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 Post subject: For The Love of Bonsai
PostPosted: Tue May 30, 2006 12:59 pm 
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For The Love Of Bonsai
by Attila Soos

Bonsai is as much part of my life as is coffee, chill-out music and public radio. It seems like it always has been that way. Well, at least for the past 15 years. It was a natural evolution: I always loved nature, and living things fascinated me. The arts, in one form or another, provided a sort of backdrop to my life; a medium necessary for keeping my sanity. So, bonsai was a natural choice. What else could it be that so wonderfully combines all that is worth living for, in this journey called life?

I often wonder about how others perceive it. Are they touched by it the way I am? After all, I didn't plan to fall under its spell. It grabbed my imagination like an alligator grabs a hapless chicken, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I was never the same again, after that moment.

It certainly can't be that I am amongst the select few, fascinated by them. I have nothing special that in others would be in short supply. There are millions who love nature and enjoy things of beauty. Millions own pets and love to care for plants. So, how come the love of bonsai is such a rarity amongst us?

In order to find some answers, I sought and received help and advice from a number of friends on this website.

Firstly, I made an attempt to define the segment of population who would most likely enjoy owning a bonsai.

There were two broad groups, defined by their answers. The first group are those I will call the optimists. They believe that a large portion of our society belongs in this category: anyone who loves the beauty of nature and trees in particular; anyone with a passion for horticultural pursuits and a basic understanding of art. The second group had quite a different view. They argued that bonsai is the privilege of a select few. They listed wealth, time, patience and exquisite taste as requirements. This would exclude most of the masses.

I belong to the first group.


Image
Illustration by David Loughran


There is a question that will inevitably arise... for those of us who would enjoy owning a bonsai, do we need to know how to create or maintain one? Obviously, we need to know how to keep it alive. But beyond that, is it really necessary to know how to prune, bend and shape a bonsai?

The overwhelming majority of opinions maintained that beyond a very basic horticultural knowledge, we don't need to be learned in the craft of bonsai. We could always get someone to do the maintenance for us. The cost would vary according to quality, but it would likely be very affordable.

There are a few who beg to differ: maintenance services are few and far between. We need to do it all by ourselves.

It is true that in some areas there is very little in the way of help. But in the urban areas, I don't see this as a problem. The bonsai nurserymen I know would be more than happy to help with maintenance. Some would charge a few dollars; others would do it for free, in the hope of repeat business.

I believe that this is one of those misconceptions perpetuating the status of bonsai as a mere curiosity: the belief that we need to know how to create bonsai. We, most of us, don't know how to properly maintain our cars, preserve our works of art, nor maintain many other things we own. But we can always find someone who can do it for us.

I believe that keeping a bonsai happy is just as easy, if not considerably easier, than owning a pet. To some, this may sound absurd but the majority of those whom I asked share my belief, on this issue. Of course, there is a minor problem with this survey... those asked were all experienced with bonsai. And this suspicion was reinforced by my survey: people with less experience leaned toward perceiving bonsai as more difficult.

Here is the reality as I see it. Bonsai requires very little effort. It takes less effort than keeping any pet. All one needs is a little specialized knowledge. This knowledge is essential, but once a person has it, there are few things easier. People who don't know these basic skills see it as very difficult. For them, it would be easier to run a marathon: it takes a lot of work, but at least you know how to run. Bonsai for them is largely a big, blank unknown.


Image
Illustration by David Loughran


Having worked through these questions, let's assume that we have arrived to this conclusion: Bonsai can potentially be enjoyed by a large segment of the population and bonsai are relatively easy to keep alive and healthy. This is a reasonable assumption, although there are a few opinions to the contrary. Why should it be, then, that ownership of bonsai is so rare?

The number one hurdle mentioned by those asked is lack of knowledge; lack of education. And I must agree with that. Bonsai are perceived as something that is difficult to be kept alive. Other reasons mentioned were lack of time; lack of money; lack of suitable support systems; lack of commitment; and cultural reasons.

On the question of lack of education, I must agree. This is a big one.

Firstly, let me address the other reasons:

Time. How long it takes to water 3 plants? 1 minute each day? How about fertilizing twice a month? Let's be real. Yes, it might take some time to visit your nursery a few times a year, but this should be the fun part.

