Defining Bonsai
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Author:  Will Heath [ Mon Dec 26, 2005 11:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re:

Al Keppler wrote:
I have seen many rose bonsai. In fact some very good ones. While I have never seen a tomato bonsai, useing a tomato plant as an analogy that it may not be considered as bonsai may be wrong.

I have seen many rose plants called bonsai, not yet a tomato, however. I could have used many other examples such as, lichen, oats, tulips, iris, lillies, dandelion, etc. These could all be grown in a pot, would they be bonsai based solely on this? I think not.

You mentioned that you have seen peppers, roses and such styled as bonsai. You made a very good point with all of your examples, thank you. You showed that it is not the fact that these were grown in pots that made them bonsai but in fact, it was the treatment received that made them so. A patio tomato plant would not be bonsai, nor would a hanging spider plant.

Being simply a plant in a pot does not make it bonsai. The plant needs outside manipulation in order to represent a tree in some way to be bonsai.


Author:  Al Keppler [ Mon Dec 26, 2005 9:19 pm ]
Post subject: 

Will you are exactly correct. Its what is done with the plants that make bonsai , bonsai.
My point had more to do with picking on roses and tomato's exclusively. maybe the term "plants in pots" should have been focused on more than roses or tomatos.

I have seen many rose plants called bonsai, not yet a tomato, however. I could have used many other examples such as, lichen, oats, tulips, iris, lillies, dandelion, etc. These could all be grown in a pot, would they be bonsai based solely on this? I think not.

I think once again your choosing of just such these plants is off the mark a little. In fact most of those plants mentioned above are grasses of some sort and could very well be used in bonsai expression.

I understand exactly what your are trying to convey within this thread. I agree fully with your assesment. The only problem is that referring to plants that could be used as bonsai as non bonsai just because they are in pots does not support the thread. Now mentioning these plants in the contex of artistry is a different beast.

If I put a traditional juniper in a bonsai container with no training is it bonsai?

If I put a tomato plant in a bonsai container with training, do I now have bonsai?

I say no to the former and yes to the latter. The plant has no bearing on the art. Just the artistic minipulation of any plant in a container can make it Bonsai, Kusomono, or Ikebana.

Regards, Al

Author:  Will Heath [ Mon Dec 26, 2005 9:37 pm ]
Post subject: 


We are in agreement here. My statements, regardless of the type of plant used as an example, were meant to disprove the common assumption that a bonsai is any plant in a pot and that the definition of "plant in a pot or tray" is flawed.

As you reiterated for me, it is the treatment given to the plant in a pot that defines it as bonsai and not the mere fact alone that it is growing in a pot.
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."

Defining Kusomono, or Ikebana will have to come at another time.


Author:  Hector Johnson [ Tue Dec 27, 2005 8:43 am ]
Post subject:  Back to Walter's comment.

this is a typical notion of the Western Traditional School (American) and the Japanese Traditional School. You take it for granted that this is mainstream.
It is not so anymore, at least in Europe.
The Modern School tries to envision the unique tree, the most extreme tree. This is exactly the opposite of ideal.
The Post-Modern Schools get rid of this 'ideal' altogether. They create a most natural tree, most credible tree, a tree wit a lot of character etc.,even a really ugly but impressive tree. Bonsai Pop Art creates a shocking image sometimes. And more will follow.
'Ideal' is seen as old-fashioned in some quarters.

There is a greater issue here than we were dealing with, in the discussion thread.

That issue, often debated, is: Where do we draw the line? The trend towards new "styles" such as Pop Bonsai serves a number of roles, as I see it. It introduces a new "style" that may or not be concomitant with what bonsai is understood to be. Personally, I think it's a lot like the stuff that Nick Lenz was poking fun at, with his "Boquet [sic] Bonsai Club" column. It's only bonsai to a small subset of people with a poor or iconoclastic understanding of the art. It's an artform, but it's a stretch to call it bonsai.

Maybe the question we should be asking is: Do we draw the line?
I also understand Walter has been instrumental in the definition of a new style that he has referred to as Post-Modernist at times, and Naturalistic at others. I would venture to suggest that a Japanese or Chinese bonsai master (if there were such a thing, then) would recognise the validity of that style, if it was to be introduced 250 years ago.

