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Okanagan Arts

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An Ongoing Series of Lectures and Presentations that Celebrate the Creative Okanagan

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Arts Council of the Central Okanagan
Arts Council of the
Central Okanagan

100-1690 Water Street
Kelowna BC Canada V1Y 8T8
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Elke Lange, Executive Director
Telephone: 250.861-4123

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Okanagan Arts: Summer 2008

Catherine Mamo: The Art of the Potted Tree

The word bonsai simply means plant in a tray in Japanese. But anyone who has seen bonsai specimens of any quality will know that they're much more than that. Sometimes called living sculptures or silent poems, these miniaturized trees are both a horticultural discipline and a refined artistic pursuit. The best bonsai evoke the strength, beauty, and character of large mature trees; a piece of wilderness in a small package. Many of the oldest and most venerated bonsai were collected from the wild. Known as yamadori, these trees are pre-sculpted by nature herself, and display forms not always replicable by human hands. The oldest known bonsai is estimated to be nearly 1,200 years old. Talk about your garden outliving you.

Larches in forest planting by Stan Taneda of the Kelowna Bonzai Club.

Kelowna Bonsai Club members Jeanne Kurz, Bob Wiltshire, and Lou Fleming.

The art of bonsai began in China many thousands of years ago. We know this because pictures of potted trees began appearing on Chinese scrolls. Known as penjin, Chinese bonsai are allowed a looser style of growth than found in the Japanese tradition. They also attempt to replicate entire landscapes in miniature, using water, rock and clay figurines to represent temples and people.

However, most western bonsai are modeled on the Japanese style, as are most of the bonsai terms and tools. Bonsai began flourishing in Japan around 1185-1333, associated with Zen monasteries at first, then spreading as a hobby to the upper classes. The tiny trees were used as objects of contemplation in Buddhist tradition. So there is also a philosophical side to bonsai. Even today many Japanese people periodically bring bonsai into their homes to display and admire alongside other seasonal objects.

Some people may object to
bonsai on the grounds of perceived cruelty to trees--deliberately stunting and forcing a plant to grow in a particular way. But we do this all the time by pruning and shaping our garden plants. Bonsai containers simply replicate some of the difficult conditions that plants adapt to in nature. Think of small, twisted trees growing out of rock cliffs in the mountains. Aren't you amazed at their ability to grow in such a harsh environment with so little soil and water? Don't their twisted forms display a strange beauty? The ultimate goal of a bonsai specimen is to look like a miniature form of a wild plant. They're pleasurable to look at and pleasurable to create as well. As one bonsai expert stated "Don't try to make your tree look like a bonsai. Try to make your bonsai look like a tree." It may be that bonsai is one of those things you either get or don't get, like watching golf on TV.

With nearly 20 bonsai clubs in BC with many hundreds of members, bonsai is obviously an art that many people do get and are fascinated by. In the interior, both Penticton and Kelowna have bonsai clubs. The Kelowna Bonsai Club, now celebrating a quarter century, is still very active with around forty members. Founded by Suey Koide, along with his daughter-in-law Suzanne, the group first met at Art Knapps in June of 1983. Two members from the early days are still with the club: Joe Jiyobu and Len Bidwell. The group meets regularly for talks and workshops to demonstrate or practice new skills, go on collecting or buying trips, or just get together socially. They also display their work at various shows. Unlike other art forms, these living sculptures need care and daily attention, making them unsuitable for traditional art galleries. Instead, the bonsaier backyard becomes the gallery, like Stan and Flo Taneda's Westside garden.

It's here that I met a few of the members of the Kelowna Bonsai Club for a chat about bonsai, their group, and just what motivates them to create these tiny treasures.

Although many activities are being planned to celebrate their 25th anniversary, the most exciting one is the creation of a Bonsai Garden at Guisachan Gardens. The garden was officially opened by Mayor Sheppard on June 1st with a small celebration and the ceremonial planting of a moon maple, a delicate, rare and beautiful tree. Although planted in the ground, this tree will be shaped and kept in a bonsai manner. The rest of the garden, under the watchful eye of head gardener Veva Harding, will evolve over the coming years as fitting tribute to a part of Kelowna's horticultural history.

Sheilia Lawrence, current club president has been with the group for about 10 years. The tree she's holding is a juniper which has been under her care for about 5 years. " I like the softness of it," she says. Sheilia was attracted to bonsai because "I wanted to express my artistic feelings about nature...My father was an artist and I thought I might have inherited some of his talent, but I didn't want to paint."

Bonsai offers her the challenge of working with living things, shaping them to express different emotions and stories: "You think of what story you want to tell and try to come up with a way to express that," she says. "Each tree has its own personality ... it's like a love affair." Asked about the age of this juniper she explains that in bonsai they talk about "apparent age" more than actual age. "It's not polite to ask a lady her age," says Sheilia.It's the same with bonsai but for the opposite reason - the tree may be a lot younger than it looks. "We're trying to give impression of age. A lot of what we do in bonsai is about trying to get the tree to look older."

