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 Post subject: Talent - The Holy Grail of Bonsai
PostPosted: Mon Apr 07, 2008 1:39 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Winner: Best Article dealing with artistic principles, history, or art theory

Talent - The Holy Grail of Bonsai
by Will Heath

Larch over garden statue
Bonsai and Photograph by Nick Lenz

1. natural ability: an unusual natural ability to do something well, especially in artistic areas that can be developed by training
2. somebody with exceptional ability: a person or people with an exceptional ability
- Encarta World English Dictionary

Ah talent, the natural ability to do something well. The one thing that separates artists from craftsmen, it is the common denominator of all great bonsai. With it, one can create artistic, beautiful, and inspiring bonsai, without it, one creates simply potted trees.

Talent is the defining factor that separates a passable bonsai from a truly inspiring piece of art. Talent is the ingredient that makes some bonsai masterpieces. The lack of talent is why some bonsai are just mediocre at best, nothing more than pale imitations of what bonsai truly is meant to be.

Call it talent, gift, aptitude, flair, bent, knack, or genius, the core meaning as stated by the Encarta World English Dictionary, is the natural ability to do something well.

By all definitions, talent is inherent, it cannot be learned, taught, bought, sold, or acquired in any manner what so ever. Studying with the greatest masters will not create what is not there, reading all the best texts will not cultivate what can not be grown, a person either has it already or they never will.

I fully realize that the above statements are hard to swallow, but that fact does not negate the cold hard truth, which is that actual talent is rare, it is not heavily distributed among aspiring artists, a very small percentage of practicing bonsaists have talent, and this pool of talent only grows when a person demonstrates inherent talent. There is no way to demonstrate inherent talent other than by creating bonsai that reveals the talent of the artist. Some fledging artists may not yet have created a masterpiece by common definition, but talent can be observed in the use of material and the direction choices taken, this is raw talent, unrefined, uncultured, but observable, never the less.

Simply keeping a plant alive, pruning, trimming, pinching, and wiring it does not constitute talent, these are learnable skills and techniques that can be mastered by anyone willing to devote the time and effort into study and practice. What does constitute talent is the ability to take a plant and turn it into more than the sum of its parts. When we see an artistically created bonsai that was designed by a talented person, we see far more than just a plant in a pot, we see an illusion of an ancient tree that has survived all nature could throw at it, and which brings memories, stories, or emotions to our mind. We see a soul, a presence, a freeze frame of nature that moves us.

Textbooks attempt to show us how great art is made, or more to the point, why great art is great. However, they do not show us how to create great art, because this cannot be taught. A person can spend a lifetime studying aesthetic principles, techniques, the rules, the guidelines, art theory, and the work of the masters and still never be able to create great art.

Sandra Kay, in her article "Identifying and Nurturing Talent in the Visual Arts" ... ature.html stated that "…high technical proficiency is not sufficient for artistic development. Artistic ability also requires motivation, perceptual acuity, imagination, and aesthetic intelligence."

Technique and knowledge is not enough. The world is full of art students who can dissect a work down to the basic components and tell us why it works or does not, yet can not create such themselves.

What is needed to create great art cannot be taught, learned, bought, or sold. There are no articles teaching us how to obtain it or how to learn it. What is needed to create great art, to bypass the shackles of the rules and the application of such, is talent.

Take writing for example, anyone who is reading this can read and write, we all have the skills needed to write a best selling novel. We were taught writing, English, grammar, punctuation, and such for over 12 years in various schools. We use the techniques every day, there are thousands of books out there that tell us how to sharpen these skills, so there is little doubt that we all have access to knowledge, rules, techniques and that we have all been taught the why do only a very small percentage of us write best sellers?

There are millions of painters out there, some acquiring a formal degree in art, some studying the work of the great masters, some can duplicate every brush stroke ever made by such greats as Monet and Rembrandt. There are countless books on the subject, thousands of teachers, millions of gallons of paint sold every year and yet only a small percentage will ever create great art.

So obviously, knowledge, skill, technique, and passion are not enough. All the "How-To" books and articles in the world are not enough.

So, what is needed to create great art? Skill? Technique? Years studying? Better mediums? Better teachers?

No, just talent.

Premna serratifolia
Bonsai and Photograph by Robert Steven

Talent is easily recognizable by the unbiased mind. The mind that is free of pre-conceived attitudes, emotions, biases, or opinions, yet it is elusive because of these very things. People will quickly claim talent in those that they like or respect and just as quickly claim a lack of talent in those that they dislike or who they feel are undeserving of such a gift. Many people are convinced that they have talent; in fact, they often base their whole bonsai experience on this thought and judge other creations using their own as a benchmark. Human nature being what it is, most people have a much higher opinion, and hence a benchmark, than their work actually deserves and which is often so far out of proportion that it is generally rendered useless.