Lack of money. Here is a suggestion: You can acquire a reasonable bonsai for the price of a family dinner. For maintenance: the price of a movie ticket for two. This is of course a starter bonsai, but it could be a great start for a lot of people. Is that cost beyond the reach of most middle class income earners or retirees?

Lack of support system. The biggest problem is not the lack of help. The problem here is that people don't know where to get help. They simply don't know whom they should ask.

Lack of commitment. Yes, that would be a problem. But if you don't care, you shouldn't have one anyway. Stick with your chia pet.

Cultural reasons. Bonsai is associated with the Asian, and particularly Japanese, cultures. This is an attraction to some, who may have a real fascination for the Far East. It is also an attraction to the snobs, happy to show off a certain degree of sophistication. It is a turn-off to those nationalists who believe in the superiority of their own culture. But I believe that the solution to the cultural barrier is, again, education. We need to de-Orientalize bonsai and make it our own.

And so I came to the end of this exercise, and time for a few closing thoughts. At the risk of offending a few, I believe that the main problem with making bonsai more popular lies within ourselves, those who practice bonsai. Bluntly put, we bonsai practitioners are discouraging the average person who might wish to own a bonsai. We are the problem, not the solution. For those who still don't get it: We are our own worst enemy!

I drew this conclusion from my observations, after attending many bonsai conventions and exhibits and countless club meetings, in many different places.


Image
Illustration by Will Heath


We are going to great lengths to preserve an aura of mystery around bonsai: instead of presenting them as common plants, not unlike the hundreds of plants people keep at their homes, we show them as an oriental tradition. Instead of saying, "This is an apple tree from my grandmother's backyard.", we say, "This is a valuable Japanese miniature tree." People have no idea that this is an ordinary apple tree, in a pot. If they knew, everything would change.

Whenever I go to a large exhibit, I see nothing but demonstrations.

How many times do you go to your local art gallery to see an artist demonstrate to the audience how he created his paintings or sculptures? Demos are for a select few who want to improve on their technical skills or want to learn how to create bonsai. But what about the masses who would be happy to learn how to keep them alive and healthy?

I believe that instead of trying to recruit hobbyists, we should do much more in terms of educating people. The exhibits would be the place to demonstrate the basics of horticulture, a knowledge that every person should have. To show people how and when to water bonsai. To teach people about the native species growing in their own backyard, and how they can grow them as bonsai. To teach them about basic soil requirements. To dispel all the blatant and ridiculous misconceptions, such as the one I heard a few weeks ago, stating that bonsai lives only a few weeks.

Just like any other art form, bonsai can't exist as a viable business without patrons; people who are not interested in creating them, but are willing to spend money in order to enjoy them. As it stands right now, we are the creators and consumers as well: a totally inbred, closed society. We need to reach out to these potential consumers. And perpetuating the mentality that buying finished bonsai, instead of creating, is a way of cheating, doesn't exactly help.

Of course, doing the above would be far less glamorous and exotic than putting on a headband and kimono, and performing some hitherto unseen techniques on a tree, just like doing a martial arts demonstration. But, instead of instantly forgetting everything they saw at the demo, and dismissing bonsai as "Oriental mumbo-jumbo", people would leave with some commonsense knowledge that they could apply in their own backyard.

Let's do the demos in the back rooms, for the benefit of those who are already committed to the hobby. Let's start educating the masses about what bonsai really is about. It is not about rules and culture. More than anything, it is playing and having fun with real trees. The ones that grow in your backyards. And if we pay attention, and take care, they can live for a long, long time.


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 Post subject: For the love of bonsai
PostPosted: Wed May 31, 2006 9:04 am 
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Location: central florida
Attila,
Interesting thoughts. I can't help but emphatically agree with you on the need to de-mystify a good portion of bonsai husbandry.
Quote:
Let's start educating the masses about what bonsai really is about. It is not about rules and culture. More than anything, it is playing and having fun with real trees. The ones that grow in your backyards. And if we pay attention, and take care, they can live for a long, long time.

