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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.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Spruce, Unconventional Bonsai Design and "Chef's Pants." M-ABE 2016, Headliner's Demonstration.

     This is the raw stock Colin Lewis used in his headliner's demonstration on August 20 at the Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition: a yamadori Black Hills spruce, Picea glauca densata, collected by Andy Smith. I don't remember hearing its estimated age, but if I were asked to guess, I'd start at 80 years. (And that's probably 'way too low.)

Demo tree for the headliner, Colin Lewis, at the 2016 Mid-America. Yamadori Black Hills spruce,
Picea glauca densata, collected by Andy Smith of Golden Arrow Bonsai.
The headliner's demonstration is a regular part of the Mid-America show, and is always worth attending. Usually it involves creation styling: taking raw stock and performing the first major shaping that sets the design and future shape of the bonsai-to-be. In the case of this spruce, that design to turned out be a bit out-of-the-box; more on that a little later.

The auditorium was still filling at the appointed starting time, so Colin Lewis came out and made a few introductory remarks; including, as best I can remember his words, "And I'm sure you're all wondering 'What's this idiot doing up there in his pajamas?'"

What he was wearing did look like pajama pants at first glance. I was thinking, one, that they reminded me of the medieval character Harlequin; and two, that at Lewis' age he can pretty much wear whatever he pleases! Lewis explained that they're "chef's pants," and superbly comfortable. They certainly looked comfortable, enough so that I'm considering getting some myself.

Colin Lewis listening to a question, wearing his chef's pants.
 Lewis apprentice, Maliea Chiem, was also wearing chef's pants as she assisted with the demo. It was obviously his idea, but she was a good sport about it.

Colin pauses his work on one jin to listen to another question,
as Maliea Chiem considers the next step on the jinned top.

Maliea Chiem has been Lewis' apprentice for three years, she said, having been his student for two years before that. She clearly knew what she was doing; it won't surprise me if I see her out on her own as a bonsai teacher in a few more years.

Lewis uses copper wire exclusively on conifers.
At one point I asked Lewis what he saw as the life story of the tree that this bonsai-in-the-making represents. He thought a moment, then said, "I'll tell you when it becomes clear to me." (Approximate quote.)

This next picture isn't all that good, and I apologize for its quality. But it lets me tell you this little story: Maliea Chiem was using the sprayer to keep the deadwood wet while she worked on it. When someone in the audience observed in a voce that that was deliberately not sotto enough that she could always give Colin Lewis a squirt with the sprayer, she took the hint! Maybe it was payback for making her wear the chef's pants. (How do I know the hint was "deliberately" loud enough for her to hear? Take a guess.)

Wielding wire and sprayer.
In an earlier post I mentioned Colin's assessment of Scott Yelich's F. burtt-davyi in the Critique the evening before: "It's a shambles! But it works." Lewis's final design for this tree wasn't "a shambles," but like Scott's Ficus it stepped outside the established norms of bonsai design. Specifically, a major branch on this tree crosses the trunkline; that is not supposed to happen because it usually doesn't work well visually. (The only accepted exception (say that five times really fast!) is when the tree is styled as a windswept, and this is not.)

Colin Lewis said essentially the same thing about  a few other bonsai during the Critique: they bent or broke an accepted design rule or two, but they worked anyway. The same is true of his design for this spruce: it works anyway. My next picture isn't as good as I'd like, but I think it will help you imagine this tree growing on a harsh mountainside, unconquered by the rain, wind, snow, rockslides, and you-name-it.

The finished design. You can see the major branch crossing the trunkline just below the bend.
Convention is broken on that point, but this design works.
A silhouette view.

Imagine it at sunset, positioned against the sky.
The finished product from the headliner's demo is usually auctioned off at the banquet that evening. I haven't heard who bought this tree, but I look forward to seeing it on display in a few years.

Let me stop to point out one thing. The bonsai that broke major rules but still worked were the exceptions; most designs that break major design rules don't work. Every now and then, bending or breaking a rule is actually necessary to achieve the image the artist wants to bring out. But only now and then. And you must develop a clear and in-depth understanding of the bonsai design rules, and the standards behind them, before you can recognize those uncommon occasions when you should break one to preserve something deeper.

Next post: a few nuggets of learning. (Unless something else comes up and seems more compelling.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

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