Jeanne Kurz is one of the club's newer members. She's been with the group for about 1.5 years. The tree she's holding is a cotoneaster, favourite of her 6 trees. She became interested in making bonsai when she saw a display by the club at the Winfield Art Show. "I love plants, I love art, and I love learning," says Jeanne, so bonsai suited her perfectly. She was also newly retired with time to devote to a new hobby: "I needed to fiddle with something." Jeanne had also been familiar with bonsai from a young age because of her Chinese background: "Bonsai is just part of the household over there." She sums up bonsai with one word: graciousness. "They're just so peaceful," she says.

The pot is an important aspect of the overall aesthetic of the bonsai. The general rule is dark brown or terra cotta pots for the conifers and coloured pots for the deciduous trees. The shape of the pot is also important ­ it should be harmonious with the style and type of bonsai.

Kelowna Bonsai Club members Sheilia Lawrence and Stan Taneda.

A moon maple like the one planted in the new Bonsai Garden.

This particular tree is causing Jeanne "much anticipation" because it's getting ready to flower. In the fall it will have berries and bright fall foliage, so there's lots of seasonal interest. She says. "Each tree has its own character ... they're like people, but quieter."

Bob Wiltshire has been with the club for 14 years. The tree he's holding is a crabapple on a dwarf rootstalk. He created it initially in a grafting workshop taught by Stan Taneda. Again, it's the seasonal interest that endears this tree to him, with spring blossoms, fall fruit and foliage. "It's always changing," he says.

Bob came to bonsai from a gardening and floral arranging background. "I saw a notice in the paper about the club. I didn't know anything about bonsai but I like design and I was attracted to the shapes," he says. He now looks after about 12 trees, most of which are tropical species, the only ones you can keep indoors all year long. He too enjoys the challenge that bonsai presents: "There's so many shapes and styles to try ... if you follow a few rules, you can really do what you like from there."

Bob also mentions the advantages of being in a club with others who have a common interest. "I really enjoy the people," he says. Everyone gets along well and they learn from each other, sharing plants and pots as well as information, and having fun too.

Lou Fleming, member for 3 years, holds his favourite tree, a ficus with a handsome exposed root system. He first enjoyed bonsai while travelling and living in the far east. "I was always intrigued by their bonsai displays," he says. His daughter bought him his first tree so he had to learn how to look after it. "She thought I should take up bonsai ... I had no option but to continue," he says. Now the proud owner of about 7 trees, Lou also like the constant challenge bonsai presents. "I've always enjoyed gardening so this is just another kind of gardening."

Stan Taneda, member since 1991, has one of the biggest collections of trees. His backyard is a veritable bonsai gallery featuring around 200 plants in full form and many others in various stages of training. "Everything is bonsaied in this yard, including Stan," comments Sheilia. Here he poses with an rugged pine tree, displaying lots of "dead wood" a technique used to enhance the appearance of age.

Stan says it was sort of inevitable that he got into bonsai. His brother-in-law, Bob Tanaka, is a bonsai master on the coast. Plus he'd been in the growing business all his life (he was an orchardist). " I was just attracted to it right away," he says.

Stan attended many workshops and demos in Vancouver and just worked away at it on his own. Now he's one of the esteemed elders of the group and others often seek out his help and advice. Asked about how much time he spends taking care of his collection, his wife Flo says "Well, I always know where to find him." Although his three sons are interested in and like bonsai, none have so far taken up the hobby. Stan says "They're going to inherit them [the trees] whether they want to or not." Therein lies one problem with living art; you need some skill and knowledge to keep them alive and thriving. Even experienced growers sometimes lose trees. "There's a pretty high mortality rate," says Stan. "It's very sad when they die," says Jeanne Kurz, "but it enriches your knowledge for the future." Bonsai nurseries in Japan are known to refuse to sell prize trees to people they suspect incapable of looking after them. They also look after, or tree-sit, bonsai. Some leave their trees there year round, visiting them occasionally or taking them out for shows. But bonsai culture hasn't gone that far here in Canada. "It's huge in Europe," says Stan. "They go out collecting in the Alps and come back with 80-90 pound trees." This used to be the case in Japan also, but collecting yamadori is now illegal there.

A miniature cotoneaster by Tom Sawtell. Bonsai under 10-12 inches are considered miniatures or shohin. The tiniest trees are under six inches and are called mame. There is renewed interest in miniature bonsai now as many people live in condos and only have small balconies for keeping bonsai. The Kelowna Banzai Club intends to offer a workshop in miniatures soon.

Western influences are changing the art of bonsai. "We tend to bend the rules quite a bit here," says Stan. Also western bonsai tend to be more naturalistic, more shaped
by nature than the human hand, he points out. Like any art, bonsai is continually evolving as the trees themselves are. "They are sculptures that change," says Jeanne. "They are always different." Stan says "They are works in progress." The beauty of the tree forms combined with the change and flow ofworking with a living thing, tends to attract artistic people or gardeners or both. (Quite a few of the Kelowna Bonsai Club members are also painters or pursue other arts). But all seem to agree on the addictive nature of bonsai. Some comments by the group: "They're like potato chips: you can't have just a few," "My husband calls it my religion," "Mine calls it a cult," "I call it a disease." At this, they all have a laugh. There you have it in a nutshell; the intriguing, challenging, addictive, living art that is bonsai.

Catherine Mamo is a print journalist and poet who lives in Peachland.

Wild Blue Yonder at Thursday Express