Finding a Soul in Bonsaiby Vance WoodIllustration 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