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Art Critique

Critique: Walter Pall's Norway Spruce

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By Will Heath

Picea abies, Norway spruce

Picea abies, Norway spruce
40 cm high
Pot by Derek Aspinall

My personal taste in bonsai leans toward what I observe in nature. I tend to be moved more by those bonsai that give the illusion of a tree in its natural environment... those that appear untouched by human hands, than I do a tree that is so obviously a bonsai, groomed to a fault with the shears of tradition and styled with all of the "correct" cues and attributes.

When I first saw Walter Pall's Norway Spruce, I saw in it many trees from the forests in the woods of Michigan. Walter has successfully captured the essence of a tree in its natural environment. This Spruce could easily be placed anywhere in the forests I know and not be out of place. No one would suspect just how much work it took to create it.

This bonsai spoke to me, I liked its naturalistic look, I liked it's gentle, graceful curves, and I liked the dual trunks.

The secondary trunk, although by the "rules" is too high, is exactly the sort of feature I see in nature. In fact, this sort of secondary trunk is more common than not, in my experience. I often see these as well as triple trunks in this and many other conifer species.

This is indeed a rare photograph as it shows one of Walter's naturalistic creations in the stages of development. Looking closely, one can see that the branches are wired to perfection, dispelling the myth that the Naturalistic style is simply letting a tree grow wild in a pot or that it only requires collecting a tree and potting it.

I sometimes find a deeper respect for the work and effort involved by looking closely at the details that make up the whole. By blocking out the whole image and only viewing parts of it, we can see in the pictures below the incredible amount of fine detail work that has been done to bring out the natural beauty in the tree.


In the trunks we can see the primary trunk bending away

In the trunks we can see the primary trunk bending away from the secondary at exactly the spot we would expect it to. The bark is fissured and matches the apparent age of the tree as suggested by the lowered branches. Walter has wired the lower foliage so that it gracefully spreads out, covering a bit of the lower trunk, a technique usually reserved for the upper branches, it is used here very successfully to convey a sense of middle age, of a tree that is not yet ancient but mature.


In the branching we can see nature at work

In the branching we can see nature at work, where branches compete for light. Walter shows a remarkable understanding of how trees grow in nature with the branch placement on this bonsai. Like a tree in nature, I am sure that if viewed from above, the foliage on this bonsai would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, taking full advantage of placement and location to receive the maximum amount of sunlight to the foliage.

The details are not forgotten here either, the lower branches droop heavily and the angle of droop decreases as height is gained. The branch placement forms no recognizable pattern and appears as random as those in nature, right down to the occasional dead branch.


At the apex we see the slightly rounded canopy

At the apex we see the slightly rounded canopy of youth becoming the triangular canopy of age. The branches here now level out and the newer, fresh growth toward the top reaches skyward. The future form of the branches can be seen, the secondary branching starting to sag and the main branches taking on the bow that is common with this species.

The main, thicker trunk has won the race to the sun and now reaches above the secondary trunk, shading it and causing less branching and sparser foliage.

These parts of this bonsai form together to present an remarkable image of a tree reaching maturity. But what if we leaned away from the naturalistic style Walter captures so well and observed the traditional guidelines more closely? Would the final image be worse, better, or remain the same? Could we learn something by dissecting Walter's work, by changing it, by trying to make it conform?

In the following virtuals I have attempted to show how, by slavishly following the traditional guidelines, the tree loses something in the process. It becomes just another bonsai and leaves behind the spark of wild nature it currently possesses.


In this virtual, I lower the tree to where traditionalists would say the secondary trunk should start.

In this virtual, I lower the tree to where traditionalists would say the secondary trunk should start.

The problems and risks associated with ground layering this tree aside, this image would make a good bonsai on its own, but not a great one. It doesn't have that natural "Hey, that looks just like a tree I know!" feel about it, the branching would need to be completely reworked as the lowest branches are now too low, and the nebari would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

With time and a lot more work, lowering the tree to the level where the trunks would emerge at ground level would be possible but to what end? Surely not a better one than Walter has already created?


n this next virtual, I show the tree without the secondary trunk

In this next virtual, I show the tree without the secondary trunk and with its branches as it would be if the trunk was removed simply because, according to traditional guidelines, it started too high up the main trunk.

With some shortening and repositioning of the existing branches this could create an interesting bonsai as well. Again we must ask if the resulting image would be better than what Walter originally created. Again I'd have to say the answer is obvious.

It would seem Walter has taken a tree that would give many artists nightmares and created a beautiful, naturalistic, twin-trunked bonsai out of it. He has successfully captured the traits of the species, the transformation from youth to maturity, and the feel of a tree straight from the forest, all the while resisting the traditional solutions to the location of the secondary trunk.

More importantly, this bonsai touched my soul.

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