What is the American style?

Tachigi

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I would like to bring up for discussion what exactly people think the American Bonsai style is or at the very least in the direction its headed. This question has been rumbling around in my head and nagging my thoughts more and more of late. I have heard in discussion, and read in articles, ideas that conflict with each other sometimes by the same person as to what this style should be over the past year.

Some of the questions floating around my nogg'n have been. With America as big as it is, can we have a distinctive style of our own with so many geographic diversities influencing the trees we see in nature. Because of those diversities can we categorize our style. If so how do we adapt the material used from so many locations to fit our "style"? Does our material have to be native in origin to qualify? Is it a specific style, or is it a blend of styles, Japanese, Chinese, and European reflecting the melting pot theme in America?

While the search is a healthy and creative one. Which I am hopeful one day will come to fruition as a distinctive style. It is troublesome recently to see people trying to pass off thin uninteresting thin trunked, vacant of nebari "sticks" as an American style. Literally justifying it by saying that most trees in America are young and this type of style reflects that in an American tree. I find this notion irritating, as I perceive this approach as apathetic and lazy, not to mention down right silly. What I find most bothersome is that our young/beginner/nooBs are starting to endorsing this and except it as a style. I wonder how many trees of that description they pass everyday that go totally unnoticed. I can't ever remember walking through the woods and running up on a thin immature tree (while beautiful in its own right) and saying that I'd commit this vision to memory. No body would, there is no reason why they should unless that image was being influenced by something else, say a larger and older tree that might give a image of Mother and Daughter. The beauty, and originality of a big old tree is the changes it undergone as it has fought to survive. That is what makes us stop in our tracks, take a deep breath and notice this beautiful thing nature as put forth.

Anyway thanks for letting me rant, would love to hear what you people have to say on the subject.
 
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cbobgo

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I agree.

Remember the Peewee Herman movie where he wrecks his bicycle, then gets up and says to the kid who saw it happen "I meant to do that" - as if intentionally doing something stupid is better than doing it accidentally. People work on a tree that doesn't have much style and say it's supposed to look like that, as if that makes it better.

I think you can only talk about an "American Style" if you are talking about show quality trees. There are alot of excellent trees in america that don't look alot like trees you will usually see in Japan.

But I don't think there is any one over-arching American style. I think there are regional american styles, that reflect trees found in that region. But I have not come across any single feature that could be said to be the hallmark of american style.

-bob
 

Tachigi

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But I don't think there is any one over-arching American style. I think there are regional American styles, that reflect trees found in that region. But I have not come across any single feature that could be said to be the hallmark of American style.QUOTE]

Hi Bob, That is part of my question, can the regional diversity be over come to create a unified style with so many different trees in so many different regions? The Japanese seemed to over come it with a very formal, almost calculated image which is there trade mark. The Europeans for the most part come across with a very Nordic influence, rough rugged carving on their conifers and even a lot of their deciduous trees this is something that is a hallmark of sorts for them. So what technique, influence or method would describe as you say, our hallmark?
 
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Tom,

I have been involved in this discussion before, many times, and I will ask you a couple questions first before responding, if you don't mind.

What is the European Style?
What is the Japanese style?
What is The Chinese style?

The questions above are exactly the same as yours, only the region has been changed. The difficulty of answering them, even concerning regions like Japan where bonsai has thrived for hundreds of years, speaks of the fact that there isn't really a "set" style that is confined to any given region.

Is the style of Europe "naturalistic" because Walter Pall creates this style and is from Germany? Is the style of Japan extreme deadwood carved bonsai because Kimura creates such? Is the style of American new age Gothic because Nick Lenz creates some that fall into that category?

No, no, and no.

In my own collection I have traditional Japanese technique styled trees, Chinese Punsai influenced trees, naturalistic influenced trees, Lenz influenced trees, tropicals influenced by the artists of Malaysia and Hawaii, and trees shaped by the inspiration I received from the forests of Michigan. Globalization at it's finest.

I guess the real questions I am asking is why does America need it's own style and is this even possible?



Will
 

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The two things that pop into my head when I hear the term "American Style" are the old flat top bald cypress I see everyday and the old live oaks I see everyday....
 

redroo

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Forget about literati, to begin with, then get your axe out and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! it down to near ground level, and for goodness sake don't even think about the natural look.
 

Jon Chown

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Hi Tom, Another thought provoking topic, and one that I must say I have seen coming sooner or later and perhaps could have even asked myself, perhaps I have in a round about way. I am not sure why we find that we must put a Country in front of the word ‘Style’ or should I be looking for an Australian Style - maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.

