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 Post subject: It's All Mr. Yoshimura's Fault
PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2006 1:18 am 
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It's All Mr. Yoshimura's Fault
by Vance Wood

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Illustration by Will Heath


In 1957 Yuji Yoshimura published his book "The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes." So began the dissemination of the bonsai art to the masses, at least in the USA. One major thing Mr. Yoshimura did was to set down a list of categories describing and, more or less, defining the different styles in bonsai as it was being practiced in Japan at the time. He also described the rules and concepts for branch placement with the do's and don'ts. All of this became both a blessing and a curse.

For better or worse his work has for the most part defined how bonsai should be styled and set down guidelines that should be followed. I am remind of Moses, who came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Where in the Hebrews rejoiced because they now had a clear set of guidelines to follow that would be pleasing to God and ensure their success. The curse was that the commandments became a taskmaster that regulated and controlled their lives. In seeking to find a method to please God they became slaves to the method they thought would free them.

Much of what Yuji Yoshimura did has fallen into the same category of creating a taskmaster. Everything bonsai has been till now viewed, created and judged according to those things set down in this groundbreaking book. Most books that followed more or less parroted the principles identified by Mr. Yoshimura and few, until recently, have strayed much beyond this vision.

A few respected bonsai artists have pointed out that those who claim to follow the traditional style do not realize that the traditional style from fifty years ago is not the same traditional style that is demonstrated today. It really can be argued that the traditional style is for the most part copying what the Japanese are doing on a daily basis. These same artists, in their work, redefine bonsai as a changing art form and not a static intractable process that necessarily has to be defined by the above principles set down by the late Yuji Yoshimura.

This is not meant to defame or impugn the memory or legacy of Mr. Yoshimura but to chastise those who hold on to the principles recognized and forwarded by the late master, as being engraved in stone. In Mr. Yoshimura's later years he started experimenting with some pretty outrageous designs and drew a great deal of criticism for them. I think he recognized that in the United States, his adopted home and the site of his work, that bonsai had become stagnate and boring. Of this I can only draw conclusion from what I read and observed.

Bonsai in America has indeed reached a crossroad where we are attempting to create bonsai that reflect American images and styles. In doing so we have in essence started a sort of civil war within the bonsai community where neither side of the debate wants to acknowledge the good points of the other. There are those who follow what they perceive to be the classic, traditional style and are quick to judge anything that does not follow the design principals set down by Mr. Yoshimura years ago.

There are those who believe that an American bonsai should seek to violate all of these rules. Ironically, in doing so, the beauty that has made bonsai recognizable as the art it is, has been cast to the winds and the results produced are less than pleasing. The images made through this principal are not really American or beautiful; they are more an adventure in iconoclastic bombast.

If I have said this once I have said it a thousand times, a bonsai must be first and foremost beautiful. What Mr. Yoshimura set down, I believe, was not meant to be both the alpha and omega of bonsai, but a starting point as gleaned from the bonsai of fifty years ago. Thousands of years ago some person discovered how to make fire. It started with creating friction, then by striking a spark from pyrite and flint.

Today almost every bit of technology we enjoy is because of fire. One thing is for sure you don?t see someone rubbing two sticks together to start fire anymore, but if we didn't start there and build upon that principle we would still be sitting in the dark and not having this exchange of information. So too in bonsai, it is time to move on and do things better and more beautifully. In America it seems we are still rubbing two sticks together as far as bonsai is concerned.

Realize that those old principles are at the foundation of the art but not the limit of it. Have the courage to go beyond, over and around them if the results are beautiful and natural in appearance. Many people that have been doing bonsai for less than twenty years have been taught by these basic principals but too few have taken the time to ask where they came from or to think beyond them. Some, who have, have had their results criticized for not following the rules and some that have purposely sought to do differently have come up with some pretty ugly trees. There is really only one philosophy that should be followed in bonsai and that is a pragmatic approach to bonsai where in the end (being beautiful and natural) justifies the means (how you got there). The end product should not be defined by any rule but one: It must be beautiful.


