The Mysterious Art of Bonsai

Bonsai is an alluring and mysterious craft. Delicately wired, pruned and nurtured, these living sculptures are dwarfed creatures of the wild – elegant snapshots of the landscape we can take with us and care for. Like any art form, bonsai is an inquiry into the world around us and the role we play in it. And like the roots of Zen Buddhism it’s grown from, bonsai asks us to look closer, stay longer, move slower. At the Art Gallery of Ballarat next month, a talented bunch of bonsai folk are coming together to ask us to do just that. In the Shadow of Summer: An Exploration of Design Through Bonsai is an exhibition featuring the thriving, global art form of bonsai and the talented artists from Chojo Feature Trees, who’ve dedicated their lives to mastering the ancient craft.

Co-inciding with the Ballarat Begonia Festival, (yes!) the exhibition will run from the 9th-12th of March and will include a collection of advanced group and single-tree native and exotic Bonsai species and ceramic vessels. You’ll be able to learn Bonsai techniques from Joe Morgan-Paylor from Nichigo Bonsai and the Chojo crew, listen to the myriad of sounds from multi-instrumentalist, Adam Simmons, and begin your own Bonsai journey at the Bonsai and ceramic pop-up shop. Oh, and be sure to check in to the local brewery, the Hop Temple, while you’re there for a Japanese beer or whiskey!

In the lead up to the exhibition we caught up with Jeff Barry – Bonsologist, (aptly invented title), owner of Chojo Feature Trees Gallery and Nursery in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, and one of the featured artists at the event – to dig a little deeper into the curious story of the Bonsai.

Bonsologist and owner of Chojo Feature Trees, Jeff Barry

Bonsai – the origin story.
Over 2000 years ago, Chinese monks began creating miniature landscapes using twisted and contorted specimens collected from the wild. The compositions contained moss, grasses and dwarfed plants that were planted on rock or slate. This art form was called pun-sai, now called penjing and were typically created for Emperors, often representing a region that they were fond of. I guess you could say it was like taking a photo before there were cameras – a 3-dimensional living sculpture of a scene in nature. The artists would study the fine details of the scenic landscape and select the most appropriate elements to create a living diorama.

It’s fair to say that this leads us to one of the common misconceptions about bonsai.

Many people are under the impression that the origins of the art form are from Japan, however the practice did not migrate to the island nation until approximately 1000 years later when a range of Chinese philosophies and beliefs influenced the Japanese culture.”

These philosophies, which were practiced and taught by monks who were experienced in the art of pun-sai, led to Zen Buddhism. Symbolism played a significant part in this culture and pun-sai connected to a way of life or philosophy. It wasn’t until the year 1800 (approx.) when a group of Chinese scholars came up with the Japanese name for the art form, Bon-sai (Bon – a tray or pot, Sai – a planting). The Japanese certainly developed the craft significantly, typically displaying single-tree compositions in ceramic vessels. They also introduced the use of wire to create flowing bends in the design as opposed to the angular movement of pun-sai, which predominantly used pruning to shape the specimen. The Japanese also developed the concept of styles which are templates derived by the varying directions trees grow in specific natural environments.

Throughout the 1900s the art form has slowly been introduced to the rest of the world. These days it is practiced globally and is growing at an exponential rate.

Bonsai and life.
The more I am involved in the art of bonsai, the more I notice its parallels to life. The craft forces the artist to take detailed notice of the natural world. The more one notices the natural world, the more one understands his or her place in it. The more one understands this relationship, the more we learn about ourselves. I think it reinforces that we are all connected.

When practicing bonsai, you physically look deeper into nature and this refines the way you observe not only trees, but all natural forms.”

Memories of Bonsai.
When I was 20 years old, I worked and lived on an apple orchard in British Columbia and it was at this time I saw my first bonsai exhibition on Vancouver Island. I found it fascinating. In ways, it was like what I was doing at the time (on the orchard) however instead of apples, you ended up with beautiful art that could live for hundreds of years. I began reading and practicing the craft and I eventually was offered a position working for a talented bonsai artist who introduced me to the profession. I learned from him for five years and eventually started Chojo, my own nursery. I spoke with him recently and he always felt that bonsai chose me, not the other way around. I think he could be right because even after all these years, I’m still surprised I do this for a living.