I like Wills statement
In my own collection I have traditional Japanese technique styled trees, Chinese Punsai influenced trees, naturalistic influenced trees, Lenz influenced trees, tropicals influenced by the artists of Malaysia and Hawaii, and trees shaped by the inspiration I received from the forests of Michigan. Globalization at it's finest.
I think that above all the most difficult task that we must all come to grips with is the ability to make our bonsai look like little trees and not topiaries or shrubs in pots.

Where I find the breakdown in communication on most internet sites is when people attempt to explain the difference between ‘Traditional’ and ‘Naturalistic’. While I can see beauty in both styles when done well, I have yet to find anyone who can give a detailed explanation of either and in particular the latter. My guess that it is as equally difficult to produce either.

The part that irks me is when an obvious beginner shuns advice given on a style and comes back with a lame excuse that he/she was opting for the Natural look. I suspect that the American Style is just another cop out for those who can’t see the tree for the woods.

Jon
 

Tachigi

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Hi Will, All good questions that makes one think. These are my thoughts on your questions.
What is the European Style?
What is the Japanese style?
What is The Chinese style?
In observation of these three different "styles" they all have a unique character and style of their own that shows through and can be credited to those specific countries or regions that for the most part isn't reflected in other locations. What I see as a European style is as I said above. Mostly a heavy Nordic influence, especially when it comes to carving. Its a rugged heavy look as you would usually find in nature. With an emphasis on the tree being more like a tree than a refined sculpted image which I would say takes us into the Japanese style which for the most part are more formal, calculated images. Their carving is much more refined than say European's carving. They tend to use the silk method on there shari. This is something that is characteristic of them. Chinese style goes as far as classifying themselves with a different name, Penjing. A more wild and naturalistic approach than traditional bonsai as it relates to the Japanese, but undeniably a style that when mentioned can be associated directly with the Chinese.
Is the style of Europe "naturalistic" because Walter Pall creates this style and is from Germany? Is the style of Japan extreme deadwood carved bonsai because Kimura creates such? Is the style of American new age Gothic because Nick Lenz creates some that fall into that category?
I do not believe that "naturalistic" is a European style. Walter has developed that and until he did was pretty much a none issue. However if you look into his trees you will find a European flair /style that takes you back to examples like carving. Kimura's carving and bonsai are a novelty when placed in side the confines of Japan. While beautiful and artistic his carving it is not the norm. However, his foliage styling is. Then there is Nick Lenz. New age Gothic, no,no,no :) My personal feeling right or wrong about Nick's unusual trees is that it reflects his own sense of humor and how he perceives things. It is a style, but definitely an individual style that he uses to make commentary with. The idea is much like Kimuras and Walters, just a little more radical :)

What I see as the common thread between these artist's and their work is that they all draw on what originally influence them. A anchor so to speak of a specific style that they grew from.
I guess the real questions I am asking is why does America need it's own style and is this even possible?
Because we are human. The nature of bonsai is an individualistic pursuit, but being creatures that need identity we band together to compare and to identify with each other. Lets also not forget the most basic tribal instinct and human trait..... competition. How come when we have the Olympics we don't say lets have them all compete as individuals no countries or regions involved. In the Ginkgo competition, individuals enter their trees but emphasis is placed on the region that the person hails from. When listening to some European noteables they can look at a tree and identify where that tree was styled and trained. So to me that does give an indication that each location has a spefic traight that I denifies itself. I think that a style that is unique to this country could do nothing but help promote bonsai here. It would spur discussion as we are doing here. The difference would be that we would actually be discussing a plan of action, a discussion of new and unique concepts and ideas which would in turn make us better from that undertaking. Not debating why its needed.

I guess what I'm saying is that while imitating other styles and influences is respectable and noble if one does it well. It is denying what our nature as humans are.
 
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Tachigi

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Hi Jon,
I am not sure why we find that we must put a Country in front of the word ‘Style’ or should I be looking for an Australian Style - maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.
Maybe :) .... lol ....I don't think that would be a stretch as Australia has characteristics unique to itself, that nobody else has. A tree is a tree is a tree. Until its been influenced by its unique environment. Is that not an ingredient that is needed for a specific style?
I think that above all the most difficult task that we must all come to grips with is the ability to make our bonsai look like little trees and not topiaries or shrubs in pots.
Agreed, which in itself is a substantial challenge
The part that irks me is when an obvious beginner shuns advice given on a style and comes back with a lame excuse that he/she was opting for the Natural look. I suspect that the American Style is just another cop out for those who can’t see the tree for the woods.
I agree that it is irritating when that is brought forth as an explanation. It almost makes one want to sit down and tell them in no uncertain terms that they got it wrong. That life is short and that using that excuse is a cop out ,and they are wasting precious time. However, if such actions were taken we wouldn't be considered politically correct or civil
 
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Isn't it kinda arbitrary to focus on the nationality? If we can agree that nationality isn't more than a imaginary community (check out Benedict Anderson if you are interested in that concept), we might as well focus on class. Is there a "working class-tree"? I'm absolutely convinced there is if you decide to go look for it and ignore all the trees made by blue collars that doesn't fit into the preconcieved standards, just like Japanese style or European style...
 

