The Freedom of Limits

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I was teaching a beginning drawing workshop, earlier this month, when a student mentioned that she was a docent at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, one of the top museums of its kind in the country, and offered me a tour. It just so happened that I was expecting visitors the following weekend and it seemed like a perfect chance to explore something new.

Marion Wachtel (1873-1954)

Marion Wachtel (1873-1954)

The extent of my knowledge of Bonsai could be summed up in the words ‘little trees’. The first thing I learned is that it’s pronounced Bones-eye. The common, and incorrect, pronunciation means “ten-thousand”, which puts one in a strange predicament, pronounce it wrong to fit in- or pronounce it correctly and have everyone think I’m the one who’s the idiot.

During my tour, I learned that Bonsai is an art form with its own rules and language that closely parallels art. The trees are tended over generations and both age and provenance are valued. There are a few major styles derived from trees observed in nature such as: the formal upright, which has a single vertical trunk such as a pine, an informal upright with an S shaped trunk, and the cascade, mimicking downward growing trees such as those heavy with snow. There are stylistic choices that are considered in the creation and tending of the plants that parallel painting: a sensitivity to balance, line and texture. New ideas are introduced but within the context of the art form and an understanding of the aims and goals of the tradition.

The rules that govern the art of Bonsai were defined with a clarity that, to an outsider, could feel somewhat arbitrary. Like the asanas in yoga or the ceremonial purity of the Japanese tea ceremony the fences of style are clearly articulated. Is there an advantage to slowing down the instantaneous experience of seeing with such clearly defined the formal properties?

Edgar Payne’s book on composition

Edgar Payne’s book on composition

The American Literary critic,  Robert Scholes, described poetry as a game with agreed upon rules, even arbitrary ones, and that it takes two, a writer and a reader, to play it. Both parties need a common working language of its goals to successfully communicate. The poet Robert Frost, rightly or wrongly, likened free verse to playing tennis with the net down- a game with easy points but lacking in fun. (My dear friend, the poet Randolph Schuder, disagrees but I will let the controversy rage on.) Poetry, seen through this lens, requires rules and hindrances, in other words: limits in order to fully push its expressive qualities. The artfulness and mastery comes from the straining and dancing within and against the limitations. When either the reader or writer walks away the art form slides into obscurity.

I went into this museum experience without any knowledge but left seeing it with a new eyes, knowing something of what makes these little trees valued by practitioners and collectors. The language defining the forms helped me see it in sharp focus. I enjoyed my visit more than I anticipated, and was able to apply this new appreciation to other areas of life. If I visited without learning, I would have still enjoyed myself, but the experience wouldn’t have lodged so vividly in my mind and memory. The limits gave it an identity, created the challenge, made it interesting. Without the structure, the art would dissipate, which, as Fitzgerald wrote, is the process of making something into nothing. Now painters-should we talk about art?

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