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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:

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…………..

Looking back at the date of the last blog post (2017), it kind of feels like i have abandoned this blog!

A lot has happened since the last post with life squarely getting in the way of bonsai on a regular basis.

I now have 2 kids and getting through their young years has certainly taken away from the amount of time I have had to work my own trees.

My motivation has had it’s ups and downs, with it hard some days to look at trees that are screaming out for time to be spent on them, time that I simply don’t have. It’s been hard seeing some trees go backwards while i focus the limited time i have on my better trees.

I will likely be selling off a few trees to get back to a number that I can spend the right amount of time upon.

I have managed to keep the teaching side of my bonsai practice going which has been really good as it is always exciting to help students get the best out of their trees.

I have also recently been announced as one of the Australian Demonstrators at the World bonsai Convention in Perth next year (more on that in a future post) which is very exciting and daunting all at once!

On the home front my trees have been getting some attention but never as much as they need. To rectify that I have built a small shed/ workshop which has allowed me to get some bonsai work done once the kids are asleep. It looks like I will turn into a nocturnal bonsai grower!

I will probably do a shed tour post at some stage if its something people are interested in. One of the things the recent covid19 lockdown has allowed me to do in the shed has been installing an old blind that now serves as my new photo background. Its a warm beige (or perhaps bone, off white, cream, light brown, or any other number of versions of that colour).

It was chosen to be close to the colour that Taisho-en uses for its photo background in my good friend Asunma San’s workshop (some pics of the colour can be seen in the post Quiet Reflection). You can let me know if you think the colour is a good match below….

Anyway, enough excuses, its been over 3 years since my last post and I figured that it is about time I got back into the swing of updating the blog on at least a semi regular basis.

I’ll jump straight in with a small unusual English Elm.  

I wont go into too much detail around the work, in essence it was a gentle rewire but i like the direction it is heading. I guess i will have to start looking for a pot……. Probably a good excuse to go through all the boxes of pots I have stashed away. (more potential future post content)

I am a big fan of weird, lumpy and strange material, so this tree is right up my alley and perhaps the perfect restart to the blog. I hope you enjoy the tree. What pot would you choose?

See you in the next post!

Joe.

The idea of using Australian native plants as bonsai has been gaining momentum over the last few years. Bonsai growther in Australia are very excited about developments and experiments with various local species to the point where dedicated native bonsai clubs have been established.

This is all good news in my books. We have a great range of interesting plants and while I personally think that many that are used as bonsai currently are not ideally suited to bonsai there are some species that not only are suited to bonsai cultivation but thrive under it.

Having said that, I haven’t owned any natives in my collection. It’s not that I didn’t want some, it was more to do with the fact that I haven’t come across any stock that grabbed me or that I was willing to collect.

Most stock i see is converted from normal nursery stock and has never really grabbed me although i know of at least one grower that is now putting in the hard yards to grow high quality native stock spefically for bonsai.

I also have mixed thoughts on collecting natives from the “wild” and personally would rather remove the many exotic weeds that are damaging the bush rather than remove the few interesting native bonsai specimens that i might find. I personally have enjoyed stumbling across contorted native material during hikes into the bush and Ithink it is somewhat selfish to remove this opportunity for others just so i can have something in my backyard.

My native  bonsai situation changed however this past winter when a good friend allowed me to dig a plant from her garden. It’s a Baeckea and has some amazing features that should see it becoming a top tree in years to come.

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Twisting deadwood, extreme movement and tight foliage should all work together to form an interesting bonsai in the future. 

It was my first time digging a Baeckea and while it suffered some die-back after collection the remaining growth is now putting out new shoots which is always a comforting sign. I will not be in a hurry to develop this tree as it really needs to recover, put on new growth and develop new roots prior to me doing any work.

I will then be looking to down-size the container it is in and begin working on the structure of the tree. This is probably a number of years off but I am looking forward to the journey from this early starting point. I will keep the blog updated as it progresses.

Its always difficult watching or listening to recordings of yourself and it is no different when I watch the below video of myself working a juniper and saying ‘um’ way too many times. (something to work on…..)

Back In August, the Bimer bonsai club invited me to fly up to Brisbane to run workshops and conduct a demonstration for their members.

While demonstrations are always a rush for time, I was quite happy with the transformation of this tree and think it shows what can be achieved with stock that is fairly well available at nurseries around the country.

The full video of the demo and a final image of the result is posted below.  Enjoy!

 

 

The result of the hour or thereabouts work.

The result of the hour or so demonstration.

 

This post is about another red pine I worked for a good friend. It’s a tree i had previously styled a year ago that was in need of some further work. The previous work was documented HERE.

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This was where I left off last time I worked the tree. 

The tree it was ready for a re-pot and I was therefore presented with the opportunity to re-think the front. I decided to stand the tree up slightly and work the foliage around this new angle.

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Post styling.

The photo that is missing between the two above photos is that of a tree that had grown very well and had turned into a solid foliage mass. Unfortunately i forgot to get a before pic.

The styling this time around removed a number of branches to re-introduce a sense of openness and lightness into the canopy while the new  planting angle introduces some interesting movement into the lower trunk and provides a more dynamic foliage form.

I like how the canopy has been stretched vertically and how the apex is straining to lean over the trunk. I cant wait to see it now that the owner has re-potted it at the new angle. I think it is a good change for the tree.

For those wondering, the arm holding the tree is attached to the ever handsome Evan Marsh. He runs a great blog (much better written than mine) that is well worth a look and chronicles his exploits studying in Japan and else where. It can be found HERE.

Life as always is busy but lately things have been flat-out. I have been juggling a two-year old,  full-time work, managing our house’s extension, working customer trees, digging/collecting material and also travelling Australia (Perth, Sydney, Canberra, Bendigo, Geelong and Brisbane) as an AABC tutor giving lectures, demonstrations and workshops. As a result the blog has suffered.

Hopefully I can kick start the blog in the coming months. I have a number of posts lined up and I am sure there will be things of interest to share as the growing season heats up.

Today’s post is a small red pine that I worked for a good friend towards the start of winter.

It is rare to see red pines in Australia and particularly rare to see ones as good as this one. It underwent a fairly major transformation during the styling which in my opinion has set it up to be one of the best red pines of this size in the country (at least from those I have seen). It still needs a little filling out but it’s bones are set for it to grow into a really nice tree into the future.

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The material prior to beginning. Nice colour and full growth which left a lot to work with.

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The material prior to beginning. Nice colour and full growth which left a lot to work with.

Most of the work during the styling involved dividing the few branches up into multiple smaller pads that were in better scale and harmony to the size of the tree. Those were then used to accentuate the movement and direction of the trunk line.

There is still a number of areas that need to fill in with further ramification but I think it is certainly off to a great start.

After saying that red pines are rare in Australia my next post will be about another taller tree that is also of very high quality. Until then……..

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