This little lump of wood is something that has been sitting on my benches for a number of years. I’ve been slowly building branch density and roots having arrived in my garden shortly after it was collected.

With my re-potting supplies delayed due to a Covid19 lock-down I had some spare time and gave it a quick first style. I need to next go through my pots and find something that might fit it when i do get around to re-potting.

It obviously needs a fair amount of more tweaking but I will likely leave that until I get it into a more suitable pot. That said and looking at these photos I can see that the apex is bothering me and will likely need adjusting regardless.

Every bonsai growers secret shame is often buried in the bottom of tool boxes or hidden away from prying eyes.

Once glossy black, smooth and sometimes hand crafted, forged tools forgotten on a bench for mere minutes (or so it seems) can soon turn into rusty messes.

But don’t fear, you don’t have to cast such shame upon yourself and your family, there is a solution……….. (that doesn’t involve buying stainless steel tools).

Lets talk about what the black coating of steel tools is. The process that the tools have been through is called ‘Bluing’.

Bluing is essentially an oxidised layer or more simply, a black/dark blue rust. It forms a layer of oxidisation similar to the oxidised surface of aluminium which prevents further oxidisation to the surfaces below. Essentially this black ‘rust’ or (black oxide) prevents the red rust or (red oxide).

Of course black oxide only prevents this so far, so if conditions are right or moisture levels are great enough the tools will eventually rust. Which is what happened to the tools above. (They may or may not have been left outside for a period of time.)

The first step in restoring the black oxide coating is to remove the rust. Unfortunately black oxide being chemically very similar to red oxide means that in most cases removing the red also removes the black.

Now there are heaps of different ways to remove rust from mechanical (wire brushes and sandpaper) to acids, electrolysis and other chemical solutions.

For the above tools I chose a product called ‘Evaporust’ which removes rust well but doesn’t damage the metal beneath like an acid might which is another good method (citric acid works really well and is cheap but you need to keep an eye on the removal).

After a day or so of soaking the tools come out completely rustfree (of red and black rust).

Now there are two main ways to replace the Bluing; hot bluing and cold bluing.

For the home gamer, cold bluing is probably the most accessable and there are plenty of cold blue products that are mostly aimed as restoring firearm finishes. They usually have pretty clear instructions but for the most part it involves painting on the solution with a cotton swab. (heating the tools with a hair dryer prior to application can make for better results.)

Hot bluing is usually more of an industrial process as the chemical mix used is very toxic/caustic and usually done at high temps.

Hot bluing usually produces a better finish but for a couple of bonsai tools the cold bluing process is generally acceptable.

It can be hard to get a good finish in cold bluing as immaculate preparation and minimum contamination of the steel surface are big drivers of the end result. If you are not too fussy however, applying multiple passes/ coats usually ends in an acceptable end result.

My tools came out OK. Not perfect but certainly better than the rusty mess they began as. If i had perhaps acid etched them a little or done a better job of de-greasing between coats the result would have been less patchy. But for tools that are going to get knocked around and used, it’s good enough.

Following on the Bonsai and Art topic, I thought we could do a shallow dive into some well known art and how it has dealt with the subject of trees.

I’m sure most people reading this blog will either know the name Piet Mondrian and or recognise his artworks.

He is most well known for his bold patterned, minimalist abstract paintings, most often formed in a grid, filled in with bold primary colours.

Whats interesting about his work is that he painted a number of studies of trees, or at least one tree in particular, an Apple (I seem to remember) in his garden.

What I like about this series of paintings is it tracks his exploration into breaking the tree down into its rawest forms. First by showing main branches and omitting fine twigs and working through a series of iterations to end up in pure intersecting lines, completely abstract but born from the original tree.

You can almost see how his eye is developing as his works progress and he starts to distil and see into the form to extract the raw structure of the tree.

If you haven’t seen these paintings I would recommend doing a google search and checking out a few of his tree paintings and studies. He painted many versions of this tree in varying degrees of abstraction which are very interesting to look at and think of how it might relate to a bonsai context.

A few key leaps in his exploration are in the images below:

When I look at these paintings I begin to wonder what the bonsai equivalent of each stage would be? I think Mondrian’s explorations explore many of the things we grapple with as bonsai growers.

  • What do we omit?
  • What do we focus upon?
  • How much abstraction should we include?
  • At what point do we lose the original intent and is this point the moment something unique is born?

All interesting questions to ask your self and think of how they apply to what you do.

