The Art of Bonsai Design
by Colin Lewis
Sterling Publishing Company., Inc. New York: 160pp., $19.95
First Paperback Edition 2001Reviewed by Will Heath*
When I first became involved in bonsai a few years ago I started an unquenchable quest for knowledge and picked up any book I could find on the art of bonsai, regardless of the quality of content. Some of these first books have never been opened since; they collect dust on the library shelf, waiting for perhaps my young daughter to reach the age where she will embark on the same quest and maybe find some useful tidbit of information that I could not. Maybe she will just gain the enthusiasm, the drive, and the sense of wonder I did and like me, want to read every single word ever written on the subject, good or bad.
Other books, such as Colin Lewis's "The Art of Bonsai Design" are now clearly showing the signs of wear, of constant page turning, and long hours of use for education, reference, and inspiration.
While the book weighs in at just 160 pages, including the index, Colin has managed to make it seem much bigger than it is. Filled with color photographs, informative side bars containing educational information on topics pertaining to the main discussion, and his own unique blend of good old common sense coupled with vast experience, this book succeeds in delivering solid, no nonsense bonsai.
In his forward to the book Colin shares his belief that bonsai is an art form and he expresses hope that we may find something within the pages to 'take greater strides towards freeing bonsai from the chains of tradition and the stigma of "ornamental gardening" and establish it in its rightful place as an art form-with all the creative potential and dignity of any other.'
The introduction "Bonsai as a Western Art" Are we denying our own cultural heritage in our pursuit of Japanese style?" should be mandatory reading for every Westerner interested in the art of bonsai. Colin aptly compares the foundation of Western and Japanese bonsai and the cultural differences that influence us as artists. In one of his most enlightening observations he uses cartoon trees, such as those from Disney, to drive home his points on simplification and character. Colin has published this forward to his book as an article which can be read on his web page linked to below. We at AoB found the article so important, that we have republished it also here on our forum.
The book is divided up into sections covering Elms, Junipers, Pines, and Larch. Each section not only gives progression examples of the species, but also cultivation, styling, care, propagation, and other pieces of information useful to those working with such material. Each section is filled with problems he has encountered and the unique and sometimes surprising solutions he created to overcome them. It is this correcting of mistakes, the overcoming of material shortcomings, or unforeseen problems that lets the reader experience Colin's great talent first hand.
In the Juniper section the reader will find detailed information on the species, progression examples on rafts, cascades, tanuki, and other styles. He provides deadwood carving techniques, cultivation, propagation, and covers many other subjects pertaining to the species. Colin also provides close-up photographs and descriptions of many of the Junipers we use in the west for identification purposes.
The section on pines covers only Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
unfortunately, but it covers the species very well. Subjects such as collecting, needle reduction, candle pinching, feeding, and even regional styles, amongst other subjects will no doubt fascinate the reader and prove to be a valuable reference source.
The section described above are representative of the other sections, all extremely detailed and informative and all containing unexpected, but welcomed knowledge, such as information on sphagnum moss, making concrete slabs, three dimensional bonsai, a new viewing angle suggestion for cascades, and more.
Lastly, after the sections, Colin has added a series of essays in the appendices, which alone would be valuable educational references. When coupled with the contents of the book these essays polish the already intensive knowledge given and gives yet another reason every bonsaist should have this book in their collection.
Included in the appendices are the essays, 'The Naked Truth - The Deciduous Challenge? "An Infatuation with Elms" "Is a tree Ever Old" " Age and the Aging Process" and what is most likely the most complete reference on mycorrhizae in relation to bonsai I have ever read, "Mycorrhizae " Microscopic Miracle Workers.'
My regrets about the book are limited, I would have liked to see more species covered, but I have to admit that what was covered, was covered very well and it may well be best that information was not left out to make room for other species. Hopefully Colin is planning on a sequel to the first where he can share his knowledge of other species as well as more of his knowledge on the art of bonsai itself.
I was saddened to see, in bold capital letters predominately displayed on the back upper left corner of the book, the word "GARDENING." Such a book, although dealing with some cultivation, should, like all bonsai books in my opinion, be displayed in the Art section of bookstores. Colin makes mention of this in the forward to the book with the words "bonsai is undoubtedly an art form; but this book, and all others on the subject, is displayed in the gardening section of your bookstore."
Maybe someday, as more and more people, including members of the bonsai community, recognize bonsai as an art form and demand that it be treated as such, books on the subject will be displayed next to books on painting, sculpture, and other forms of art.
I am also disappointed that I have the unsigned paperback edition, something I will certainly correct in the near future.
In closing, this book is worth far more than the selling price, it should be in every enthusiast's library and I personally recommend it to everyone I talk to about bonsai. Books such as these are valuable for those of us currently practicing the art and maybe even more so for those that will, like my daughter.
For more information on Colin Lewis please see the following:
An on-line interview with Colin Lewis