Feature Article

Art Critique

The Maleficent Tree

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By Carl Bergstrom

Photo: Candy Shirey - click for larger version

Rhododendron schlippenbachii
Royal Azelea

Trunk diameter: 10" at soil line
Trunk height: 28" from soil line
Pot dimension: 18"x15"x2" oval
Pot color: Tan (Nick Lenz pot)

In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood,and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled, and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air....as Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle: he thought his whistle was answered -- it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree -- he paused and ceased whistling; but on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan -- his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze.

- Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

For people everywhere, images of trees are laden with rich symbolic meaning. Trees offer many diverse archetypes: the tree as generous provider, the tree as stoic survivor, the tree as towering immortal. Bonsai artists make abundant use of these archetypes in their own compositions, to convey tranquility or resilience or immensity or humility. Many of the special techniques in bonsai artistry that we study careful and use commonly are adapted to these precisely archetypes. We twist branches and we carve jin and shari to express the story of survival against the elements; we play with tricks of perspective and balance to make a thirty-inch tree appear to tower over pot and viewer alike.

Yet in bonsai art, we rarely see the tree that terrorized Ichabod Crane. We rarely see the archetype of tree as malevolent spirit. Though this archetype has every bit as rich a history and as deep a root in human consciousness as any of the others, frightening trees are a bonsai rarity and within the basic artistic tool-set of advanced bonsai technique, we lack any analogous set of visual gambits and horticultural techniques by which work toward images of maleficence.

The composition here, styled by Nick Lenz and refined by Candy Shirey, provides a refreshing exception. This tree is scary. Gazing at this display, I can almost feel myself walking through the forest beneath it; I can feel a root rising up from the damp loam, twisting around my ankle, and pulling me down into the decaying leaves on the forest floor.

What makes the tree so effective? The face, formed by the hollows of the trunk, is obviously a major contributor.


The sunken hollow eyes lock onto the viewer ; the flesh of the nose has rotted away leaving just the nasal cavity of a skull; the mouth looms wide. The network of darker lines running through the soft bark suggests pulsating veins through rotted skin. The swelling wood has twisted the face into an asymmetrical and bulging agony.

The roots contribute as well. They do not spread with the sort of graceful ease of a lithesome maple: They clutch at the ground like talons. Despite its impressive spread, this nebari does not confer the usual sense of stability. Rather, these gripping, crushing roots poise the tree on the cusp of dynamic action, ready spring forward and seize the viewer at any moment.


The branches carry the effect further. Lenz and Shirey have used the structure of the branches and the basic language of artistry (as expressed in the excerpted sketch from Andy Rutledge's Artist Foundations of Bonsai design, below) to create this malevolent image.


Conflict, chaos, anger, confusion

Images: Andy Rutledge

The branching of this tree does not form the harmonious cascade typical of informal upright, nor does it have the intricate geometric regularity of a more formal design. Instead, the lines of the branches cut through space like a dissonant chord slammed out on a piano.

There are no proper foliage pads here; foliage pads are too ordered for the impression that Lenz and Shirey require. Instead, we see crossing angular lines, jagged and chaotic movement, and sharp contorted bends like aged claws clutching in petrified agony. Scaled up, the tree itself is not groomed so much as shocked, as if its hair were standing wildly on end from terror.

With this tree, Lenz and Shirey have deployed a set of technical and artistic conventions to capture the archetype of tree as haunted and evil forest spirit. Clearly this archetype is not missing from the bonsai canon due to technical impossibility. Then why is it so rare? Is the evil tree archetype absent from Japanese mythology and cultural consciousness? Is the art of bonsai intended to express and explore more favorable sentiments? Or are bonsai artists simply so enamoured of trees as living entities that they tend to overlook this one rather negative archetype, in favor of the other positive symbolic roles that trees play in our collective consciousness?

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