A good point. If more people understood, then more people would be willing to indulge in bonsai. I see one point that you haven't addressed as a barrier. Simple disinterest.
Quote:
I always loved nature, and living things fascinated me. The arts, in one form or another, provided a sort of backdrop to my life; a medium necessary for keeping my sanity. So, bonsai was a natural choice.

As sculpture doesn't pay on a predictable basis, I work at a landscape and retail nursery as "the day job". While I see a lot of ignorance, I also see a lot of simple disinterest in nature. People now treat plants as mere decorations, cheap enough to be replaced when they die, and only interested in the brief cycle in which they are flowering. I don't think they actually realize or care much that they are living organisms capable of long lives. Their lives are simply too modern to have much interest in even hobbyist level gardening. Most are weekend warriors, snipping a few hedges here and there and retiring to their televisions before accomplishing much.
While I certainly agree that Bonsai needs to be brought out of the closet so to speak; I don't think we will see a huge interest in it until we can get people to break from the television, and the triple-mocha latte's. Like any hobby it requires an investment of time, energy, money, and perhaps most significantly atttention.
-Cheers!


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed May 31, 2006 10:27 am 
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Hi Adam,
I agree with you about many people being disinterested in nature. Every time I see that, I am genuinely puzzled, wondering what kind of life is that. It must be a bleak one.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jun 01, 2006 6:16 pm 
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I think that perhaps the mystification and consequent complication of the art of bonsai is, at heart, a mode of self-defense. By keeping the general populace discouraged from approaching the subject unless they have some serious aesthetic or horticultural intentionas we are attempting to secure bonsai as a serious, uncorruptable artform.
This is certainly a fine line we have reached because we should not allow bonsai to stagnate by discouraging its intake into society, but conversely we cannot allow it to be trivialized and "popularized" into a "fake" or unskilled, and thus dead, art. Yet, other arts such as music and painting have a seemingly automatic mechanism for sorting the serious artists from those who are not. Those who are skilled in their field continue the art and those who aren't either abandon the art or practice on a simple, personal level. Does bonsai have this sort of automatic culling capability? I think yes.
Perhaps the artform should be opened up to the populace with the idea that it will follow the trends of painting; where the public attention opens up new movements and forms of expression, but the raw talent of serious individuals underscores the art thus retaining its credibility and prestige.
-David


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 1:19 am 
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David Loughran wrote:
By keeping the general populace discouraged from approaching the subject unless they have some serious aesthetic or horticultural intentionas we are attempting to secure bonsai as a serious, uncorruptable artform.

I took the liberty to take David's brilliant line of thought a few steps further:
Who were the first teachers of bonsai in the West? Obviously, they were Japanese and Chinese bonsai masters. And they did have the approach to bonsai that David described above. Their approach is perfectly appropriate for teaching bonsai in Japan or China, where bonsai has far-reaching roots and it is part of the native culture. In that culture, bonsai is practiced at all levels and by all segments of the society. The masters applied the strictest standards and took a lot of pride in their craft.
But when you take this approach and transfer to a culture where bonsai has no roots or any precedent, applying a strict standard may become counterproductive. After all, before you run, you must learn to walk. People should be allowed to learn and practice bonsai at the most basic level, without the judgment that may seem appropriate in the countries where bonsai originated. Otherwise, it seems to me like we are trying to teach university-level courses to pre-schoolers: a serious impediment to learning.


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 Post subject: For the Love of Bonsai
PostPosted: Tue Jun 06, 2006 2:10 pm 
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Location: Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa
I whole heartedly agree on your thoughts, it is something that we practice in our club, dispelling the miths about bonsai, one thing that we do regulary is to set up table at the local nurseries here in Pietermaritzburg, by prior arrangement and advertisement with the nursery, enviting the general public to bring all their bonsai in for help and assistance, to prune and repot and discuss with them the general care of their tree or trees, this we do at the start of Spring and the start of Winter, it is amazing how many people have bonsai in their homes, either bought by them selves or given as gifts, as we work on these bonsai we discuss the tree with the owner, explaining to them that these are only ordinary every day trees grown in pots which helps keep the tree small, that there is no magic or witchcraft attached to these trees and certainly no special powders or such other than fertilizer is used. Our care and understanding is greatly appreciated.
Bernie.


