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American Bonsai Styles

Styling in bonsai refers to the 'form' of the work, such as Cascade, Slanting, Formal or Informal Upright.

It can also be used to describe the particular type of representation.

For example, the basic round headed Pine tree 'style' is in current vogue.

With the introduction of bonsai to the West, there is now the possibility of other styles using other species.

This is the natural evolution of the art.

Styling goes hand in hand with the training methods and the materials used. I'm not very knowledgeable about such things, but it is my understanding that styling trends have gone in and out of fashion for the last few hundred years in Japan. The current pine tree look has been around for a long time, and with the rise in popularity of bonsai in the West, I think emulation has prolonged its fashion reign. Folks new to bonsai want plants that look like the ones in the books which are mostly pine tree style.

I am a great believer in American bonsai. I don't mean to denigrate Japanese styles and work, they still style some of the most beautiful trees in the world, and they have such a rich heritage that it would be sacrilege to diminish their work. I feel that learning all their rules and studying their compositions is the best pretraining for most bonsai artists. I learned this way. Fortunately for me I learned without a sensei, and this has allowed me the freedom to experiment with growing techniques and styles. In almost any batch of plants I throw in a few off the wall wild things just to see what they will do, it makes life much more interesting.

Since bonsai is a representational art, it is bound to be greatly influenced by the natural environment of the artists. This is an important concept that is little discussed in books or lessons. Bonsai trees are not at all miniature versions of magnificent ancient full grown specimen, no more so than a baby is a miniature version of an adult. Early paintings of babies as small scale adults demonstrate how ludicrous an idea this is. The tiny heads make them look pea brained. Bonsai is the same thing. If the leaves and branches were truly proportional, you would have to get out your magnifying glass to see individual leaves, and the tree would be so dense that it would just look like a shrub. The trick is to represent ancient specimen, to give the feeling and flavor and experience of such plants. This is where the true artistry comes in, since we are not simply mimicking nature. If that were the case, anybody could do it by copying photos of trees.

American bonsai should represent the American experience of trees. As I said, this is greatly influenced by the plant material, different species with different growth habits from the species of the East. I see this from trees of the West and I read about it from others who prefers to work with native material from the South. We are attempting to capture the flavor or essence of the beauty that these native trees give in their natural setting.

I am greatly influenced by the Sierras. I was raised on the East Coast and spent the first half of my life there, having never been to the West or even experienced real mountains. When I came to the West I was completely overwhelmed by the awesome and austere beauty of the high country. I will never forget my first hike to the top of Yosemite Falls. At the very top, where there is little soil on the smooth hard granite dome, there were hundreds of dwarfed Jeffrey pines, a zillion dollars worth of bonsai in every direction growing out of almost sheer rock. You can see the impact of this experience in my landscape designs. They are always open and spacious with the individual plants occupying their own space, attaining their own beauty, never crowding their neighbor and usually forming the tight dome so prevalent in the high country due to the high winds. The plants there hunker down for protection.

My bonsai has been influenced too. Most of my pines, even after fifteen years, are still in training, but many show the characteristics of high country pines. The most prevalent feature is that the trunk is formed by a series of leader diebacks due to wind and snow. Close to the ground, usually at the point that the first major branches grew, there is a severe, almost ninety degree bend, because the leader died and a side branch took over. From this side branch another leader developed and it too was destroyed creating another severe bend and so on. These trees do not look like what you see in books and do not have that wild look of Western Junipers, but it is a natural orderly style. By studying the trees as I have, you can learn the rules of development and create bonsai to represent the real thing. I am sure that the American Sierra pine tree look will become a new style, a truly American style.

Another American style that is sure to happen is the California Oak. There is nothing else like them in the world and each species has its individual quirks, that will vary from region to region, sometimes in as little as forty miles. This is not a tree of Asia, this will be a new style based on our experience of this tree. Naka has already done some of the analysis of what makes this tree give us the experience that it does, and has translated this into training techniques. The man is a true genius when it comes to this kind of analytical study. This doesn't come from studying the rules, it comes from studying the real trees. I have begun growing California Oaks for bonsai in anticipation of helping create this style.

And finally:
I am sure all of us can work to make bonsai an even greater art, a changing and growing art, by taking the time to see what it is that makes our trees so great.

Article Courtesy of Brent Walston         

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