No matter how assured you are, changing the design of a famous tree is done with a deep intake of breath. One takes precautions. Like boarding up windows and doors, in premonition of a rowdy gang of tree maniacs in green cloaks with picks and axes and rolls of wire for who knows what horrible use, in the street outside your house. And you imagine thinking, as you stand quietly looking out at growing chaos and red torch fire, with chants like ‘Let’s redesign HIM!’, that a bonsai-free life in Acapulco sounds nice. But at this point it’s too late. The deed is done. My only advantage is that few of you know where I live…
Many of you may remember this Foemina juniper from old photos of California bonsai shows, or even last year’s Bonsai Statements magazine. It has a thirty-year history as a bonsai, created in California by the eminent Shig Miya from an air layer. Mr. Miya grafted the only branch at the top of the tree.
Deciding on this aesthetic shift for Mr. Miya’s tree was derived from a simple conversation about its possibilities with my client, who had purchased the tree several years ago. We were both eager to try a new form. My client is very interested in preserving old bonsai created in the States, but he also likes adding new twists to old things. I think bonsai develop an indefinable flavor when they’ve been worked on by multiple artists.
I am not a proponent of keeping bonsai as they are, indefinitely, in perpetuity, as a form or creative idea that was locked into place by the first artist. Bonsai are BONSAI precisely because many people, hopefully, lend their artistic stamp to it, and the bonsai change and morph over the decades. This is what makes bonsai different from a novel or a painting. I know this is an issue of some contention particularly in public bonsai collections, where, understandably, there is an effort to retain bonsai looking like they did when donated. This presents great difficulties, however. It seems to me that if a bonsai were, to use an extreme example, to lose an important branch, then to have it remain locked in its old form even though visual balance has been lost would be to allow it to devolve into bad bonsai. And bonsai change without asking for our approval, too.
I think the only rule is to be continually seeking to find balance within the tree, within the design. And everyone’s sense of balance will be, naturally, a bit different.