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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mid-America Bonsai Show 2014. Part 2, Exhibit Critique with Rodney Clemons

     (I know it's been over a month since Part 1. As I mentioned before, life of late has been devoted to catching up on one thing or another: one result is that I've been working on trees more than writing about them. But that isn't all bad, when you stop and think about it.)

Rodney Clemons.
Photo from the Midwest Bonsai Society Website
     Rodney Clemons, this year's Guest Master at the Mid-America Bonsai Show, is originally from Florida and now lives near Atlanta, Georgia. He said that he's been in bonsai for 45 years (which made me re-assess my impression of his age - he looks "late-40's" now, to me!) He has his own nursery, Allgood Bonsai, and serves as curator of the bonsai collections at Smith Gilbert Gardens (Kennesaw, GA,) and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers, GA.) Like most bonsai masters he'll work on just about anything, but his specialty is Kingsville boxwood (more on it in a later post.)

It's not possible to comment on the strengths and weak points of all the trees in the Mid-America exhibit in just 90 minutes, so Critique masters often focus a majority of their remarks on a theme. Sometimes the theme is explicit, sometimes implicit. Rodney's recurring theme was consistency and harmony in design and display, and he had some worthwhile things to say along those lines.

Side note: before commenting on a bonsai, Rodney frequently asked, "Is the person this tree owns here (among the Critique attenders)?" Everyone enjoyed that.

- Make sure the different parts of your tree show the same apparent age and maturity. The yew below prompted that admonition. While it has many good points - the deadwood, the overall health, the pot-tree match - the top zones of the trunks (above my blue line in the picture) look young, while the rest of the tree looks mature. (It still won a ribbon.)

Once the apices match the rest of the tree in apparent age, this tree will win more than 2nd place.
Owner and artist Roy Heinen (I believe.)

- "If a dog chases two rabbits at once, he catches neither." Rodney quoted that proverb (that he learned from John Naka) in regard to the ponderosa pine in the next picture. This tree is very healthy, but there appears to be no coherent design in the artist's mind! Choose one trunk to be primary, Rodney said, and shape the rest of the tree around it. (My own thought: I would tip the tree about 45 degrees to the viewer's left and develop a semi-cascade, bringing the thinner trunk on the right over to become the upper line.)

Very healthy tree, but the design has no internal consistency. Pinus ponderosa.
- An accent plant should be native to the same sort of environment as the tree. The same display prompted that remark. This accent plant may or may not be native to wet, boggy habitats, but it looks like it is, and image is central to bonsai. Ponderosa pine is a dryland pine, and an accent that was obviously native to an arid habitat would have been a better choice. (At the same time, it must be said that the artist did an excellent job of matching the form of the accent to the present form of the bonsai.)

- Just as a bonsai tells a story, what I'll call a "display," for lack of a better term - a bonsai with an accent plant and anything else displayed with it, such as a scroll - also tells a story. That story may be just an expression of a time of year; but whatever it is, it should be consistent within itself. Don't put a spring flower with a tree bearing autumn fruit, for example.

- While the accent plant must harmonize with the bonsai, don't choose a plant that merely duplicates the tree's features. Rodney said this in reaction to a display in which the accent plant's foliage was the same shape as the tree's, foliage color of the two was almost exactly the same, and the pot colors were almost identical!

- In nature, the trunk of a cascading tree doesn't come out of the ground going one way, and then reverse direction. The trunk of a cascading bonsai - whether semi-cascade or full - should not reverse direction between the base and the first branches, either; it does not look natural.

I've saved the best for last, when it comes to the theme of consistency. Possibly Rodney's favorite display in the Exhibit - and certainly one of mine - was this Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and its accent (which appears to be a sedum.)

Rodney Clemons commenting on this display. (Please forgive the picture quality.)
Owner and artist, Dan Turner.

The pots are not at all traditional, the stands are far from traditional as well, and climbers like Virginia creeper are not often used for bonsai. But as an artistic composition, this display is superb!

As Rodney pointed out:

  • - the colors match without duplicating each other;
  • - the shapes of the pots and stands harmonize well;
  •  - all the elements of the composition work together to draw the eye into a pleasing picture. Besides the harmony, there is a feeling of resolution, without any hint of monotony.
(I came back to this display from time to time all the next day, just to appreciate it.)

Some other comments from Rodney Clemons that are worth passing along:

- The outer bark of some species, including yews and junipers, gives away the true scale of the bonsai and destroys the illusion of a full-sized tree. Take off that outer bark before displaying the tree.

- Every genus has its own typical look. Deciduous trees share a common appearance; but within that, there is a "maple look," an "elm look," a "hornbeam look," and so on. The same is true among conifers and tropical trees.

- A semi-cascade design works nicely if you want to display fruit.

- Don't allow the lower edge of the trunk of a semi-cascade to show along its entire length; it looks boring.  Hide parts of it with foliage.

- Small gravel is a good substitute for moss when a tree is native to a dry climate.

- Moss cover looks best when it is unbroken. Use different kinds of moss, for visual interest; for even more interest, add a few lichens.

- Bonsai artists in the USA have lagged behind much of the rest of the world - especially Europe and Japan - for a long time. But now he believes we're starting to catch up, thanks especially to the efforts of people like Ryan Neil and others, who are trying to raise our expectations of ourselves as well as our abilities.

Let me leave you with two more pictures.

Rodney's comment on this shohin display: "It just looks very good."
I had to get a close-up of the lichen on this JBP in the shohin display, after Rodney Clemons pointed it out.
Adds something, doesn't it?

Next post: the year of the yew (for me.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

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