The Modern School mentioned has its roots in a lot of the unusual stuff that came out of China and mediaeval Japan. Horai style, Octopus style and a number of the representative styles still popular in China could be described as "extreme". Styling trees that are extreme, for the sake of extremeness, is nothing new.

The changes being wrought, in Japan, by the likes of Masahiko Kimura are no less extreme, in historical terms, as far as I see it. In his designs it is almost as if the foliage is secondary to the tree.

The conundrum at hand is whether to embrace the growth and outgrowth of the art, or to reject the changes and become increasingly irrelevant to the court of public opinion, as it relates to bonsai.

Ossification of thought is likely to prove to be the downfall of any organisation that cannot bring itself to change.

Author:  John Dixon [ Tue Dec 27, 2005 9:12 am ]
Post subject:  Open eyes see the best

I try to view bonsai in very simplistic terms.
Basically, I want to see a tree.

Now once I see that, I try to appreciate the artist's work. I start to look for examples of well-executed techniques. But even as I do that, I still MUST see that little tree. When the tree disappears, so does my interest, no matter how well the artist tried to style it.

I have come to prefer "natural" looking trees on a personal level. I still like to look at a well-groomed chokkan white pine with a rather pointy apex, but I don't categorize it as a convincing "natural" tree. I can appreciate it though, and I do not eliminate it from being worthy of consideration. Art takes on many forms and we should try our best to recognize it when it is present.

I still must see a tree.

Before it can be misconstrued that I don't like group/forest plantings, rest assured I do. The same rule applies though, with a twist. I must see trees (plural) in that forest.

As usual, we are discussing art here. It is a subject that can take many words to try to get a point across, and still be a failure. One look at an inspirational bonsai speaks volumes that we will never come close to explaining in type. Most all of us here have seen that. Now the trick is to continue seeing it in every bonsai we touch.

That's my take on it.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Dec 27, 2005 1:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Back to Walter's comment.

Hector Johnson wrote:
Do we draw the line?

No, we can't draw a line. It's not a matter of choice, we have no choice here. Drawing a line creates a paradox: someone will cross that line just for the sake of disproving us. If we had the power to define bonsai using a specific set of criteria, those criteria would be constantly disregarded, twisted, re-interpreted to show off the ingenuity of its creator.
That's why is much wiser to stick with a minimalist definition and leave everything else open.

John mentioned the importance of the "tree-ness" of a bonsai, and at first sight I agreed with it. But then it occured to me right away, that even this basic requirement is superfluous: I've seen great examples of flowering quince bonsai that did not look like a tree at all. They looked like...... an old flowering quince, shrubby and bushy. And I really liked the way they looked. There are venerable sago palm bonsai that don't look like a tree to me: they look like an old sago palm. They display that elusive quality that makes great bonsai, but don't look like trees at all. I am sure that there are other great bonsai that don't look like trees, but they encapsulate the greatness of nature.

There are qualities in life that each of us greatly appreciate: timelessness, power, grace, beauty, resilience, playfulness, sensuality, mystery. A bonsai that personifies ANY of those qualities, is a great bonsai. And there are just too many ways to achieve those qualities - you can't put them all in one definition. It's a losing battle. Life is greater than what our language can bear.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sun Jan 22, 2006 9:41 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Carl Bergstrom wrote:
Naive Art : work of artists in sophisticated societies who lack or reject conventional expertise in the representation or depiction of real objects. Naive artists are not to be confused with hobbyists, or ?Sunday painters,? who paint for fun. The naive creates with the same passion as the trained artist but without the latter's formal knowledge of methods.

This is an interesting concept, though I find it easier to apply with a few decade's hindsight than in real time. In real time, it can be harder to distinguish the under appreciated naive artist whose genius has yet to be appreciated from the devoted but ultimately hopeless hack who will soon be mercifully forgotten. After all, Henri Rousseau was not exactly embraced with open arms by the artistic establishment of his time.
But to take the definition literally, just about any bonsai artist working in a western idiom without the benefit of a Japanese apprenticeship is a naive artist. Would you go so far as to say this?
With my best regards,

This is a good point but it holds with it, it's own conundrum. It is probably best understood by looking at the Hippies of the 60's, who in their efforts to be non conformists, themselves became conformists in their own nonconformity. In order to protest the establishment you had to dress a certain way, have long hair, a lot of sex, do drugs and listen to loud music. They kind of had a set of rules for not following the rules.