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 Post subject: For the Love of Bonsai
PostPosted: Tue Jun 06, 2006 2:39 pm 
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Location: Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa
I would like to share an instance at one of these outings!, while repotting a bonsai, a dear old lady started chiding me about our cruelty to these dear little trees, to which I replied, but M'am! is'nt cutting your lawn or prunning your hedge just as cruel? at this point I had added about a third of soil to the pot, opened a small container and sprinkled little yellow spheres, akin to the 100&1000's used by mothers on childrens birthday cakes, over the soil, the same dear lady asked what this was, my reply was, Bonsai magic grains M'am, to keep the tree so small, this brought smiles to the spectators faces, I then explained that in actual fact I had sprinkled slow release fertilizer onto the soil. This for the love of Bonsai!
Bernie.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Tue Aug 22, 2006 5:17 pm 
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As a newbie in this art, I have seen many trees die in my hands for many reasons: too much watering, too little watering, too aggresive pruning or root work. As someone said once, dead trees are the tuition we pay to learn this art. I have reach a point where my trees are starting to look nice and I have gave some to friends.
Some of those trees died because the owners were negligent. They didn't cared about them. I substituted the tree with a cactus, which are more tolerant, and still have seen cactus die.
We can say that the care of a bonsai is easy because we all have reach the point where we see it that way. Try to remember your first two years and honestly recognize that during that time everyone lost some trees, even trees purchased from other bonsaists.
Still, Attila, you are right that the process to care a bonsai once is established is not harder than the care of a pet. I can add even easier. Try to bath a big dog who hates water! And you are right we need to demistify all the process. This will help the bonsai to propagate more.
Bernie, the idea of doing Bonsai clinics is great! I am going to share it with my bonsai friends in the club I attend! Is an excellent Public relations and promotional asset to the bonsai art!


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 Post subject: Demysitfying Bonsai
PostPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 6:36 pm 
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Attlia, I really like your artlicle. I do feel that buying a "finished" bonsai is still kind of cheating; especially if you enter it in a show with your own name on it. I have witnessed on many occasions a bonsai enthusiast take a tree to a class or seminar and tell the speaker "train my tree" or worse "fix my tree". These people usually fall into the second catagory you mentioned (rich snobs). I have to admit, I have very little patience for these people. They do however, fund bonsai nurserymen who are hopefully true bonsai addicts. I don't know how I got bitten by the bug either. One day, a fellow horticulture student showed me a book by Harry Tomlinson, and the next thing you know, I'm looking at the landscape and nursery I help run with new "bonsai" eyes. I personally try to educate anyone who is interested in bonsai that the plants used are normal plants manipulated by humans or nature and placed in a shallow pot. I disagree with your final statement that we are our own worse enemy. I feel that there is a smaller group inside the bonsai community (usually people who call themselves masters with no credintials) who try to make bonsai appear mystical or incredibly challenging. These are the people who are holding back the art of bonsai as well as its appreciation by the masses. It's one thing to be proud of your bonsai and entirely another to lie about the age or type of tree it is. I feel that in order for bonsai to progress to a mainstream hobby (or hopefully art), the prospect of plant care clinics or basic information classes would be a good start. The real kicker though would be to somehow run off the people selling rooted cuttings of junipers at the mall as bonsai as well as the hacks on Ebay. There are people out there trying to swindle the masses. These people, once swindled, have a bad taste in their mouth. I feel that this is the biggest problem we face, and can be remidied by your main point; education.
Owen Reich


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 2:24 am 
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Hi Owen,
Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement. The only objection I have is when you say that you see buying finished bonsai as a form of cheating, especially when one enters this purchase on an exhibit.
I feel that your view is not fair to those who purchase these trees. When one exhibits a tree created by someone other than the owner, the owner will obviously be open about the creator of his tree. When asked, he will be clear about who the original designer is. If I exhibit a tree styled by Kimura, I will be the first to mention that "this is a Kimura bonsai". Nothing to be ashamed of.
I have several original paintings hanging on the walls of my home, and I never claimed that I painted them. If we recognize bonsai as another art form, we should have the same approach.
Best regards,
Attila


