries, dispense money from ATMs, cook our food, clean our houses, drive us around, inform us, and sometimes entertain us. It is all so much easier, so civilized, so convenient. And saves so much time! It does not escape my awareness that modern society and these ‘improvements’ brought about by our current technology enhance the availability of time for pursuits like bonsai. Machines, we are told, far surpass the skill and accuracy of the same job accomplished by a human being. They free up our time for other things. Machines never get tired, or call in sick, or file a sexual harassment claim. They can work around the clock, without a break. They only need fuel or electricity. We humans are controlling these machines, so what harm can there be in enhancement?
Is bonsai strictly practiced for the photographically recorded results (in two dimensions), and whatever means necessary are justified to achieve those results? I would volunteer to sacrifice my ambition to achieve those ’supposed’ results and instead focus on the means, whatever the outcome. Who wants to answer to the bonsai police? The process is just as important, and just as personal as the results. How did the tree come to be an expression of your intentions? Any artist, in any medium, can attest to the value, the intrinsic importance of integrity in having their own process. If the finished picture published on a page or screen is the only goal why not cut right to the chase? Learn how to use PhotoShop. If speed is desired and high tech savviness then show a modeling computer a picture of your vision of the tree, have a technician whip up a 3-D rendering in AutoCAD, while a laser carves it out for you in a jiffy. You can have thousands shipped right to your door. It can be animated too; it can dance and sing a little tune with a little extra rigging.
Artists must have the option and freedom to use whatever methods they want to achieve their own goals. If it is appropriate to use a power tool to skip ahead 100 years in the development of a depiction of an old tree in nature, well okay. The rest of the time I don’t want power tools anywhere near my trees, and that should be okay too. The time I spend with my trees is mostly quiet, sacred time. The creation and maintenance of these artistic trees allows me to escape the headache of all the machines buzzing around me. Sometimes I don’t want anything that vibrates or spins or powers through anything. I occasionally want to experience the progression of time at human pace, not at hyper-speed.
Machines are all around us, sold with the promise of making life better. Every time you fire up your chainsaw or fancy, decked-out dremel, think for a minute about where all that ‘power’ is coming from. Where did all the raw materials in your hands find their way there; the carbide tip, the copper electrical conduits, the plastic housing. Machines are not just improving our lives, they are also threatening our existence with the promise of an easy fix. We must seek to find a balance between all this enhancement and recognizing where something is good enough left alone. I want to have the option. I do not think that I MUST use power tools. I think my own two hands, and antique chisels, or whatever is handy are just fine in most cases. The right tool for the right job is not limited to only one.
The endless debate of horticultural and technical data rightly belongs in the learning halls of the Bonsai Academy, as part of the early course towards understanding the how, before addressing the why. Artforum and Art in America do not publish lengthy discussions about how to paint or chose media, except as it pertains to the final success or failure to communicate an idea. Hopefully a discussion is launched about something more meaningful than the work itself. Art is a gateway, an international visual experience that expands our ability to understand. It doesn’t matter if the artist uses power tools or hand tools, cut paste or chewing gum, Miracle Grow or worm poo, Marco’s Ichiban or dollar store scissors, Tokoname ware or an old shoe, copper wire or recycled rubber bands… let’s talk about the results and the artists intention. At the end of the day, let’s just talk about bonsai as art, if that is what we are committed to do - which I am. I like to attend events where great art is on display and intelligent people show up and talk about it, write about it, or buy and sell the art or raw material. When did you last attend an art opening where the artist had a canvas set up in the foyer to ‘demonstrate’ his technique in order to sell more paintings? Just make the thing, then let people decide how they feel about it. Show me a finished product, let me figure out how it was done, then make my own, and I’ll show it to you, then you can guess about how it was made and make your own… see how more thinking is going on? Compared to: here is a book of rules, study the rules, let me show you how, now you make a copy, and I’ll check your work for accuracy.
In America we can be like eager little children who present our crayon drawings to the esteemed Japanese teachers in hopes of receiving a gold star or stamp of approval. If a panel of Japanese bonsai artists was assembled for a discussion it would be clear very quickly that they do not agree on one right way to do anything. The same with European artists, or any panel of professionals. Sometimes students line up for critiques and instruction to create ever more convincing replicas, searching for the absolutes they can build a body of work upon. Absolutes do not exist. The smart teacher or artist says this is the way I do it, the insecure or megalomaniac artist says this is the way you must do it. Wouldn’t a real teacher be more impressed and more proud of a student’s originality? Creativity and ambitious goals should be expected of an artist, not discouraged. Art should have a stamp of individualism and pioneering audacity that leaves the viewer to ponder far greater questions than, I wonder what size bit he used to carve that deadwood.
* I have great respect for Mr. Kimura - who is the epitome of a truly great artist. I am not implying criticism of his work (this article is Not about Mr. Kimura) by challenging another artist who also uses power tools. Mr. Kimura may or may not have used power tools first, but he experiments, innovates, and makes it his own. I was deeply inspired after meeting him in Sacramento, at a GSBF event, and visiting his nursery in Japan. I am unabashedly jealous of Mr. Ryan Neil’s opportunity to learn from Mr. Kimura. I hope I have many opportunities to learn from Mr. Neil in the future.
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The writing of this article is a bit of a conflict of interest, as I am now going to try to entice you to visit my website: http://www.bunjinjournal.com
to purchase an original stoneware bonsai pot(s) that I have made, perhaps decreasing my integrity of purpose built up in the impassioned debate of this article. At the end of the day I want to be able to support my ability to continue to grow in this art form. How I have lain awake at night wondering how to have artistic credibility, a thriving art practice, and an efficient self-marketing plan… I hope you enjoyed reading my article, even if you disagree (I kinda hope you disagree - it’s more fun that way), and please collect my work so I can continue to make it.
Michelle working in her studio, glazing a hand sculpted dragon suiban, January 2010