This past weekend, after being invited to a beautiful Mindfulness session for Caregivers at the Matthaei Botanical Garden, I struck up a conversation with Jack Wikle, who was patiently pruning a bonsai. Turns out he has donated several “living sculptures” to the Matthaei collection and is a passionate devotee of the art form. We ended up speaking for quite some time as the autumn winds bandied about and I wanted to share this lovely piece he wrote about bonsai and how Jack sees his relationship with it as a doorway to self-reflection and “flow.” Thank you, Jack for sharing your knowledge and experience and inspiring me to learn more!
Why do I do this? Why would anyone do this? How does one explain the appeal of bonsai? Do we need to explain? Isn’t the old “Satchmo” Armstrong kind of reaction adequate? Louis Armstrong is said to have once responded to a young reporter who asked him to define jazz, “Son, if you have to ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”
Well . . . I like to say it this way. Some people compose music. Others write prose or even poetry. Some paint pictures. And, some take photographs. In each instance these are ways of communicating, of reaching out to other people. But, they are also ways of communicating with the individual “self,” one’s inner being. At one level or another, these people can all be considered artists. So, like other artists, the bonsai enthusiast is making his or her personal statement. But in this art the means of expression is the growing of a tree or a group of trees in a container – usually as a representation of trees in nature. (At its extreme, bonsai artistry can even go beyond representation of natural trees to become abstract art using living trees as the medium.)
Accepting this kind of thinking allows us to speak of bonsai as an ancient art form combining creative activity (styling) and the pleasure of nurturing living plants, an art form that originated in the Orient more than 1,000 years ago and is now practiced around the world wherever trees can be grown. Of course bonsai is different from arts like painting and sculpture in that it is never finished, change in the tree and the close involvement of the grower go on and on. This has led some people to refer to bonsai as “living art” or as “living sculpture.” Others have even called it living poetry (in China, “poetry without words” is an expression often used). So, it is in this sense that I and many others are comfortable in thinking of bonsai as art.
As is true with other arts, there will always be some bonsai more successful, that is, more effective, than others. Never-the-less, even the modest and unassuming beginner’s effort can be rewarding to the grower. Growing bonsai is one of those activities like building sand castles, swimming, or playing piano that can enrich lives practiced at many different levels of accomplishment. And, if its grower likes it, the likelihood is very high that someone else will find pleasure in the beginning bonsai too.
Yes, what is music to some ears can be noise to others. The really effective bonsai can be fine art to many eyes while the potted tree some people see as “something strange in a pot” is failed communication, even “visual noise.”
As the late Kay Cheever expressed it so well, “There is bad art, bad bonsai and bad food. But it is still art, bonsai, and food. Tastes vary.” (1992.) And, as has been said many times, the really successful bonsai is not just pleasing in its own right, it is evocative. It stimulates the imagination and elicits in the viewer memories of other trees and of natural scenes where trees were pleasing elements of the picture. As George Hull wrote many years ago, “The art of bonsai lies not in what the plant is but in what it suggests.” (1964.) Another quote I especially like, is by the Chinese bonsai artist Quingquan Zhao, “If a piece is truly artistic, the viewer can gaze at it over and over again in wonderment and admiration without the slightest trace of boredom.” (1997.)
Japanese bonsai growers in particular have been prone to speak of successful bonsai as communicating “wabi” and “sabi.” These are terms coined centuries ago by Zen Buddhist tea masters to express difficultly defined and very complex aesthetic concepts. Basically the originators of the Japanese tea ceremony disdained striving, ostentation and luxury while promoting quiet pleasure in the beauty of nature and the subtle beauty of commonplace objects — especially objects of lasting quality that have acquired the patina that comes from long use. Use of simple things in refined ways — using minimal material in making a cosmic statement — has long been a hallmark of Japanese art. And, it seems clear that the Japanese continue today to hold bonsai and the tea ceremony, among other arts, in high regard for their value in bringing people together in harmony — in promoting mutual understanding, peace and goodwill.
Unquestionably the art of bonsai has at its foundation an appreciation of trees and of nature and of the cycles of nature. Yet, beyond being the grower’s statement about trees and nature, bonsai also say something positive about interaction between man and nature – about taking pleasure in the interaction between man and nature. After all, bonsai, like gardens, are not the product of people working in isolation from nature nor are they nature’s creations without man’s involvement. Gardens and bonsai come into being, by definition, when people and nature work together.
At another level, is the impact of bonsai culture as quiet physical and mental therapy for the grower. Among my longtime bonsai friends, Eunice Corp stands out for having expressed to me many times the rewards she finds in bonsai work as peaceful but intently focused “meditation.” (Eunice summers in Cadillac, Michigan and winters in close contact with the bonsai community in Hawaii.) As a painter and a flower arranger as well as a bonsai grower, Eunice is active and conversant in many arts. She tells me that much of what she does in her painting and bonsai styling, involves a conscious, even purposeful, shift from “left brain” to “right brain” activity, from being analytical to being open to the creative and non-verbal levels of her being. Eunice has wondered in our correspondence, how many other bonsai hobbyists realize that this kind of experience and the kind of pleasure she experiences from it can be purposefully accessed by arranging to work in a pleasant setting isolated from distractions with soothing music playing. Eunice tells me she is not suggesting “Transcendental Meditation like that used for stress reduction.” Yet it seems unquestionable to me that stress reduction meditation and Eunice’s bonsai activity, in which she divorces herself from outside concerns while focusing on her music and the styling of her bonsai (in contrast to endless re-examination of the past and uneasy anticipation of what the future may bring), have a great deal in common.
Actually, stress relief meditation and Eunice’s bonsai work both seem clearly to be “Flow” activities as described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his thought provoking book. (1990.) “Flow” activity as characterized by Doctor Csikszentmihalyi involves deeply focused and unselfconscious concentration on the work at hand, detachment from unrelated concerns, and distortion of one’s sense of time passing. Its result is a deep feeling of personal fulfillment. In the flow experience, the sense of personal growth and satisfaction comes more from effort and depth of involvement than it does from the effort’s product.
Yes, one can say that the bonsai enthusiast, the bonsai artist if you will, helps trees grow but most of us recognize that the reverse of this statement is more accurate. Our trees are helping us grow.
pruned to clarify my mind,
thanks for the giving.” (1994.)
1964, Book by George Hull, Bonsai for Americans.
1990, Book, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
1992 (Summer), Article by Kay Cheever, “The Tableau of Bonsai,” Bonsai: Journal of The American Bonsai Society, Summer.
1994 (Spring), Haiku written by Alice (“Happy”) Slocum Wright while participating in bonsai classes taught by the author at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
1997, Book by Quingquan Zhao, Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment.
This article first published as a May 2005 AABS Newsletter column and, subsequently, republished in the Winter 2006 issue of Bonsai, quarterly Journal of The American Bonsai Society.