The question arises, since every person tends to think that they are talented or attributes talented ability based on biased beliefs, how do we judge who is talented or not? This is not a problem unique to bonsai, schools are often faced with determining if children are gifted and the standard IQ tests have a problem determining levels of giftedness, as they can only determine if a person has an high IQ, not if they are talented. Contrary to popular belief, talent and high IQ, as measured by the typical tests, are not related and one often exists without the other, in fact, this is usually the case.

The Wikipedia gives us some characteristics of giftedness:

"Generally, gifted individuals learn more quickly, deeply, and broadly than their peers. Gifted children may learn to read early and operate at the same level as normal children who are significantly older. The gifted tend to demonstrate high reasoning ability, creativity, curiosity, a large vocabulary, and an excellent memory. They often can master concepts with few repetitions. They may also be physically and emotionally sensitive, perfectionistic, and may frequently question authority. Some have trouble relating to or communicating with their peers because of disparities in vocabulary size (especially in the early years), personality, and interests. As children, they may prefer the company of older children or adults."

In order to shift this to the subject of bonsai and more specifically, bonsai art, let's rewrite the above characteristics to better describe the same in relation to talent as it pertains to the art of bonsai.

Talented or gifted bonsai artists learn more quickly, deeply, and broadly than their peers. Talented artists may create good bonsai earlier and operate at the same level as those who have been practicing the art for years. The talented tend to demonstrate high reasoning ability, creativity, curiosity, an innate understanding of techniques, and be more willing to experiment outside of the traditional norm. They often can master concepts with few repetitions. They may also be physically and emotionally sensitive, perfectionistic, and may frequently question authority. Some have trouble relating to or communicating with their peers because of disparities in beliefs, personality, and vision. As beginners, they may prefer the company of older artists, especially those more experienced.

A talented person, although knowing the rules, is not bound by them. A talented person knows the techniques, but is not bound by them. These things were training wheels, meant to start of the artist on a strong foundation, to give the artist good roots. These training wheels will only slow a person down, inhibit creativity if left on, they must be discarded eventually.

Many people cannot go forward without the training wheels; they will stumble and fall repeatedly. So they keep them on, adhere to the rules strictly and strongly defend the use of such to all. They eventually become teachers but they can only teach as far as they themselves have come, so they pass on the training wheels to their own students, but cannot show them how to go forward without them.

Yet some students will have talent and move beyond the base set of memorized rules and techniques, the student has nothing to hold them up but their talent. Talent can go forward without the training wheels of rules and techniques into the realm of creativity where it is the visual end that is sought, not the road used to get there.

"The success of a piece is measured by the image presented, not the path taken to get there."

Jeruk Kingkit (Triphasia trifolia)
Bonsai and Photograph by Budi Sulistyo

There are many false beliefs concerning talent and none more damaging than those we allow ourselves to believe. By examining some of the myths, excuses and justifications that are often used when discussing talent, we can put to rest some of the misconceptions prevalent on this subject.

  • Everybody has some degree of talent.
    While this may well be true, it is a generalized statement that avoids the fact that the actual subject is talent in relation to creating bonsai, not talent in quilt making, Frisbee throwing, or hopscotch. People tend to confuse learnable skills like watering, cultivation, pruning, and wiring with un-learnable talent that is manifested in artistic bonsai design. As in all other forms of art, talent is rare and because of this, it is greatly celebrated when discovered.
  • Proper study will create talent.
    Many people state that by studying under a great master they will acquire talent, as if by some magical means the master's talent can be imparted onto the student. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    All that can be taught is skills and techniques, talent cannot be taught. Certainly, those studying under such greats will acquire great skills, knowledge of techniques, and be in the position to practice such often under a guiding eye, but if the student does not have talent when they come, they will not have talent when they leave. All a master can pass on is learnable skills, the greatest master in the world can not teach what cannot be taught, to assume otherwise can only lead to disappointment due to unrealistic expectations.

    However, those with actual talent will shine in this environment, this is where raw talent can be refined, tempered, and polished, if it is not oppressed, stifled, or caged.
  • It just takes time, study, and practice for talent to show.
    While there are a few examples of great artists whose talent showed late in life, this is extremely rare. A person would have better odds of winning the lottery, getting hit by lightning, and catching a foul ball at the World Series all in the same day then they would suddenly, after many years of practice, discovering that they had talent.

    One rare occurrence of latent talent has occurred with people suffering from a rare form of dementia. An article on the Science Daily web site ( /releases/1998/10/981021080231.htm ) stated that "Researchers led by a University of California San Francisco neurologist have determined that a relatively rare form of dementia brings out startling artistic talents in some people, and that these abilities evolve and flourish even as patients lose the ability to remember such basic words as "art."" However, even this talent didn't magically appear from nowhere as the article goes on to say, "Most patients with the frontotemporal variant associated with artistry do not develop artistic abilities, Miller noted. "We suspect that in the patients who become artists, the talent is stimulated by the pathology in people born with an inherent tendency or aptitude for art.""