You could drive yourself crazy thinking about this stuff. After looking at this debate from every side possible one begins to understand why The Japanese settled on a word outside their culture, looking to the Chinese words to define the art. In the end they settle for a definition that is something equally vague to us.

The Japanese did not have words to accurately define "It" so they took on non Japanese words to define "It" and left us with the same problem. The difference is that the Japanese seemed to come to an epiphany in agreeing that bonsai means what it has always meant till before we started arguing about it.

It is in the realm of universal agreement that the word implies an artistically (what ever that means) styled tree in a pot. If you accept the naive artist concept then you still get the same thing with a twist. This would be a naively styled tree in a pot. I don't mean to demean the naive artist concept at all understanding that some of the finest artists in bonsai adhere to this concept.

But there is a general truth here, regardless of how the results were obtained, in the end both kinds of trees are similar in the feelings they evoke and the image they portray. The end result is to produce a tree that is without a doubt a bonsai lacking guile in a cynical attempt to pass off garbage as a special style of bonsai. If there is one thing I really detest it is the practice of tag hanging, where in placing a sign that says HORSE on a dead fish makes the dead fish a horse.

This of course is followed with the presupposition that we as viewers are compelled to accept these attempts as legitimate contributions to the art. In my view these kinds of attempts at self justification invalidate themselves. If it is a legitimate bonsai, or even a legitimate piece of art it has to stand without excuse, it has to stand on its own. If it does not "It ain't It".

Author:  Enrique Castano [ Fri Feb 16, 2007 7:29 pm ]
Post subject: 

why not just look at other definitions an easy way would with
sculpture :Three-dimensional art produced especially by forming hard or plastic materials into three-dimensional objects, usually by carving or modeling. The designs may be produced in freestanding objects (i.e., in the round), in relief, or in environments, and a variety of media may be used, including clay, wax, stone, metal, fabric, wood, plaster, rubber, and found objects. Materials may be carved, modeled, molded, cast, wrought, welded, sewn, or assembled and combined.

So we can go the easy way and say
Bonsai : Three dimensional art produced by forming or modifing contained trees or scrubs into three dimensional objects, usually by carving or modeling. The desings may be produced in freestanding objects (i.e., in the round), in relief, or in contained environments, and a variety of species may be used.

This is a simple definition, for both but well, and yes who is to say what art is, definetly not the british!!! just jocking after reading bonsai is not an art written by Walter. funny stuff, but probably the british art council was not educated about bonsai and just see the definition of tree in pot or plant in pot, and therefore you get no funding (at least from the british art council)
Obviously in the simple definition there will be words we can?t define,
Art, Soul, life! etc they have different meanings, and some like life our ignorance does not allow a good definition for it. So basically there are several degrees of freedom from each person, which depend on their knoledge to see and taste differently. The artistic trees I loved as a child I wold not consider artistic any more!


Author:  Vance Wood [ Sun Mar 25, 2007 1:10 pm ]
Post subject: 

When someone tells you not to think about an Elephant what happens? You automatically picture in your mind an Elephant, or at least most average Joe-Lunch-box types like me would. I suppose there are some out there that live their lives totally dedicated to what they would do if ever told not to thing about an Elephant. Perhaps they would cut and past in their minds eye an Aardvark or Humahumanukanukaapuaa so as to avoid thinking about an Elephant. Most would indeed think about what most all of us recognize as an Elephant.

To cut to the point; if you tell someone to think about, or not to think about a Bonsai, odds are they will instantly picture what most of us have come to recognize as a bonsai. They wont see a bird, or a train, or a Humahumanukanukaapuaa, they will see some sort of stylized tree in a pot. I think the argument in the end comes down to the degrees of stylization and the finished image created. Some might see something Kimura might do, and others might see what you could find in the Malsai section of Wal Mart, or Lowes.

This is probably one of those discussions that is more an exercise in philosophy than art. We will most likely never really agree because there are enough people out there that will argue about the tast of Avacodos just for the sake of argument----they don't want an answer. For those of us that love Bonsai it is only a matter of semantics and changes nothing.
However this is a great article and comes as close as many to really defining Bonsai for Bonsai people.

Author:  Sakari Matikka [ Mon Jul 02, 2007 11:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Defining Bonsai - by Will Heath

Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."