I wonder what ‘bonsai boogie woogie’ would look like?

Let’s look at two scenarios, the first one to get your brain gears turning; the second to apply that turning (grinding gears in some cases) to a bonsai context.

Let’s start by scaling up to get the thoughts moving along……….. First question: The universe, how big is it?

One idea is that the universe is infinite and continues indefinitely.

As far as we know, there are some fundamental building blocks making up what we understand of the universe, Atoms, particles, elements etc. all making up the soup of what we can observe, calculate or predict around us.

Now let’s think about ourselves; A 70kg human for example is made up of around 7 X 1027 atoms (that’s a 7 followed by 27 zeros) or seven billion billion billion atoms.  

That is obviously a lot! In an infinite universe however, there are only so many combinations that all those atoms can be assembled into, meaning that if the universe is in fact infinite then there must be, by raw probability alone, the circumstance where not only ourselves but our known reality is perfectly replicated down to the atom.  Meaning somewhere out there in the void, an infinite number of your perfect selves are also reading this strange seemingly un-bonsai related blog post from some guy who has been daydreaming at work and decided to write some thoughts down.

Of course, for every perfect version of what we occupy (which there must be an infinite number of) there must also be an infinite number of alternate combinations, ranging from one atom out of place through to a total reshuffling of everything and of course every possible combination in between.

When I was introduced to that idea it blew my mind and was hard to wrap my head around. It shifted my goal posts and changed what I thought I knew.

It’s much easier to think that the universe is something that is finite, something that has an edge or an end to it.

But then what exists outside of that edge? Interesting things to ponder.  

But how does any of this relate to bonsai? Good question.

You’ve probably thought that this bonsai guy has gone completely mad……. i’ll have what that guy is smoking!

Well kind of; my professional background began in fine art which in turn, led to design, more specifically within Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. Through solving design issues and problems while working on a range of sites and projects I have been able to get a very good understanding of how I see the world, what I am drawn to and what interests me. I’ve begun to understand myself.

I think part of doing anything well is at least starting from a position where you are open to a wide range of ideas and concepts before you hone down to a final position. Once you reach that position I also believe that you should be open to it being challenged and potentially changed from time to time. 

What I have learnt thus far is that it is very easy to begin a task with a whole lot of base assumptions that prevent and exclude capturing opportunities that may have been present but don’t necessarily fit the usual filter. 

The more you understand yourself often the more you have to forget.

The universe is much more than what we know or can ever know, in fact the observable horizon is moving away from us at a faster speed than we could ever approach it so it is unlikely we will ever ‘see’ past what we have already observed. But there is a whole lot more to the universe than what we know or accept as known. I would hazard a guess that the same could be said about how you understand yourself and how you understand you process the world around you. 

Which brings us to bonsai. Bonsai has (particularly in the west) a huge history of base assumptions ranging from form, the limited set of styles we are “allowed” to work within, and the infamous “rules” (right, left , back) of structure and styling.

These are hard things to break or step outside of. But we must. Much like our known universe there is much beyond the horizon of our accepted bonsai traditions.

Which leads me onto the second question: Bonsai, is it art?

“Of course it is!” Is the usual first cries you hear whenever that question is raised.  For the sake of this article, let’s drop that assumption and work through the idea of what bonsai being art actually means.

Firstly, does the fact that we for the most part do not see bonsai being part of fine art museum’s permanent ‘art’ collections not confirm that bonsai is not a clean fit into the fine art world?

Interesting question. Let’s for the sake of argument assume it is fine art.

Collins Dictionary defines art as:

“Art consists of paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.”

I think that description sits fairly comfortably with what bonsai is however….

If we look at fine art, subject is not limited. The objects, paintings and performances tackle all gamuts of human existence. Our interaction with emotion, nature, different representation and ideas or expressions all play out in various forms and mediums.

If bonsai is just another medium within an artist’s tool kit then it too should not be limited subjectively. If bonsai is fine art (or even art) then it is fairly unique in that it for the most part is restricted subjectively to representing trees and landscapes in its contemporary forms.

Would bonsai still be bonsai if its forms strayed away from these representations of trees and ideas of natural scenes? Would it still have value?

If bonsai had no relationship to nature in the forms and images it created, would it still be bonsai? Are we as a bonsai community ready to embrace that?

Interesting questions.