    Latent talent is a rare occurrence indeed and this is obvious in many art forms as well as other areas of life. Talent scouts seek out those individuals that show raw talent, there are people all over the world who are paid to find those people with talent for writing, acting, creating, and/or showcasing their work in many ways. From the high school football player to the painter with a few paintings at an art fair, the common denominator is the manifestation of talent in a raw form. Schools for the gifted have certain things they look for to determine talent, scholarship committees have other standards to sort the wheat from the chaff, ABS has standards to select people for the Joshua Roth New Talent competition, and once located, this talent can be refined, forged, and polished, but it must be there first, it must show.
  • Those that care for or buy great bonsai have talent.
    This Artist vs Caretaker debate is something I plan on covering in another article but I will touch on some major points here.

    First, let me say that caretakers, curators, and collectors should be praised at every opportunity; these are the people who make it possible for artists to live and create more inspiring and soul moving bonsai for all to enjoy. Without these great patrons of the art, bonsai would certainly be far less than it is. I strongly encourage every practicing bonsaist to have at least one great bonsai in their personal collection to display, to inspire, and to remember the artist that created it.

    However, many people, either because they do not have the talent to create great bonsai or because they believe buying a already styled bonsai is a shortcut of some sort, purchase bonsai that have already been styled by an artist and then use it as a claim for personal talent. Some even rush out to show them under their own name.

    The claim is often made that it takes talent to maintain these "check-book" bonsai and that caring for them requires a completely different set of skills. It takes no talent to trim, water, re-pot, defoliate, or otherwise maintain a bonsai, it takes learned skills and techniques. The talent involved was with the person who created the bonsai, who brought it from a blank canvas to a work of art, with the artist who had the vision and carried it onto the bonsai. I have personally heard a few talented artist lament about how the creations they sold or gave away quickly became rank, overgrown, or suffered from poor attempts to either change the form or maintain it. The skills were there to keep it alive, but not to maintain the artistic merits.

    The talent is not with the person who simply cares for it and maintains the shape that was created before they bought it. The people who use such bonsai to claim or validate the claim of personal talent are mistaken and they do a great disservice to the actual talented artist. Of course, a talented artist may purchase a bonsai that was created by another, but it is rare that a truly talented person would take credit for the talent of another.

    Talent is shown in the actual work of the person, not in the work of others. Yet, there are a few rare exceptions of talented artists who also collect great bonsai and these are the collections worth viewing and preserving.

Premna serratifolia
Bonsai and Photograph by Robert Steven

Talent is the Holy Grail of Bonsai. It is sought after by many, found by few, raised to the level of myth and legend, and those that seek it for themselves, can not find it, those that process it can not give it away or sell it. Most all claim it, few have it, and great battles (debates) are often seen raging on its very nature.

Those who have talent create the art that inspires us all, they are the ones who put forth the image of what bonsai is and what it has always been meant to be. These rare few individuals should be praised and respected, they are the ones that set the standards, raise the bars, and feed the imagination of all.

There is no reason not to practice bonsai if one is not talented, bonsai has many aspects and teaches all who partake in the art, many things. One does not have to be talented, great, or famously creative in order to be part of this wonderful art form. In many other art forms, there are people who enjoy participating at their own level and bonsai is no different. All practice, learn, and sharpen their skills and techniques every day. Many become teachers, guides, and inspiration for others and in doing so; they may well be cultivating the great talents of tomorrow.

By supporting the art, introducing new people to it, buying the work of the greats, and going to exhibits, shows, clubs, and events, one can support the talented, the art, and the future of bonsai around the world.

It does not take talent to enjoy the simple pleasures of bonsai, only something deep within us all, maybe a love of nature, maybe the thrill of creation, or maybe just the empty mind that is often gained while absorbed in a tree. Whatever it is, it does not require talent, nor the claiming of such, it only requires a plant, a pot, and some time.

Anyone can experience the same feelings, the same satisfaction, and the same "oneness" with bonsai as the talented greats do. In this we all are equal, we all are the same, we are all bonsaists, and in the end, that is enough.


Encarta (
Wikipedia (
Benz, Willie. Bonsai Kusamono Suiseki - A Practicasl Guide for Organizing Displays with Plants and Stones. Stone Lantern Publishing
"Identifying and Nurturing Talent in the Visual Arts" - Sandra Kay ( ... ature.html)
University Of California, San Francisco (1998, October 21). Rare Cases Of Dementia Stimulate Artistic Juices, Offering Unexpected Window Into The Artistic Process. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 29, 2008, from ( /releases/1998/10/981021080231.htm)

Photography Credits:

Nick Lenz
Budi Sulistyo
Robert Steven

Bob King scored: 9
"Interesting article that provides a reasonable argument for all levels of bonsai engagement. "

Pat Luck Morris scored: 7
"Proper photo credits, but poor grammar and spelling. "

Walter Pall scored: 8
"Well written, good thoughts. Sometimes stating the obvious (for the judge). At some points a bit long winded"

Average score of all judges: 8

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 16, 2008 4:27 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Tue Aug 19, 2008 8:34 am 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
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