Innovation of Bonsai in the West

Mr Kimura was/is an innovator in the world of bonsai. Yet his trees still look/feel like bonsai. Do you feel that the West may be going too far in terms of looking to innovate? If we ignore the guide lines and ideals of bonsai aren’t we not doing bonsai anymore? Are we then creating something else? Is there be a balance that needs to be struck to find the next iteration of bonsai without totally changing the feel of the art. The limitations of these ideals being the freedom to innovate. What is everyone’s thoughts on innovation?


Interesting thoughts! I think that in order for bonsai to continue being an art form, it has to go thru drastic changes.


It’s a tree in a container. Call it what you want. Keep it alive. Style as you like. Enjoy it.


Your right, especially about the "enjoy it’’ part. Innovative ideas come from people working toward what they most enjoy. Bordem with the traditional is a good inspiration to try something new and innovative.


While I understand your thought I think the answer may be more that the material we have available here is much more varied than in Japan. After the number of years working on the same trees they were all basically looking alike ( to some extent ).
That is why Kimura’s work was so revolutionary, he actually found a way to bump it up. Bonsai in this country is still so young no one person can take credit for creating American bonsai since we are all still striving to find out what it will be.


There is another interesting aspect to consider. In one of the podcasts Ryan and a guest (I think Peter Warren) discussed the existence of a ‘Japanese style’ in broad terms even if there are nuances. They also mentioned the fact that Bonsai trees in Japan are often the result of work by many people. This will specially be true for famous trees several generations in training. Here are my two-cents: In physics and statistics, there is a concept of regression to the mean (or mean field behaviour). Meaning that if many people work over the years on trees, each time the tree is pulled (literally and metaphorically) one way or another following the stylistic concepts of the practitioner and as a consequence, it will reach some sort of average or equilibrium form that will be a distillation of the core concepts of all the decisions over the years albeit more severely influenced by it earlier developers that set the major decisions. This core distilled form I think may quite possibly represent this ‘Japanese style’ that ultimately is a reflection of Japanese art and culture. It may also mean that this ‘average over time’ for any single tree becomes equivalent to an average at a single time over all trees given their history (for other art forms that are more instantaneous this would not be true). What physicists will recognize as the ergodic theorem. So in your mind, both trees with long history of being worked by many people, or the abstract sense of what means the Japanese style from seeing many Japanese styled trees by single artists, represent one and the same thing and this would be what we call Japanese bonsai aesthetics. I may be tripping here applying concepts of statistical physics to art, but hey, why not?


Interesting conversation for sure. I think that Japanese bonsai extremely subtle. The changes in the trees refinement are less overt due in part to the length of time these trees are bonsai ( in some cases generations) as well as the cultural component. Most of our trees just do not have the age yet and that “time honored” feeling. Even though a yamadori may be several hundred years old, there is no replacing time in a pot, multiple workings and consistent refinement over many years. The trees relax and man’s hand becomes less and less noticeable as the trees presence takes a more leadership role in the relationship. I am certainly looking forward to the future of Bonsai here in West.


As mentioned, “guidelines”. Guidelines are there for us to go back to so we have a reference or starting point for how far can we go with design or innovation. The one important thing that should be evident all the time is our respect for the tree as a living thing (and age for some). Your work will show if you treated the tree with respect or not. Bonsai is not just a living art, it is also meditative, reflective, and spiritual.
In other words, “respectful innovation” :blush:


Yea, deep water… Here are my thoughts:

Is it not in a western mind-set to break away from tradition, applying new impressions and views and yet take bits and pieces of tradition with us as we grow? E.g. to innovate or grow on our own once we have learned the rules.
If we have a close look, we can see that we do not ignore the ideals and guidelines of traditioanal bonsai we have learned - we do our best to apply them in an innovative way to avoid robbing native trees of their unique character. “Native” being anywhere where the tree is native to - not where we are native to.


If you like it, do it.
Being accepted by other’s is another story altogether.