Kimera Feature Tree by Chojo Trees
Chojo Bonsai artist, Luke Yeoward, at work in the nursery

The Bonsai Brotherhood of Chojo Feature Trees.
We are a group of artists who design and maintain a large collection of advanced bonsai while running a retail nursery. We typically have approximately 1000 people visit the nursery each week, many of them being overseas visitors as Sassafras is a busy tourist area. We also teach the art form, curate bonsai displays and offer services like garden design. The core members of the bonsai crew are Luke Yeoward, James Rolfe, Anu Shan-ra, Craig Wilson (Gentiana Nursery), Jesse and Tyler Connely and myself, Jeff Barry.

When we design a bonsai, we follow the basic principles of how a tree would grow in nature and designate a style, which we learn through studying the craft.”

We then try to create drama within the composition by allowing the tree (or trees) to reveal their own story about time and the environment. Wiring and pruning refine the bonsai and balance the positive and negative space, which never really ends.

A very exciting Chojo development has been the addition of a ceramic studio at the nursery. Under the creative direction of Nadine Knight and Jean Noel Cuzzacoli, we are designing and crafting Bonsai pots on site, both for our own compositions and to sell to the public. We also have an onsite organic bakery, Proserpina Bakehouse, satellite pop-up shops featuring local artists and there’s regular live music performances at the nursery. We are currently planning a bonsai exhibition/music festival later in the year. Stay tuned for details!

Bonsai how-to.
Essentially there are two methods of creating a bonsai: cultivation (growing from a seed or young plant) and collection (also known as the Japanese term Yamadori). When starting with young stock, you have complete control of how the plant grows however this process takes many years to get a result. When collecting mature material, we are looking for the ability to create natural taper within a defined amount of height; interesting movement that links to the design concept; and, branch placement, or the ability to create branch placement and structure. Mature specimens can usually offer interesting texture within the bark, which is not something we can produce with bonsai techniques.

The main questions one should consider when starting a bonsai: 1. Does the species develop a woody stem or trunk? 2. Can the species tolerate root disturbance? 3. Does the plant have small foliage or the ability to create small foliage? 4. Do you live in an appropriate climate to grow the species? 5. Can you see an interesting design and long-term plan to work with?

I always consider there to be two lists of bonsai species: the traditional species list, which is very large (Pines, Junipers, Cedars, Maples, Elms, Azaleas etc.) and new species, which is also a large list and always growing (Australian natives, tropical and subtropical species etc.)

Bonsai – gardening or art?
People approach bonsai from many different angles however I see myself as an artist – that has always been an overriding theme at Chojo. Aside from working with plants, bonsai has very little to do with gardening. Keeping a bonsai alive and healthy is a simple task that should be possible for anyone with the right guidance. Even advanced bonsai techniques can be learned rather easily. Bonsai design and training your eye is what takes a lifetime. We are always learning. I think a good way of looking at it is that the plant is like the paint, and the bonsai is the painting. Even when we design a garden, it is usually based around the shape of a single shaped tree (Niwaki). Everything else pretty much accents that tree. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate all kinds of gardens but it really has nothing to do with bonsai.

Another thing to consider is that bonsai compositions are all based on natural elements, we are inspired by ancient, gnarly trees in the forest not a tidy, pruned tree in a garden.”

This point comes up often in the gallery when we are asked why we leave dead branches (gin) on the trees. Another thing to consider is that most of the talent at Chojo were artists before professionally working on bonsai; this is simply another element to their artistic endeavours. In my eyes, if you take out the element of design in bonsai, it takes away the element of art.

In the Shadow of Summer: An Exploration of Design Through Bonsai will be on show at the Art Gallery of Ballarat from the 9th-12th of March.

You can find out more about the incredible work happening at Chojo Feature Trees by visiting their WESBITE, FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM.

3 Cedar Feature Tree by Chojo Trees