It’s night in the Nook. Again. Seems like it happens at least once a day…..

This means it’s time to work. I don’t know why, but I do some of my best work at night.

I’d work until 2 am if I could, but most days I need to be up early. And the wife doesn’t sleep well when I’m away. She’s a snuggle bunny.

On my first trip to New Orleans, for the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society, I was astounded that the workshop day started at 8 am, in a city known for its nightlife. It was tough waking up for that class, I’ll tell you what.

And it’s tough waking up to take care of the kids and online classes. I drag my ass every morning and push through with caffeine and willpower. I’ll be tired most of the day, until the sun hits the western horizon. Then I’m ready again to work, fueled by the trees, maybe some whisky, and the definitely the music. With the humidity high, the night black as coal, only lit up by my nursery lights, I’m there.

In the Zone.

In the moment.

The bonsai wire flows like ribbon onto the branches. The cut leaves and branches pile at my feet like stone chips off a stone-carvers chisel in some Renaissance era studio. I might have a stinky stogie clamped between my teeth, or spilled beer staining my boots, but the tree is my drug.

The bonsai, the Art.

And, just like Ol’ Willie sings:

“The nightlife

ain’t no good life,

but it’s my life”

The trees you’ll be seeing are from Gail and Barb, two students that have turned into clients because of the Covid.

Anyway, the above tree was just a plain Jane ficus microcarpa. One I styled originally and somehow made it into Barb’s hands. It’s gotten taller since I’ve worked it last but I think the extra height adds to the design.

Below is Gail’s bucida spinosa (as it’s commonly known. The correct name is terminalia mollinetti)

It’s hard to know what night tonight is, but, when tonight happens, tonight is the night, and you gotta take advantage of it.

Next up is a ficus microcarpa “tiger bark”

Here’s some techniques for the people who have learned how to learn.

Weeded, bareroot, it’s clear we need more nebari. It’s an interesting tree but the root spread needs some definition.

And we have plenty of roots to do it with.

I’ll double back the long and thicker trailing roots and place them where the tree needs them.

Like here.

There’s a gap so I’ll poke it through to the front and secure it.

This is what I mean by double back. Literally take the long root, bend it back and into the spot needed.

As it thickens it’ll self graft (25¢ word of the day: inosculate) and at the next potting I can cut the original one back.

The first branch needs an aerial root too, I think.

But we don’t need it coming from so the up, so…

I’ll graft it onto the branch and, when it’s attached, cut it off from the top later.

Looks like a good spot.

Some more grafting at the base. This time I make a cut to help the tree out.

And since I need my thumb later…

It gets stapled in place. Like I did in this post a few weeks ago.

For the branch graft I’ll tie it in place with grafting tape.

That’s all. There are much better grafting tutorials out there but a ficus tree is the easiest to graft, so try it.

Techniques are important to learn, and many artists focus on them, but technique is not the art. It’s the craft. And it should make the end result be more than the sum of its parts.

Next is a ficus philipenensis (there’s a more correct binomial name but I can’t find it in my notes at the moment).

The concept here is just to reduce and simplify. Pure craft.

The man that created modern Art, Pablo Picasso, could draw, paint, sculpt like the old classical masters. His father, Jose Ruiz Blasco, pushed him to it, being a professor of art at an art school in Spain (ironically called, considering this post, the “School of Crafts”)

But Pablo realized that there is more to art than technique. Technique had progressed to where Art was merely craft. And it was commercial. The works were used for commercial purposes, decoration. The Impressionists, goaded by the invention of the camera, had come to an existential crisis. What purpose was art when a photograph could do it better? So they started to search for different ways to see. And being visual artists, to show what they saw.

Pablo came after the Impressionists and learned from them. He could paint and draw photo realistically but he wasn’t satisfied with that (his favorite thing to do would be drawing flies and roaches onto cafe walls to see the reactions of other patrons and the staff). So he tried to see things differently. To show things differently.

His most famous line is: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child” means more than you think it does.

This next one was fun. Neea buxifolia. It grows a lot but, it develops slowly. That seems like an oxymoron but it’s not. Pines can be like that. And trident maples. It’s almost like you need to build trees like this one branch at a time, chiseling away 90% of the growth with each session.

The front was hard to find.

So many possibilities!

That’s a good thing to have though. Choices.

Hmmmnnn….

Art tells a story. Craft helps us to tell these stories. Sometimes the best way is to make art is to follow the rules of craft. Tradition, authenticity, styles, materials. This is what craft gives us.

There’s an Organization in Naples, Italy that issues certifications of “adherence to tradition” out to pizzerias. They have much power. And they literally define what a pizza is. Interesting to say the least.

Like I said, chisel away 90% of what has grown.

Tradition.

Authenticity.