If bonsai is to be art, then there are no rules, no limitations, and no guidelines. We have no say in what is acceptable because art by its very nature, validates every expression within it. (The quality of that expression is a whole other discussion).

Can we accept the bonsai version of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (whatever that might look like expressed through bonsai)? Can we accept the bonsai version of a Mark Rothko abstract colour fields?

Maybe we can? But maybe by doing so we lose what bonsai is?

Perhaps we need to think about it from another perspective? Perhaps bonsai has artistic elements but is not necessarily a pure ‘fine art’?

Collins Dictionary provides a usage of artistic as:

“An artistic design or arrangement is beautiful. …an artistic arrangement of stone paving.”

You will notice now ‘design’ is thrown into the mix. Design is another potential good fit for bonsai but let’s keep that out of our muddied waters for now.

The use of the term ‘artistic’ potentially further clouds things, can stone paving be art? Is all stone paving that has been assembled artistically, fine art? Can anything be artistic by nature and then not be art?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers to the above questions (universe or art wise) but I think they are all interesting concepts to think about and guide what we do.

I hope that by writing this article my role in all of this is to pose these ideas to the wider community and hopefully have people look at and question their own assumptions and or ‘givens’.

Your role in all of this is to question what you do, why you do it and what you hope to achieve. I think ultimately it is your decision as to where you want your bonsai to sit. Art, craft, design, meditative activity, horticultural experiment or frivolous pursuits all hold value and will find different values within different practitioner’s minds.

What I believe is important is that you understand your own motivations and then pursue them. What you produce as a result will find its place in the world one way or another.

As for where I sit in this whole discussion, I think these days I tend to lean towards the infinite universe model and in a lot of ways find it comforting that there may be infinite numbers of ourselves also wondering about how their infinite number of shrunk down potted trees fit into their infinite classifications on their infinite worlds.

As promised, I’ve been working my way through the seasonal needle work on my black pines. Its a busy time of year for pines (as the title’s poor taste pun suggests) and can become a bit monotonous.

Endless thinning out, cutting back and de-wiring in preparation for next season growth and future styling is the order of the season. It’s not particularly glamorous work but necessary much like the bulk of bonsai care, the dramatic styling we all know and love really are a minor part of growing bonsai.

Of the two trees in this post, one was de-candled last season, the other was not. Can you guess which is which?

Not a whole lot to say that the pictures cant do on their own so I might leave this update brief. I have a bunch more to get through so expect some more updates in the coming weeks.

I was hoping to have a few more done but as is often the way, I got side tracked and began to re-wire on of the trees I was working (possibly a subject of a future post). As a result, it pushed back the other trees I need to clean up but we should be back on track shortly.

Trees below:

At what point does nature stop being natural? Can we nurture nature to be natural?

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking lately (perhaps too much) and somewhere along the line, I started to think about the idea of nature and ‘looking natural’ in relation to bonsai.

I find the idea of striving to ‘be natural’ in bonsai ironic and somewhat funny as just about everything we do in bonsai is artificial, manipulated and controlled. In fact, if we put a tree in a pot and let ‘nature’ do it’s thing, it grows into something that usually isn’t accepted as bonsai.

Then what is the aim of bonsai? What are we trying to represent?

Most people I talk to are trying to represent a tree when they are considering styling a bonsai. But there is inherent problems with replicating full sizes trees in a shrunk down form.

Making a shrunk down, 100% accurate scale model of a tree is an impossible task to achieve with living plant material. You simply cannot recreate most of a full sized tree’s detail in miniature.

So even when attempting to make a scale model in bonsai, a certain level of approximation or abstraction has to be employed which pushes the end product away from it’s natural inspiration.

What is an acceptable level of abstraction or approximation?

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we make these abstraction decisions when designing bonsai. We decide what characteristics we believe represent a certain tree or species, or use what the collective unconscious holds as an archetypal symbol of a tree (or bonsai) and use it in our designs. This of course can shift culturally and may vary across the world as peoples’ experience of different climates, ecosystems and their relationship with the world around them varies.

So what natural bonsai is, is actually what humanity has deemed to be natural.

‘Natural’ as an idea or construct is a man-made construct in the first instance.

So then are all the results of natural processes ‘natural’ by definition? And following on from that thought, is nature what we are striving to recreate in the first place?

Is this a natural response therefore a natural look? Sorry oak, you’re not behaving like you should.

Is it not more interesting to look at bonsai as human kind’s relationship with the natural world?