Last edited by Will Heath on Tue Jan 29, 2008 1:25 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2006 5:51 pm 
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Slavishly following "rules" is simply unimaginative.
I recall a quote, to the effect of, "Rules are for the guidance of the wise, and the obeisance of fools". Nothing truer could be said, where bonsai is concerned. Formulaic trees are almost certainly the work of skilled beginners or hidebound, skilled old hands.
Heck, I'll admit, I've got trees that follow Yoshimura's "rules". I've had some of them for quite a while now (Unfortunately, they survived an unfortunate incident that killed quite a lot of my trees about 8 years ago). I still have to remind myself, when styling a tree, that I don't have to be a slave to "the rules" but the temptation is still there.
The beginner needs to do more than just take a beginners' class. They need to immerse themselves, if at all possible, in learning to think about bonsai in the way that master practitioners think. That is easier said than done.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2006 6:23 pm 
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Vance wrote: "Realize that those old principles are at the foundation of the art but not the limit of it. Have the courage to go beyond, over and around them if the results are beautiful and natural in appearance."
Thank you Vance. Your words are wise and well spoken.
Mike


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2006 9:09 pm 
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Thank you both for the kind words. I guess I'm glad others see where I am coming from. I am not trying to abolish the old traditions, but trying to get people to build on them. There are two things I think most bonsai growers want to have, in the States anyway: An American Style and a Personal Style.
Without the action of thinking beyond what has come before, all you are going to do is repeat--- what has come before. That's not all bad if that's what you want to do. But if you seek to express yourself as an artist and have your art identified as yours, then you have to go beyond this.
Oddly enough one of the most important books I read that has changed my outlook on bonsai was not a bonsai book at all. It was the Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee. I think everybody knows who Bruce Lee was but I don't think a lot of people outside of Martial Arts know what he did. First of all he put his neck on the choping block by declaring the the different schools of martial arts had done nothing but create a big mess of this style versis this style and so on. He put together a theory and program where he put together all of the forms and made a unified form.
He said you must become like water, take any form you are poured into but be fluid capabel of going between forms. He also said that life or art is a river. You can only step in the same river once. Think about it.
Anyway I think for lack of a better word we have to make our bonsai fluid, not poured into a mould.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 3:15 am 
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You certainly don't speak for me, who happened to be born in this country, when you state that I want to have an American style. How does this manifest? Do Belgians "want" to have a Belgian style? Or Swedes a Swedish style? When we first begin to sryle a tree is it with this nationalistic desire to to represent a country?
I wouldn't know where to begin to create an American style bonsai.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 7:49 am 
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I think you'll find that Vance said "most".
It doesn't take a black belt in Netsearchitsu to find reference to "American Style bonsai". I'd suggest that the first task for the apparently ignorant egoists promoting the idea that first they learn how to style any sort of bonsai. I could understand it if there was a definable style to what they are doing, but that's not yet the case, so far as I can tell.
I'd be perfectly happy to see people learn bomsai, before they start trying to change it. I still need to learn so much that I despair of ever doing it.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 9:29 am 
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Bruce Winter wrote:
You certainly don't speak for me, who happened to be born in this country, when you state that I want to have an American style. How does this manifest? Do Belgians "want" to have a Belgian style? Or Swedes a Swedish style? When we first begin to style a tree is it with this nationalistic desire to to represent a country?
I wouldn't know where to begin to create an American style bonsai.

Bruce: I don't know where to start to create an American style either, and I did not state that you (in particular) wanted to create and American style. There are however many that have stated this. Personally I don't think that there can be any successful National style based on anything other than models that grow in that particular country. If you analyze what I wrote I think you sill see what I think about this (movement?)
If you want to create a Belgian style----go for it.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 2:32 pm 
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Vance,
What a great article, it really makes one think. I believe that rules are there, for us to learn what we need. Then, once we have learned they are there to be bent, twisted, and even broken. As long as what you create is beautiful, maybe there is no need for them, other than a starting point.
On a separate note, my first introduction to bonsai, after the karate kid movies that is, was a web site that I had found with some of the strangest tree I could imagine. It was the web site of Nick Lenz, now were these trees created in an American style. I believe that is doubtful. Were they works of art, most definitely. Did they follow the rules, most did not.
-Paul


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 5:41 pm 
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Paul Stokes wrote:
Vance,
What a great article, it really makes one think. I believe that rules are there, for us to learn what we need. Then, once we have learned they are there to be bent, twisted, and even broken. As long as what you create is beautiful, maybe there is no need for them, other than a starting point.
-Paul

I have got to admit there have to be people out there that are not certain where I stand on this issue because I am likely to defend the contrary to both or either side of this argument. I once responded to someone who said that you did not need to teach the rules to any one and then said that he did not teach them to his students. Personally I believe this is a mistake. I think the basic principles of Art in general and Bonsai in particular are as important to anyone interested in bonsai as the theories of aerodynamics and basic flight instruction are to a pilot.
What I object to is teaching that the rules, aka. the fundamentals are as I said, the beginning and the ending at the same time. The fundamentals do not come equipped with a set of hand cuffs. Some people will never go beyond them and some might but they will do so kicking and screaming.
A number of years ago I did a workshop where I started examining a tree with its owner. The first thing that was said after I declared what I considered to be a good potential front, was --- well So and So said that the trunk should never come toward you at the front. This was proceeded by comments about the apex of the tree. I knew then I was going to have problems and that the tree was never going to be anything more than it presently was because of the owner's narrow focus of thinking. The idea that the tree could be beautiful outside of this train of thought was well -------- unthinkable. It was not even worth looking at the option.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 9:24 pm 
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Vance Wood wrote:
I knew then I was going to have problems and that the tree was never going to be anything more than it presently was because of the owner's narrow focus of thinking. The idea that the tree could be beautiful outside of this train of thought was well -------- unthinkable. It was not even worth looking at the option.