Hi all and thank you for every single word written on this forum!
It's my first post here, and what would be a better place to share my ignorance than this thread, or discussion. I took the original "definition" by Will as a reference to my thoughts of a bonsai.

As I understand, and it has been discussed earlier, the word "idealized vision", and in this concept I like to keep it as a single word for the sake of simplicity, has it's own meaning to each and every one of us. Now, ask a child to draw an idealized tree and then compare it to what you've drawn. There must be some differences, am I right? You've propably heard that one before, but still, it's true. Every one of us has his/her own idealized vision of a tree or any other thing in life. As we move along in life and our ideals grow deeper in knowledge we are almost forced to think otherwise than before. The idealized vision is no longer the same. The process of learning cannot be undone, you can not unknow something once you know it.

I think one of the most difficult things for me in these early steps has been trying to get rid of that idealized vision of a BONSAI. I've seen wonderful trees in pots which now form the vision of a bonsai in my head, but that's not what I truely want! As my knowledge of the anatomy of a tree, it's place in our ecosystem, it's importance in our daily life, it's survival methods and so on grows, there isn't much left to say.. If I ever manage to capture even a small piece of any of that and fit it into a matching pot, I must say, I've overdone myself!

Maybe that would be my "idealized vision" of myself interacting with "trees in pots" one day.

EDIT: A little thing I forgot to say. In every aspect of life, ofcourse we're affected by our surroundings and bonsai makes no exeption. What do we see when we look outside our kitchen window? Is it those twisted and malformed junipers or an old forest of dedicious trees, a well kept garden or just a desert with just a little green here and there? Also the tradition (or no tradition) of bonsai in your neighborhood will affect your way of thinking. Here in Finland the whole bonsai culture (..well there still is no culture if you ask me..) started somewhere at the 70's and now it's estimated that there are maybe a hundred bonsaists (out of 6 million people) here.. And I know only one of them in person. So that is quite a bit of a difference between here and .. say in Japan.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Jul 02, 2007 12:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Defining Bonsai - by Will Heath

Sakari Matikka wrote:
.. If I ever manage to capture even a small piece of any of that and fit it into a matching pot, I must say, I've overdone myself!
Maybe that would be my "idealized vision" of myself interacting with "trees in pots" one day.

Hello Sakari
Beautiful comments,...
..and welcome to the forum. Your thoughts will always be appreciated here.
I am sure that, due to the geographical conditions of your country, and combined with your personal taste, the "idealized vision" of a tree in your mind will be very different from the rest of the world. It is good to take these differences into consideration, when we talk bonsai.

Author:  Sakari Matikka [ Mon Jul 02, 2007 10:06 pm ]
Post subject:  To the Eristic part then..

It's almost 4am and I couldn't sleep after waking up a couple of hours ago. Before falling asleep I was inspired by this discussion to gather the knowledge of bonsai's history in my head. I had forgotten one thing that hit me when reading the original post by Will, that one word (and in this case a word formed of two words) can have bunch full of meanings depending on how we use it. Well, that thing in itself is nothing new, but taking under consideration the big picture and the origins of bonsai, I'd say we have to think once more of the meaning of those two words, bon and sai.

**sits back down and takes a few deep breaths after getting a cup of coffee**

So we read of all those meanings which Will shared with us and had that smile for a while and moved on with the post. But hey wait, don't rush anywhere yet, there just might be something hidden underneath!

From what I understand of the Japanese culture, there isn't a thing that just is. In every little thing there is a story to tell. So the bonsai as we know it was adopted to Japan by the Buddhist priests. Umm.. Hang on, but aren't those just the guys behind the whole balanced type of thinking? If a Buddhist priest does something like gardening, there must be more to it than just making things look good.

I have to say that I'm used to thinking of words as 'just' words and then there is the true meaning of the word which truly isn't explainable in words, it just is, and that one word is just something that we have named it to be. Finnish in this case is even far more unusable than English. Maybe my crooked way of thinking originates mostly from my father, as he is a Christian priest and as a kid I got used to listening all those boring speeches about different meanings of those words which I do not even understand. But back to the point. If the word 'bonsai' was was mentioned, say.. in the Bible, there would've been many, many studies of the varieties of meanings which it could represent in Christianity from the creation to the end of the days, but because it is a word that was used among those funny looking bald guys wearing orange robes, it really doesn't matter, I know what a bonsai looks like. And now that the word has landed on our daily lives, we tend to try to give it a full meaning in one sentence.

