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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.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"It's a shambles! ... But it works." M-ABE 2016, Exhibit Critique.

     I've said before that, in my judgment, when it comes bonsai learning opportunities, an exhibit critique gives you the best value for your money. The Exhibit Critique at this year's Mid-America just made me all the more sure that's true!

(I'm referring to the bonsai scene in the USA. Never having been to a bonsai event outside this country, I don't feel qualified to comment on what is the best value elsewhere.)

Colin Lewis, this year's Visiting Master, was educated and trained as a graphic designer, and practiced that profession until he relocated to the USA and went into bonsai full-time. So he has a fine grasp of design principles, and most of his observations came from that perspective.

Colin Lewis discussing a ponderosa pine bonsai by Andy Smith during the Exhibit Critique; August 19, 2016.
His assessment: Interesting trunk movement, good deadwood, unusual pot. Good composition overall,
except that the foliage arrangement makes the tree look young.

Colin first discussed the Best of Show trees (Open and Professional.) His comments and insights on those were the subject of my previous post. Following are some things he had to say about some of the other trees. (Paraphrased, for the most part, but I believe accurately.)

Veldt fig (Ficus burtt-davyi) twin-trunk upright. Artist and owner, Scott Yelich.
Before commenting on this tree, Lewis first told us that he has no experience with tropicals. Speaking from the perspective of bonsai design, tho, he said this tree breaks so many rules: it's hard to find the main trunk, or even be sure how many trunks there are, and there are aerial roots roots all over the place "going in and out." "It's a shambles!" he exclaimed. Then he paused and said very seriously, "But it works." He added, "It looks natural."

(I later had a chance to tell him that growing up in Ecuador, I had seen full-sized trees that look much like this.)

Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra,) root-over-rock upright. Artist and owner, Paul Weishaar.
Lewis also said of this composition that "it works." He seemed reluctant to say more because he doesn't know much about tropicals, but he considered it deserving of a ribbon!

European beech (Fagus sylvatica,) grove planting. Artist and owner, Gary Andes.
 A good bonsai composition, in Lewis' opinion. The "fan" look to the grove is natural, he said; younger trees will lean away from the older ones as they reach for light. He added that if this were American beech (Fagus grandifolia) the leaves would be twice as big; if it were Japanese beech (Fagus crenata, probably,) they would be half as the size they are.

Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora,) slanting bunjin. I didn't get the artist/owner's name.
This Japanese red pine, Colin Lewis said, has outstanding and interesting trunk movement and good shari. But on the flip side, the canopy is too big for the overall design.

Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca densata,) twin-trunk formal upright.
Owner and artist, Mark Kargenski (I hope I spelled that surname correctly.)
Colin seemed to find this composition downright delightful! It's rare to see mature bark on a spruce this thin, he said, and the proportions between the trunks are just right.

Shimpaku juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Shimpaku',) group planting on a rock. Owner and artists, Dick Ruemmelle.
Finding a ceramic suiban this size is almost impossible, Lewis said, so we'll accept the plastic. His main point of praise for this composition: It looks completely natural. This is how trees grow in such a situation. (He had no negative comments to make about it.)

California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens,) upright clump. Artist and owner, Jim Doyle.
This design is very natural, Lewis said, especially with the "daughter trees" appearing around the base. He considered both the pot and the accent to be good choices. He praised the unconventional decision to use multiple small sheets of hard white plastic to make up a "stand," adding that a single large sheet of the same material simply wouldn't have worked. On the flip side, there is a knob near the top of the main trunk, and that long, fairly straight stretch of the main trunk. But both of those issues, he expected, will be addressed as Jim Doyle continues to refine the tree. (Jim later told me that he has a large picture of a wild-growing California redwood at home, which he is using as the model for this bonsai.)

Trident maple (Acer buergerianum,) formal upright. Owner and artist, Mark Fields.
This impressive trunk is actually made up of 200 trident maple whips that were forced to fuse around a conical core by a grower in California. Mark Fields, now owner of the tree, was present in the Critique; he gave the number of trunks and confirmed that the inside is still hollow. (There are still a few chinks here and there between the component trunks, Mark added, and occasionally a shoot will sprout inside in response to light getting in.) Colin found the tree quite impressive and well-cared-for. He pointed out only one thing that needs to be improved: the somewhat bell-shaped canopy should be more rounded to give more of an impression of maturity.

Willow-leaf fig (Ficus salicaria,) twin-trunk upright; close-up of the nebari. Owner and artist, Kurt Smith.
This, Colin Lewis pointed out, is more typical of how a nebari grows in nature than the regularity we so often impose. The latter can look a bit artificial. As for the rest of the tree, Lewis said (with, I think, a note of regret,) "It looks like a pine."

(I emailed this picture to my wife later that evening, asking her to imagine this nebari full size and picture it in "Jurassic Park!")

Next post: some other trees I found especially interesting.

:-)  :-)  :-)


  1. Great post my friend. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together.

    1. Thanks, Ian. Sort of a payback, for you; I always enjoy your posts on the various shows on that side of the pond.