Humans experience of the world is a limited one. Our brains, eyes and ears filter out a whole range of information that is out there in the world around us.

We cant see the infrared spectrum, hear certain frequencies or smell in the way other animals can. By default our experience of nature is not the full picture.

Depending on the person that is viewing the world around them, different elements or areas will become more prominent depending on their interpretation.

A simple example of this might be asking two people to pick a single element that represents a forest in their minds. Depending on the person’s previous experiences and knowledge you may get one person thinking of a dense green canopy over head with another focusing on a tight rhythm or collection of trunks.

Another might be one individual noticing hundreds of tiny mushrooms on the forest floor as the next person walk past oblivious to their existence.

When we are designing bonsai we use this limited window that we look through to make choices, meaning that the decisions that are made, the abstractions, the areas of focus etc are all based from a human perspective and say more about the person that has created the bonsai than about the world it is trying to represent.

So how do you see the world around you? Have you ever stopped to think about how your interpretation of the world differs from someone else?

Are you trying to represent nature in your bonsai? Or something else?

Me, I’m not too concerned with representing scaled down trees or trying to replicate ‘nature’.

I don’t even mind if a species of bonsai doesn’t look like that same species in the wild. (a topic for another day)

Over my bonsai growing experience thus far I have enjoyed unpicking how I see the world, figuring out what i’m drawn to and what interests me.

I’m not interested in the perfect average example of a species. I like the outliers. I like the weird and wonderful, and I think that flows through into the types of bonsai I like to look at and aspire to grow.

I’ll end this rambling with a favourite tree not far from my home that has featured on the blog before. Nature can sure make some un-natural forms!

Do outliers make natural images? (One of my favourite trees in a local pine plantation)

I have begun (slightly late) my pine work and tonight I had the chance to select buds, pluck some needles and de-wire this little Japanese red pine.

The first tree in this clip is the red pine in question as per the 2018 Australian Association of Bonsai clubs national convention.

The process itself essentially involves assessing the new growth that developed after de-candling, balancing strength and density of old and new needles and reducing shoots back to pairs of two where more than two have developed.

Its a fairly straight forward process but certainly can take some time. Luckily on small trees the amount of time required is conveniently shortened while the frustration of not enough room to work is increased.

As part of the work I de-wired the tree. Most branches stayed in place but I decided to remove a front branch that was getting long and leggy which has created a hole that I plan to fill with some upper foliage next time I fully wire the tree. (perhaps next summer after de-candling)

For those interested, I did dig up a very early shot of the tree that I am guessing is from around 2012 or there about. Its come a long way and endured many an insult and mistake along the way!

2012, interesting to see how far it’s come.

The below pine is one I’ve had for a number of years.

It started it’s life as a much taller formal upright but by the time I took over the care of it, the upper portions had developed severe wire scarring and ugly lumps. It was restyled using only one branch, and so a formal upright became a semi-cascade.

The tree grew in this form for a number of years and slowly developed and filled in. I’d never really been very attached to the tree and I could never really put my finger on quite what it was that annoyed me about it.

I like the bark, the jin up top, and semi-cascades generally, but for what ever reason the tree never spoke to me. (yes I know, trees can’t speak)

At one stage I had Evan Marsh staying with me and I gave him a shot at styling it. He wired it up and did the much needed task of breaking up some large areas of foliage into individual pads.

I didn’t mind Evans styling but as soon as the tree grew out it again began to annoy me. It became a giant pom pom of foliage and had run out of room for additional ramification.

At some point I re-potted it into a lovely pot I was gifted (or perhaps traded for a gyoza dinner?) from Luke at Adelaide Bonsai Pottery (check him out, he does some very nice containers)

The pot suited the tree much more from both a size and style perspective and it made me think a bit more about the tree. The thinking didn’t go on for too long as I cut off a couple of branches to create some space in the canopy and put it back on the benches.

Which basically gets us to the starting off point of its most recent revisit.

While I liked the pot and the removed branches were an improvement, it was still not a tree I really liked.

I had been putting off working the tree for a while and had planned to simply remove the wire that was on it and pull some needles to prevent too much wire scaring. Like what often happens however, when you start working on a tree, (often during standard maintenance procedures), you make new discoveries and or see things from new angles (often literally).

I cut off a couple more branches. As they came off, it revealed some lines and movement in the upper sections that I thought were worth showing off some more. So out came the wire and I begun fully restyle the tree.

