In The Nook again, at night.

My place, my space, my territory.

The tree, a ficus microcarpa “tiger bark”. It’s been in the blog somewhere before, but damned if I can find it. That’s when I carved that big “uro”, or hollow, into it. It seemed like it needed it at the time and I still like it (and I can’t really change it now anyway)

The tree has been sitting on a second tier shelf on one of my benches, ignored, facing north, and a big tree was blocking the sun on its south side.

Wait, north….south? Lower bench? Huh? Those details are important.

See this part of the tree?

It was facing toward the southwest, and it’s the strongest growing part of the plant.

See how thick this branch is? I’m sure it was the strongest to begin with but it’s also the thickest now, compared to all the rest.

Below, my hand represents how the north (and, coincidentally, the front) side of the tree had been living. Or, more precisely, enduring.

My hand is now the sunlight, shining bright, and causing the branch to grow towards it.

Why does north, south, shade, and all that matter? Unless you’re on the equator (or in the Southern Hemisphere, and all this would be reversed) the sun tends to travel across the sky in the south. And trees that are phototrophic (growing towards light) will grow in the direction of the sun. Knowledge of this, and if your tree is strongly phototrophic, or opposite, is a good reason to rotate your trees periodically so the growth is more balanced.

The too long;didn’t read (tl;dr) explanation is: rotate your trees for even growth.

To bring this knowledge of phototropism to the next step, as this tree illustrates perfectly, if you want to develop a branch faster, find out which way it grows in respect to light and keep it turned in that direction.

Clearly not what I did here purposefully at all (one could call this neglect, easily) but it illustrates the main idea of the article now, doesn’t it, and I’m always one to exploit my own shortcomings for my science and art.

Let’s get to styling. The branch above is not needed, since we have that awesomely thickened branch just behind it….

There we go…

I like the idea of an aerial root on this branch, but not two. But they’ll both stay until the end. You’ll have to wait for it…..

The leaves are nice and green, and showing signs of new growth, which is why I’m able to work this coming into winter (Florida, USA, November, 2020).

This variety, called kinmen or tiger bark or even golden gate, has a good leaf shape and will reduce well. The above pic shows leaf reduction without even trying, compared to the leaves in the pic below.

How drastic can I be pruning the tree now?

Well….let’s see…..snip…

How’s that?

I reduced it to the secondaries with just a few tertiary branches.

For the rest, I defoliated, cut some tips and removed a few branches, but wasn’t so harsh on the pruning.

There we go, now I have something to work with now, and I promise, I will work it hard.

But first, let’s discuss that big wound, that’s straight on, in your face, no hiding.

To some, a ficus with a deadwood feature is against the rules. Or, I should say, that’s how they used to say it. When something was against the common training, the older bonsai teachers used the “rules” to keep you in line.

Nowadays, they say,

“That’s not in good taste..”

I’ve used this meme before.

For the Spanish language impaired, it says

“The principal enemy of creativity is good taste”

Pablo Picasso, in case you didn’t know, basically created modern art and the different ideas we now think of when we create. Before the art movements at the turn of the century, after the American civil war and they the two World Wars, art, or Art, was mostly representative and more of a capturing of the world in images. Most artists made their money in portrait painting and decorative art used in interior design (when I say most, I don’t mean the ones we remember as great masters. That’s usually reserved for the top ten percent of any field, the Greats. I mean the regular people making their daily bread using their art skills). Then came the camera and put a bunch of artists out of business. Kinda the same way that most candlemakers lost their livelihood with the invention of the lightbulb.

Bonsai is a representative art, meaning it is supposed to look like a tree (the same way a landscape is literally a painting of the land, weather it’s a mountain, or field, etc) and I don’t think we can call abstract designs bonsai, but that doesn’t mean our bonsai can’t have different stylization. Compare how an Indonesian tree or a northern American bonsai compare to a German or southern American bonsai look.

Not only do natural trees look different in those different environments, but there are different cultural aesthetics in those places as well.

Landscape painting could be said to have been refined by the Dutch masters, just as bonsai was refined by the Japanese masters. But we don’t all paint like Jacob van Ruisdael, and therefore shouldn’t style trees like Yuji Yoshimura. Bonsai is an evolving art form, with today’s trees exhibiting many different stylizations and concepts that would be considered in bad taste just 50 years ago. Example? Masahiko Kimura’s intense deadwood features were not in good taste when he started incorporating them into his designs back in the 1970’s and 80’s, but he’s considered one of the leading masters of today.

Now, I’m not saying I’m even close to Kimura. He’s a master. Probably one of the last of the real Masters really, along with Kunio Kobyashi, Suthin Sukosolvisit, Walter Pall, Dan Robinson. I’m thinking that the time of the “Masters” is over, just like they’ll never be another Picasso. But I’m enough of an artist to insist that deadwood features on ficus are tasteful.

Back to the tree. You’ll notice the fancy, high end plastic pot I’m using for the tree. I won’t be changing it out tonight, as the tree needs some root grafting, and I’ll have to wait for spring for that.