The question I often ask myself is: how is it that an white boy, Massachusetts grown but Florida transplanted and seasoned, painter and sculptor can work in the eastern or Japanese art form called bonsai? (you could say westerner or citizen of the USA, I’m not really interested in making a huge distinction right now. This isn’t the time or place). My answer, and it’s mine (though it’s true) is: the truth of Art or an art, is that it pulls from all cultures. There is no theft. If you think it’s theft, stop reading.

I don’t need to be “authentic” because Art (capital “A”) isn’t authentic. It’s an amalgamation. A melting pot. Human culture is about that. No more thinking of collective ideas and authentic cultures. We are all humans. I don’t care about your skin color, or your origins or ancestors. I believe in you. Just you. And that’s a radical thought right now. To me, you are Jorge, or Sven, or Guaracha, or Kunio, or Michael. That’s it. You are what you do, what you think. Not where you were born or who you’re descended from. Not sorry. My attitudes were formed by and I truly believe in what Martin Luther King Jr. said.

The next species of tree kinda pushes that sentiment home.

Ficus microcarpa “kaneshiro”

A Chinese species, which was a seedling variety discovered and developed by one of the most famous bonsai practitioners in Hawaii, Haruo “Papa” Kaneshiro. He used tropical trees when they weren’t considered bonsai.

It’s an amazing specimen. This is one needs a more shallow pot to show off the banyan look better.

I think this one works. Sweet! To push the point: A Chinese native tree, but a variety developed by a Japanese American, in Hawaii, making its way to Florida, from cuttings, and grown here, to be worked on, by me, “that asshole Adam”.

Today, it’s hard to do anything new in any art, but for a representational art like bonsai, it’s even harder.

It still should look like a tree.

Ulmus chinensis. A small leafed variety.

Not revolutionary but it has style.

Making progress….

I have seventeen trees to go through, and four different clients. You’ll see in the next post one from Kathrin.

Standing on a precipice, we can still see the bottom, but we are at the top. That’s important. And: Why does the monk climb the mountain to seek wisdom? Because it’s easy to fall off.

Ficus salicaria (called many things, all misidentifications: subulata, nerifolia, salicifolia et al).

With every success you are closer to failure.

What style is this? Literati? Bunjin?

It doesn’t matter. It’s a tree to me.

You don’t know a thing better just by the act of identifying it, you learn to know it by doing it, or living it, or using it.

I can call a sword a “sword” but I’ll never know it, unless I’ve used it. There are ways to hold it, swing it, and there’s the difference between hitting wood, or stone, or bone. Did you know that a razor sharp sword, once wetted with blood, needs to be sharpened because the blood swells the microscopic pores of the steel and dulls it? That’s knowing it.

Consequently, Bonsai is more than its definition. You have to live with it, help it grow, guide its path, before you know what the bonsai is. It’ll tell you, one way or another.

Just because we know a name for a thing doesn’t mean we have to call it that either.

When working on bonsai, there’s only so far we can go in doing what we’ve been taught. The craft has to end eventually and the Art has to take over.

What’s the difference between an artist and an artisan?

The artisan does work at an expert, master level.

The artist can, and often does, work at that level, but is also experimenting and trying new things.

Going “out on a limb” so to speak.

And sometimes that limb breaks out from under you and you tumble to the ground, hitting every branch on the way down. It hurts for days after.

The artisans laugh at the artists for being terribly unprofessional at these falls, but, in the end, when the artist is at the top of the tree, the artisan is copying the artist. And, truthfully, maybe even doing it better than the artist.

But….

The artist leads, the artisan follows.

But in bonsai, or the practice, it doesn’t matter who’s an artist. It doesn’t matter if it’s authentic, or classic. But it does matter if we we do things with authenticity.

Do things honestly, to the betterment of oneself and the tree. There’s nothing else between it. You and the tree.

In the end, I’ll quote chef David Chang, speaking of the preference of a person’s temperature of steak (rare to well done) or restaurant choice (Outback or Brasserie Les Halles) or even their favorite dish :

“Maybe we’ve lost that ability to not judge….but just say…….is someone leaving (the table) happy”.

We do the Art for what it can give us back. The Impressionists gave us the concept of “Art for Art’s sake”.

Do bonsai for you, to whatever level you wish to go, one tree or a thousand, because it makes you happy.

Do your bonsai make you happy?

6 thoughts

  1. Adam, thank you once again for an informative, yet entertaining learning experience. I’ll soon be trying the root graft for both limbs and nebari so, I hope you don’t mind if I let you know it goes in a future blog.
    OT- Great photo of what I guess is a Ficus “bright” ( the one after Kathrin’s tree; the last picture have wonderfully placed your background lighting)!

    Like

  2. I love your way of thinking. I enjoy your blog not only because of your bonsai (though your trees are awesome), but mostly because I love the way you express yourself. Never tire of reading your blog. Thank you, Adam! You are a great man and a great artist.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s