I wired it up and sat back and looked at where I had got to. I had compacted the head and brought it lower by bending the branch supporting the apex down somewhat to make the apex jin more prominent.

But there was still something bugging me about the composition.

The lower foliage was all forming one visual lump. I decided to test what it might look like with another branch removed. Out came an oily rag that had been wrapping an old motorbike carburettor and I tested to see how it would look.

I made the cut and a couple of small adjustments and this is where I finished up.

We are still a season or two away from being exhibition ready but at least now the bones (branches?) I will be building upon are ones I am much more happy with.

I think I will stare at this one on the benches for the next little while and decide where to from here. Maybe a trial run on a display stand… ooooh the possibilities!

What do you think? have you had trees that have undergone similar transformations: from unloved bench space occupier to something that might get a run at a show?

In the coming weeks I have a number of other pines that I need to get around to working (tis the season for pulling needles) so they will form the basis of the next few posts.

If it’s pine content you are after or have questions you want answered (life, pine related or otherwise) chuck them in the comments below and I’ll see if I can answer them in coming posts.

Until the net one……….

Do you ever look at a tree and wonder what you were thinking when you made a previous decision about it?

Pretty sure (according to my detailed and hazy recollection) that this tree was re-potted some time in the last two to three years. It hazards a guess then as to why I chose to pot it with this front at the time?

The tree in question is another English Elm (brother of THIS tree) that I have been slowly growing branches on. I tracked down the gnarled trunk a number of years ago along with some other weird and wonderful stock which are also in similar stages of branch building.

I brought this particular tree into the workshop the other day and removed some old Autumn leaves along with the weeds that were thriving under my care.

As is often the case when performing routine maintenance, you really get a good chance to look at a tree from all angles, inspect features and generally get reacquainted with it, which is exactly what happened here.

Having turned the front 15 degrees I realised that it was a much better front (the square hole of negative space disappears, the canopy is more even, movement is more directional and it flows better).

After making this discovery, it had me questioning why I had chosen the original front in the first place?

Had the tree developed in such a way that the front had gone from a good decisions to a poor choice? Had I not been paying enough attention last time I potted the tree? Has my eye developed so I am now seeing something I previously couldn’t?

There must have been an answer at one point, unfortunately it seems to be lost to my immaculate mental record keeping and the rigors of time.

This is another tree ready for a change of pot (to something more suitable than its current grow pot) and hopefully in the coming months I can rectify these past miscarriages of bonsai artistry and who knows, i might also get around to re-wiring the branching (particularly the lower left branch).

This constant update and change that happens with bonsai is one of the points that keeps me engaged and interested in growing them. As I develop as a grower (heaven forbid I brand myself an artist, (more on bonsai and art in a future post) my eye and tastes have shifted which has often seen previous good decisions become bad choices that need to be remodeled and remade.

It brings me back to the idea of self reflection and looking at your bonsai objectively with fresh eyes each time you work on them. Never accept what you are presented with, and always look to push past where you last left off.

Maybe to be able to do this well you need to forget the decisions that came before…………..

This post comes a little late (lets call it fashionably late) as the announcement regarding demonstrators, program and venue was made around 2 weeks ago.

That said I am also very happy to announce that i have been selected to demonstrate as part of the event. I feel very lucky, grateful (and a touch nervous) to have been given the opportunity to stand along side artists that I have admired during my own journey down the bonsai rabbit hole.

Some of the names you might recognise are:

Hugo Zamora – Latin America region
Kim Seok Ju – Asia-Pacific region
Ravindran Damodar – South Asia region
Zhang Zhigang – China region
Shinji Suzuki – Japan region
Marc Noelanders – Europe region
Michael Hagedorn – North America region
Jonathan Cain – Africa region
Tony Bebb – Australia-New Zealand region
• And me…. Joe Morgan-Payler – Australia-New Zealand region

There will also be a suiseki display critique by Seiji Morimae which will no doubt be insightful and interesting.

The full program and other information about the convention and perth in general can be found at the convention website:

https://www.worldbonsaiconvention2021.com/

You can also keep up to date on the facebook page found here:

https://www.facebook.com/WBC2021/

For the astute reader, you can also find a bearded me (convention video) and a clean shaven me (convention booklet) hidden around the site.

With every thing happening across the globe at this time I am really looking forward to this event as something positive to aim for. It’s going to be a great event!

I hope to see and meet as many of you as I can in 2021 in Perth. If you see me in beard or without come up and say hello!

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