It wasn’t really my intention to stir the puddin’ (at that time), I was just showing a tree that I thought was beautiful. But there was one guy that took umbrage to me calling this bald cypress, styled in the flat top style, a bonsai. It’s a style created by the great Vaughn Banting of New Orleans some 30 years ago and, I thought, was an accepted style. No, really, a gentleman said the above tree wasn’t a bonsai. It was slightly surreal.
Let’s follow the development of the tree pic by pic and then we can talk philosophy.
The tree belongs to Jim Osborne from the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. GNOBS for short. In his words:
“Adam, the first pictures are from 2003.”
“The tree was about 8 feet tall. It was collected from the Ormand swamp, just a few miles west of New Orleans. I choose this tree because of its location close to dry land and small size as it was a spur of the moment dig and I did not have the usual collecting tools with me.” Sounds like he didn’t want to get his feet wet….
“On that same day I decided to create a hollow in the trunk to add interest, as the tree did not have the usual fluted base.”all of Jim’s pics were printed pics, like real photographs from film and all that even. “In the subsequent pictures you can see it’s development.”
“Branches were chosen and allowed to grow unchecked for a growing season, then cut back.”“This process was repeated for several years until natural taper was created.”“Some further work was done on the hollow and the chop was worked to a point where it flowed into a major branch. At that point the lower branches were kept in check and the upper portion of the tree allowed to grow freely” “Branches were selected and wired into shape. It is still being refined.”
“The tree won the Vaughn Banting award in 2011 for design excellence at the Louisiana Day of Bonsai.”
“The tree also won the Johnny Martinez award (a Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society award to honor a long time member who had passed away) in 2010 at the Spring Garden Show at the New Orleans botanical garden.”
Enough from Jim, if he gets to talking you’ll talk all night long. Here are some of my pics showing the carving, the ramification and branch structure.
Let’s talk about the flattop style and whether it’s considered “bonsai”. And please, feel free to comment and agree or disagree. All comments, unless lewd, crude or rude, will be allowed.
You all can probably guess my opinion. My definition of bonsai: “a bonsai is a relatively small, relatively young plant that is artistically treated to look like a big, old tree”
Now, that’s a very specific definition in that it limits bonsai to the representative side of art, like a landscape painting or a portrait. It should look like a tree. But it’s broad enough to allow for the, sometimes, ultra stylized versions of trees from Japanese artists like Kimura or Chinese artists like Cheng. It also allows for the natural looks from people like Dan Robinson or Walter Pall. I also believe in the Naka mantra that we should make our bonsai look like trees, and not our trees look like bonsai.
So where does this all leave Jim’s tree? That particular individual who commented on my original post came out and said that, since it’s not a Japanese style, it’s not bonsai. That poked a lot of bears that day.
Now, granted, it was the Japanese that formalized the techniques and styles of bonsai, after all. Of course, it was the Chinese that created the art, and then the Japanese imported it. And it is a Japanese word, “bonsai” that the world uses to call these small trees in pots we so love. I get all that. Indeed it was the Japanese that introduced the world to bonsai. They named many of the concepts, from nebari to Jin and everything in between. And it is true that many Japanese nursery owners don’t accept the flattop style as a bonsai style. Or even the bald cypress as a good subject to work with (bald cypress have serious dieback every year on the branch tips, they grow too fast for some Japanese nursery men, and they are incredibly apically dominant, so much so that you lose bottom branches if you don’t keep the top in check and you need to, about every 4-5 years, chop and regrow the top, if it’s in the typical conifer/Christmas tree style, or your top branches get out of scale. To me, that’s a challenge. I’m an artist and I accept the difficulty. But the Japanese nurserymen are, first, businessmen. They grow what sells. A flattop bald cypress doesn’t sell over there. They’re on a serious Sargent’s juniper kick right now.
All this is interesting if we think of bonsai as strictly a Japanese thing but, you see, here’s a demographic to ponder: There are more bonsai practitioners in the rest of the world than there are in Japan. Bonsai is, like many “traditional” arts in Japan, is dying out. It could be said that, if it weren’t for the interest in bonsai amongst non Japanese peoples, there might not be bonsai. Proof? How many Japanese nurseries have western apprentices now? Can you name more western bonsai professionals than Japanese nurserymen? How about with the affiliated crafts like stand making or scrolls or suiseki, or even pottery? It’s becoming a global art, whether the old guard like it or not. And when a thing becomes “Art”, that means one has artists who think that maybe the old way of thinking about things might not be the “right” way.
But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for traditional ideas. That’s what the old timers have to understand, what they have done before is a stepping stone to increasing the global appreciation and recognition of “Bonsai” as a true artistic pursuit. If it’s not allowed to grow, it will be relegated to the dustbin of other, quaint, folk arts that old men do when they’re not taking a nap.
Change and innovation is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be, but it can also be embraced and guided by those that have come before. Like Mr. Kobyashi is doing in this YouTube video from Bonsai Empire. He’s been practicing bonsai for 40 years, and he admits that his past tree styling has been to either win awards (which means to cater to the status quo) or to sell trees (even more so a pursuit of the status quo. Buyers most often buy what they are told is tasteful).watch the video. His goal now is to make art and to bring out the natural spirit of the tree. To, dare I say it, make art.
Here’s Jim’s flat top bald cypress again. This time with a little better background and on a stand. This is the natural progression of a bald cypress in the wild. It’s what an old, gnarly, broken tree looks like. If you drive the highways through the bayous of Louisiana, or on Alligator Alley in South Florida, it is this type of tree you’ll see.
I’m gonna call it a bonsai.
Thank you Jim, my friend, for allowing me to show your tree to my readers and to let me rant philosophically about it. No one is going to read the words really, but they will look at your tree. And that should make up for all the guff that this post will generate.