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 10:02 am 
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I agree with Attila in principle, yet I have observed on some Internet forums some people walking the line on this "bought bonsai" problem.
Trying to pass a world class bonsai off as your own is futile as most have already been shown, photographed and well documented, they are known by the bonsai community and not first crediting the artist who originally created it would be suicide. I'll leave the question as to when such a bonsai becomes solely the new owners to others, my opinion is that unless it is fully and completely restyled into something new, it never does. Even then, credit should be given.
However, in this day and age is is quite easy to obtain a piece of well developed stock that has been carefully pruned, wire, the roots and Nebari developed, in short a bonsai only waiting refinement by the new owner. I have seen people purchase such bonsai on ebay, from respected nurseries, and from bonsai shops only to instantly show them as there own work.
Do you think this is proper?

Will


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 Post subject: quick fix bonsai
PostPosted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 10:44 am 
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I think Will has hit on something important here with the question of where do you draw the line on when you can claim that you styled the tree. Will stated that a drastic restyling and a mention of the previous "stylee" should be acceptable. Where is this line? A drastic restyling is a relative term when working with some plants with a minimal number of branches such as literati. What about changing the front or the angle of the trunk? This question may never be fully answered since it's in the eye of the beholder.
In my previous post I mentioned cheaters. I was referring to the people who claim the tree was theirs from collection or a young state. I give credit where credit is due, but I have actually never purchased a tree trained by anyone else before. This may change in the future, but by falling into Attila's first mentioned group, have little in the way of financial freedom and try to start my trees from seeds, cuttings, nursery stock (non-bonsai affiliated) or collect native trees to the southeast.


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 Post subject: Re: quick fix bonsai
PostPosted: Sat Jan 06, 2007 1:20 pm 
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I think Will has hit on something important here with the question of where do you draw the line on when you can claim that you styled the tree.
If someone is planning to enter a contest e.g.,it is usually stated very clear whether the person entering is supposed to be responsible for the
initial styling of the tree,has to own the tree for at least x amount of years before he enters it .This is the official side.
Will stated that a drastic restyling and a mention of the previous "stylee" should be acceptable. Where is this line? A drastic restyling is a relative term when working with some plants with a minimal number of branches such as literati. What about changing the front or the angle of the trunk? This question may never be fully answered since it's in the eye of the beholder.
I believe that personality and common sense will guide someone through
the thought process of who is to be credited for what.When I was entering some contests before,nobody was ever supposed to touch any of my trees!Not even commenting on them!I do have some trees in my collection that were restyled or refined.I would always give credit to anyone who grew, designed or influenced the tree.
In my previous post I mentioned cheaters. I was referring to the people who claim the tree was theirs from collection or a young state. I give credit where credit is due, but I have actually never purchased a tree trained by anyone else before. This may change in the future, but by falling into Attila's first mentioned group, have little in the way of financial freedom and try to start my trees from seeds, cuttings, nursery stock (non-bonsai affiliated) or collect native trees to the southeast.[/quote]
I agree with you on that.If I have the choice to wait for a black pine to develop from seed into a specimen tree,or can invest into the purchase of a respectible specimen tree,I will decide for the second option and will still grow a tree from cuttings.
A lot of bonsaist collect yamadori and are sometimes lucky enough to find
the right tree(... out of abundance?).Some of these trees are already
"prestyled" by nature and really need only little wire and refinement.But the art end of it is to collect the tree correctly and keep it alive for the next 3 or 5 years.This is not considered cheating either,it is just the situational context that determined how these trees grew and how to keep them alive once removed out of their natural habitat.
If I buy a prebonsai from a bonsai nursery, will some consider this as
"cheating"?The nursery owner prestyled the trees...
If I aquire a tree,no matter of the status,and I style,restyle,refine or grow it for a number of years,it becomes "my" tree,with "my"own personal touch added.I own it.But it will always be credited as a certain species and in the same way credited towards the person (or nature)who initially put hands on it.
"It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and
not deserve them."
Mark Twain
Greetings from Florida (83 degrees..),
Dorothy Schmitz


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