Very well stated. I think that this is a huge problem in bonsai today. The owner of a tree has a vision for a tree. He takes it to a workshop, were a "master" will help him disgn the tree. The owner of the tree then has a big problem with what the "master" says and will close their mind and ears.
I know if I goto a workshop I will fully listen to the "master" and ask questions as to whay he thinks a certain way. Most of the time what I thought of the tree was crap and the "master" has a way to turn it into gold.
-Paul


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 11:26 pm 
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Paul Stokes wrote:
Very well stated. I think that this is a huge problem in bonsai today. The owner of a tree has a vision for a tree. He takes it to a workshop, were a "master" will help him design the tree. The owner of the tree then has a big problem with what the "master" says and will close their mind and ears.
I know if I goto a workshop I will fully listen to the "master" and ask questions as to why he thinks a certain way. Most of the time what I thought of the tree was crap and the "master" has a way to turn it into gold.
-Paul

That's the way it is supposed to happen but there is another issue here that we have not discussed. Sometimes as an invited "master" with a small "m" you will run into that individual who loves to drop names as to the people they have spent time with etc. Such was the case here. These kinds of individuals are not looking to learn anything they are seeking to demonstrate how much they already know and try to embarrass the "master" if possible. It is impossible to teach these people anything because they think they already know it all anyway, they only want to try to show everybody they know more than the guest that was invited.
Even when I showed this person that developing the tree from the position they wanted to take, it was going to look like crap, which didn't seem to matter. It was the rules on a certain point which were important, that was all that mattered.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 12:13 am 
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I fell into that very trap recently. A Metrosideros that I wanted to restyle into a cascade was taken along to a workshop. I argued for the cascade style for almost 10 minutes, in one way or another. In the end, I settled for the recommendation of the teacher and the other members of the workshop (All of whom are fairly advanced stylists).
They were right, I was wrong. I hope the tree survives the punishment that I handed out, after losing the battle.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 12:44 pm 
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Here is the major difference Hector, you were in the end willing to listen to the guest master. I did not hear of you relating that so and so said it should be this way and so and so said it should be that way, and the other so and so said it should go like this to this master. In the end you followed what either you or your club paid for, sound advise from someone you all agreed could offer you something in the way of advise.
My point in the whole issue is this. If you think this individual is not going to be able to supply you with new information that is going to be of benefit to you why take the workshop or what ever? The only answer I have to that question is pride and arrogance thinking that they are going to prove themselves better than the invited guest master. What good does that do anybody? If that was a perceived issue then this individual should have argued to not make this person a guest.
I have to tell you at this point the trees I saw that belonged to this individual did not give me any indication that they were capable of forming a bonsai unless it fit the so called rules by the letter. Most of their trees were shallow and un-interesting.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 4:33 pm 
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Vance Wood wrote:
Bruce Winter wrote:
Bruce: I don't know where to start to create an American style either, and I did not state that you (in particular) wanted to create and American style. There are however many that have stated this. Personally I don't think that there can be any successful National style based on anything other than models that grow in that particular country. If you analyze what I wrote I think you sill see what I think about this (movement?)
If you want to create a Belgian style----go for it.

Vance, for many years I was a member of a very large,active bonsai society in California with a well known sensei, in all those years I NEVER heard the words, "American Bonsai style". This was my experience. Of course on the IN one will see refrences to american bonsai, does this mean "most" want to create this style? I think not. It would seem that the most uncomplicated desire would be to create beautiful bonsai, period.
As to your last sentence, was the intention sarcasm? Humour?
Kind regards
Bruce


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 8:39 pm 
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I think we are on the same side of this argument, I merely threw in the Belgian style, or what ever it was, as an example of what I consider foolish rhetoric. As to my original argument there are people that are trying or seeking an American style bonsai. Whether you have heard this or not does not change its existence. I too learned bonsai in the beginning in California but not from a Sensei. I'm not sure what a Sensei is, though I do not doubt they exist.
I never said that everybody that grows bonsai in America wants to create an American style bonsai, you suggest that I did. In addressing that issue you came off rather hard and challenging in saying I don't speak for you. On that issue I am glad, you should think for your self.
Kind Regards as well


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