Bonsai is not the traditional Japanese styles. Bonsai is a way of looking at trees. The landmass of Japan represents a small percentage of all of the available landmass on the planet. The trees of Japan represent a small percentage of all the trees. The bonsai school of thought takes what we see in nature and finds the essence of what makes a tree a work of nature’s art. Artists look at a tree and discover ways of boiling the design down to its essence. How should the base look? How thick should the trunk be? Where’s the first branch? How are the branches arranged? What happens to these factors as we move from the base to the top? Do all of these questions matter to all trees? What separates one species from another? one environment from another? one lifetime from another? How do we keep our tree alive? and in style? How can we create illusions of depth, proportion, and scale? How do we impart the majesty of a tree in a tiny pot?

The trees of the world do not all look like the trees of Japan. There are many more styles than were ever viewed by early artists who had never left Japan. You can carry a copy of Naka’s “Bonsai Techniques” anywhere on the planet and find many non-Japanese species that fall in line with the traditional Japanese design. But you won’t fit them all. You will find yourself looking in wonder at a beautiful tree and nothing in your book will match it. Do you reject the tree’s style just because it isn’t in a “bonsai” style?

Some artists say “yes” and they are hobbled by their arrogance.

What I say is “I know nothing, but bonsai has taught me how to learn.”

Bonsai has taught me how to ask questions of a tree. All the questions I asked earlier and more. What rules do I already know? What rules do not apply? What rules must I break? Are there rules?

People who know me know my favorite species is bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). The tree has several styles based on its age, its environment, its experiences. In its youth, a bald cypress grown on land and away from other trees fits within the framework of a formal upright. Tree base, taper, branch placement, branch angles based on height, ramification, and top can be taken right out of any traditional Japanese styling guide and you will have a beautiful bald cypress on your bench. People in the bonsai world will congratulate you on your success. If you are skilled enough, such a tree can win competitions or appear on the covers of trade publications. A wonderful tree.


Why would you want to create a bald cypress that has the same style as so many other formal uprights? Bald cypress can live for centuries and beyond. They are tall majestic trees. They are survivors of infestations, rot, and hurricanes. The styles of the trees you will see in swamps and bayous will not resemble Japanese bonsai. The oldest of these trees should be revered and honored. I can think of few trees more deserving of study and understanding by bonsai artists.

That’s where innovation comes in. Artists around the world should be taking what they learn from bonsai and applying these lessons to the trees outside of their windows. If we lock bonsai down to the styles and trees of Japan, it will stagnate. For the art form to grow and reach more people, they have to see the trees they’ve known all their lives being represented in the art they create.

It falls on us to spread that approach to bonsai.

EDIT: Oh, yeah. Pots… That too.


Bill I think you hit the nail on the head…

Something Ryan keeps saying Enviromnent, and Culture.
Pejinging from China includes the Environment in the pot (one end of the spectrum) small people, cranes, rocks and Japan extracts it in an Abstract way and (the other end of the spectrum) you fill the negative spaces in, or the bits that are not there, scrolls and acsent plants giving insinuations of the gaps to make the environment. Interestingly Kimura’s early works break that boundary, when you look at his forest compositions…

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The only criteria I see that needs to be met with Bonsai/Penjing is directly tied to the naming convention of the artform, namely ‘Potted Tree’. That in no way is putting a limitation on either what is a pot and what is a tree. E.g. Who is to say that a slab cannot be a “pot”, or that a Grape vine cant make a good “tree”.

This is akin to painting; the painter needs a canvas (a human body, a wall, an actual canvas, a car, etc) and some form of paint or means to express a feeling/thought on said canvas. What the painter paints is purely up to the individual and the limitations of the materials with which the individual is working.

With bonsai we obviously have horticultural limitations based on the particular species with which we may be working and environmental factors, but nobody dictates the style of the tree save the individual caring and working with the tree.

Ryan is adament about “design” as an abstract concept that transcends many fields of art (he talks about architecture a lot). The golden ratio, the law of thirds these concepts are naturally aesthetic to the human eye and are very much incorporated in art spanning all genres. But thats not to say that these “guidelines” are a must and must be incorporated into design at all costs. No, in fact the blatent omission of these rules in a design (if done well) may create a much larger statement than sticking to the rules themselves. After all think of architecture, it is all done with the same basic materials yet look at the drastic differences in building design as you travel across the world. Why can this not be the case for bonsai?

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