If you ask a Buddhist monk the first thing that pops into his head of the word bonsai, I'd assume he might answer something like: serenity, balance, etc. and the same question asked from myself would produce a clumsy answer similar to: That is a tree in a pot.
I dug another online dictionary which has also Buddhist terms in it.
I'll use only one example from only the Buddhist terms, you can do the rest of the digging.
Bon: Brahman
Sai: Purify

Maybe that is just enough to make us all think once again of the true meaning of the word 'bonsai'. To make my point, a word can have different meanings, but taking under consideration the history of the word, I'd say in this case, since we're talking about those guys who have a meaning in every step they take, the word bonsai does not only mean one thing, but all of them at the same time. And yes, the balance between even the worst and the beautifulest meaning. It means the meetings with the tree, taking care of it as it was you're son, it means finding yourself mediocre of taking care of it the way you wanted to and so on.

To define bonsai based solely on translations could lead people to think we are posting pictures of Buddhist priest wife?s instead of trees.

And in closure, even that.. maybe it is more obvious than we could've thought.

With regards,

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue Jul 03, 2007 5:33 am ]
Post subject: 

Very interesting and thought provoking take on the issue, thanks for taking the time to put it in writing.

Author:  Will Heath [ Sat Jan 26, 2008 1:00 am ]
Post subject: 

To play the Devil's advocate here....

Why must a line be drawn at all? In other art forms, the techniques to create the art are not as important as the visual result. Take painting for example, who cares if the color is from water colors, oils, crushed is the final result that determines the artistic success. Who cares if sand was added to the paint for texture, if a spray gun or a brush was used, if the brush was hair from virgin camels or human hair, who cares if the artist used his hands or his teeth, none of it matters in the least.

The only questions that should be answered when judging is, is it alive and is it artistically successful.

Grafting of roots and branches, tricks for foliage reduction, hiding unhealed scars, wiring branches down the back of the trunk, and other such "cheats" are readily accepted by the community, why not others?

All bonsai are man made, none are truly natural, to be so would go against what bonsai is, an artistic creation by man. Why muzzle creativity in a art form that has so little....?

We should define bonsai as "A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container" and not place restrictions on artistic creativity. If a piece meets the definition, it is bonsai and should be judged as such.


Author:  Attila Soos [ Sat Jan 26, 2008 1:21 pm ]
Post subject: 

Will Heath wrote:
We should define bonsai as "A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container" and not place restrictions on artistic creativity. If a piece meets the definition, it is bonsai and should be judged as such.


People don't really care how bonsai is defined, because there is no authority to do so. Anybody can stand up on a soapbox and create a definition.

What we really care about is our own personal taste. And our own personal taste is shaped by what we see and admire.

I, for instance, admire the work of Kyuzo Murata, John Naka, M. Kimura. I admire the final image of their magnificent trees, but I also admire immensely the skill and creativity that transformed a live tree into a masterpiece (by the way, it's the same when I look at a painting: the extaordinary skill and talent put in a work of art enhances the aesthetic pleasure exponentially, I couldn't care less about works requiring little skill and talent - they reek of cheap knock-offs).
It makes no difference to me how others define bonsai, and whether or not others consider a tree that is created overnight, incorporating plastic, cement, glass and metal (just for the sake of example), artistic bonsai. I just don't care for those works, and those people who define them as art.

To me, bonsai has an undefinable quality that makes it what I personally admire. Definitions will not help the work to obtain this quality.

This is why I think that general, blanket definitions of bonsai have no value, because they only meet the expectations of a restricted group of people.

If you define bonsai the way I like it, it's a good definition. I only care about definitions that meet my personal criteria.

This is very different from other human endeavours, where definitions are very important. For instance, if I am an attorney, then the definition of a specific law really matters. That's because I need to know that law, and I need to follow it. If I make a living using law, I better know its exact definition.

Not so in bonsai. It's all about personal taste, personal definition. I don't do bonsai to please others, I only want to please myself and those who appreciate what I do.

So, if one defines bonsai as "A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container", or as "Tree in a pot" or as "Artistic potted trees", it's all fine. It makes absolutely no difference to me, which definition people are using. I only care about seing one's bonsai and experiencing the magic (or the lack thereof). It only takes a few seconds to see the outcome, and no definition will help in the process.

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