I’ll make sure I write an article on it then.

Looking at the above pic, which is of the front of the tree, the nebari is a bit anemic, and on the pic below, the roots are almost non existent.

But that’s for next year. Tonight, my friends, it’s time for wire.

And a little light music….

And a lot of heavy metal wire.


…….other side…..


“What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.” -Marcel Duchamp

There’s a few things I’m not liking. First, I think I need to compress the top a little. Give it some more movement. But the biggest thing that is bugging me is that first branch in the right. The angle doesn’t look right to me…..but first…let’s go further down the rabbit hole.

“There is no best way to make art, but there are a lot of better ways.”

-Walter Darby Bannard

And you thought a famous and very well promoted bonsai artist came up with that idea first, didn’t you?

“There’s no right way to do bonsai, only better ways” is how it was said, I believe.

That’s ok, here’s an apropos quote

“Originality is way overrated. To make, you need to take. All great artists do.”
— Walter Darby Bannard

Here’s another good one from Mr Bannard.

“When you write something new about science, other scientists may not like it but they pay attention because it is subject to proof. When you write something new about art, it is subject only to the reader’s discomfort, and will probably be rejected.”
— Walter Darby Bannard

And, just because he could, here’s a counterpoint

“Many years ago, Clement Greenberg said, ‘All profoundly original work looks ugly at first.’ This should be updated now to ‘All profoundly ugly work looks original at first.”

— Walter Darby Bannard

Who is this Bannard guy? Why am I quoting this bastard and possible stirring the ire of my fellow bonsai professional colleagues (but more important is the question: “How do you pronounce this Bannard guy’s name?” Is it baah-nard, or ban-ard, or bannerrd? )

Well now, Darby, as he was known, was an abstract painter. Or more distinctly, he was known for lyrical abstraction, minimalism, formalism, and an odd thing called “post painterly abstraction”. His first works were in a style called “color field”. Basically very minimalist shapes surrounded by fields of color.

He was also a prolific writer, having more than a hundred published essays on Art (I forgot where I read it but Modern Art requires manifestos, much like our beginning bonsai books, to justify the “new” theory and dogma. Darby, judging by his quotes I’m using, wasn’t so much impressed with dogma).

He died in 2016 at age 82, as the Professor and Head of Painting Department of Art and Art History and at the University of Miami (which is the most unwieldy title a man can have. Imagine that on the door to his office). He had about a hundred solo shows, participated in more than a hundred other shows (consider that he was 82. Meaning he didn’t start showing at least until his mid-20’s, so that’s more than 2-3 shows a year. Name a contemporary artist that’s done that nowadays. He kinda knew things (he probably drank too, to paraphrase a popular meme).

My friend Daniel said I have a way of turning ugly things into beautiful things. Meaning I take subjects that would be discarded by most bonsai enthusiasts as being marginal and not ideal and make them work. That what this tree was in the original work. Marginal. It has a poor nebari, a deadwood feature on a species that shouldn’t (by the rules) have one, reverse or non existent taper….I could go on. But, through years of applying horticultural and artistic bonsai techniques, the tree is growing into a bonsai.

Getting back to Darby, he also said,

“Postmodernism lives in the academy, where words abandon reality to serve ambition, and reputations rise on hot air.”

— Walter Darby Bannard

I’ll change that to

“most modern bonsai live in the books and rules, where the trees abandon nature to serve ambition, and reputations rise on hot air.”

That’ll get me in trouble…….

So…..that one branch that’s bugging me.

Let’s lower it. See the saw?

Let’s cut a small “V”….

And, remember that extra aerial root I didn’t like? Watch as I lower the branch….

That root is now in perfect position to graft onto the nebari and improve it. But again, that’s for spring..,

To lower the branch first I drill a hole in that fine plastic pot…

Snake a wire through it….

Attach the wire to the branch….

Like this….

Bend the branch down so you close the “V” cut, the idea being it’ll heal as the cambium layers touch….

Tie off the wire….

And wait. That’s a better angle.

Now to the too tall top.

When adding movement to a wired branch, try to make the bends in all directions, not just left and right.

I went back, forward, and left and right.

“I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

-Marcel Duchamp

Now why did I just include that quote?

Because I’ve just used some conventional bonsai principles to add to an unprincipled tree. The top is now over the center mass of the base, I’ve created the traditional scalene triangle, and it’s a definite pine tree shape, as opposed to a ficus or deciduous look.

I’ve just written an essay on a marginal tree, which has a trunk that is in poor taste, and just made it more like a bonsai instead of a tree.

In the end, sometimes the tree tells you where to go, and you just gotta go there. Kinda like the tree growing towards the light.

It’s a short walk to the edge…but it’s a damn long way down.

And that’s all I have to say tonight.

3 thoughts

  1. A lot of philosophy there. Of course that should go to some philosophy blog. Because this surely isn’t a bonsai. It’s a bush in a pot.


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