Saturday, 13 June 2009

Whazzat? Show-worthy? You're having me on...

Well maybe it's not the best English, that's what. But the sentiment is there.

At some point in our lives, especially if we've just been to a bonsai show, we start thinking to ourselves, 'I've got trees in my garden that are as good as those in the show.' And I think it's just natural (for most people anyway) to want to share what we've created; as a form of self-expression, I suppose. I personally don't view it as an ego-trip (although it's likely there's some of that as well, as I alluded to in my previous post).

Anyways, this isn't about the 'why' of putting a bonsai tree out on show. It stems more from a question by Andrew Nicolle as to what I would look for in my trees before I considered them worthy of being put out on show. So again, this is only what pushes my buttons - there is no intended value judgment on other exhibitors whatsoever. (Let's get that straight right here, 'Kthxbye.)

So, on with the show-worthiness. First thing I'd look for is a tree in good nick: unhealthy-looking trees on a show bench do not appeal to me at all. So they not only have to be healthy, they have to look it as well. There's one white pine in my garden that's in excellent health but hasn't been out on show for years, simply because the coloration between new growth and old on one side of the tree is way evident. Nothing wrong with it, it's just that the colour discrepancy looks... un-pine-y.

Health OK? So on to the style bit then. I actually don't have a lot of trees that are in the classic bonsai shapes as we know them; most of my stuff is what we would call 'self-styled'. (Many being classic styles that went wrong and were recovered over the years through a you-live-and-learn process.) But just because they don't correspond to a pattern doesn't mean I can blithely ignore the guidelines of bonsai styling. Well-developed ramification and the amount of space between branches; the choice of pot to complement the overall image; branches crossing one over the other and shoots or twigs sticking out upwards or downwards - these are some of the things that can either add to or detract from the quintessential image of a natural tree. And I guess this is what the styling guidelines are about: helping one achieve the look of a mature tree as it would be in nature; that in the first glimpse of the bonsai - no matter what the shape of the tree - the viewer immediately believes this is a snapshot of a tree within a particular situation and habitat.

Nor can anyone afford to ignore the rules of composition (I can feel the soapbox coming on here...). Notice I use the term, 'rules'. There is a certain amount of leeway whereby one can stretch the guidelines for styling bonsai - but not by much. One can disguise bar branches and get away with even numbers of trees or trunks; if the overall image is not distracting... brownie points aren't lost by visual deception. But stomp on things like visual weight, perspective, rhythm and proportion... not only do you need big balls, you need a heck of a lot of talent to get away with it.

And I'm so very sorry - but there aren't that many who are that talented (having the other requisite physical attribute does not compensate whatsoever). Believe me.

These guidelines weren't arbitrarily set by a specific group of intellectuals who didn't have anything better to do. They will have evolved over time and been codified as understanding of an art or craft developed. I have no problem with bending rules. Not taking any risks is the shortest way to boredom and stagnation. What I do have a problem with is when people break too many rules so that the execution looks like crap, then try to excuse it by saying, 'just accept that it's different' and 'it's my own particular style'.

By all means create your own style. But first learn what the basic conventions are before picking and choosing. There is a whole world of truth to the saying 'you have to learn to walk before you can learn to run'.

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