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The term "Chinese bonsai" has always bothered me, because I assume we are talking about Penjing. Penjing has its own design guidelines that have little to do with bonsai guidelines. I find the two art forms about as similar as comparing either to English topiary. :)

There are exceptions to every rule, just as there are bad examples of Japanese-style bonsai in Japan, and good examples of Japanese-style bonsai in the U.S. In general, I think that American bonsai tends to appear more natural-looking, with less of a focus on a hard design, while Japanese bonsai is all about technical design regardless of whether that design looks like something you might find in nature. Also, Japanese bonsai tends to feel more refined with fewer branches, tighter foilage pads, etc (similar to Japanese gardens).
 

JasonG

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Good question Tom....

I think it is all a matter of taste, stlye, preference and back ground....

In America there is a heavy Japanese influence on bonsai. You have masters like Boon and Cathy S, Mike H. amongst many others who are trained in the Japanese school. These instructors travel the US doing lectures, demos and workshops spreading the knowledge that they have. Look at Chris Johnston, he is a student of Boon learning the traditional Japanese way of Bonsai. This is not a bad thing at all. And how many Japanese masters make the trip to America to headline shows and conventions? There is a bunch of them.

Then you have the Europeans, many who were trained in Japan or atleast heavily influenced by Japan. I do think the Europeans have a more "natural" feel to the work they do with Bonsai than the Japanese. But that is just my personal feeling.

I don't think there has to be an "American Stlye" of bonsai. But if there were to be one now would be the time since Bonsai is very young in America. There is a ton of untapped resources in America, and a wealth of young talent coming up.

My personal take on it is, having worked both under Boon and Walter is there is a ton to learn from both. One isn't better than the other but both come from different schools. While they both strive for perfection in thier vision of a tree that will be totally different than one another it is thier right as artists to do so. If a learning bonsai artist (nooB like me) could take someting from both of them (just using these two guys as an example) and mix it up in a blender and apply it to your trees you might have the new American Style.

I have the utmost respect for the Japanese and European bonsai artist's. A beautiful tree is a beautiful tree no matter where it came from or who styled it.

I do think that American bonsai can only grow and develop from it's current state and who knows maybe some sort of style comes out of it. I do think that we need to utilize American trees more.... not grafting another variety of pine on to a Ponderosa, or Shimpaku on Rocky Mt Juniper, etc, etc..... Keep our trees native and work with our American trees and what they give us, heck maybe that is the new American trend, native foliage!!! :)

Jason
 

Tachigi

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Howdy Jason,
In America there is a heavy Japanese influence on bonsai. You have masters like Boon and Cathy S, Mike H. amongst many others who are trained in the Japanese school. These instructors travel the US doing lectures, demos and workshops spreading the knowledge that they have. Look at Chris Johnston, he is a student of Boon learning the traditional Japanese way of Bonsai. This is not a bad thing at all. And how many Japanese masters make the trip to America to headline shows and conventions? There is a bunch of them.

Then you have the Europeans, many who were trained in Japan or at least heavily influenced by Japan. I do think the Europeans have a more "natural" feel to the work they do with Bonsai than the Japanese. But that is just my personal feeling.
I hope that I'm not coming across as saying that I'm against Japanese,European,Chinese styles. Nothing can be further from the truth and don't imply that either are inferior. I, like Chris and You study with a professional/master/teacher. I have studied with Colin Lewis for over 6 years. I to have studied a few times with Walter and Roy Nagatoshi, Graham Potter. So I appreciate what your saying and agree that as long as perfection in the tree is the ultimate goal then you have grasped the most important concept.
My personal take on it is, having worked both under Boon and Walter is there is a ton to learn from both. One isn't better than the other but both come from different schools. While they both strive for perfection in their vision of a tree that will be totally different than one another it is their right as artists to do so. If a learning bonsai artist (nooB like me) could take someting from both of them (just using these two guys as an example) and mix it up in a blender and apply it to your trees you might have the new American Style.
BINGO!!!!!! I believe you hit it on the head. This is becoming my own personal belief, which I referenced at the beginning of this thread saying
Is it a specific style, or is it a blend of styles, Japanese, Chinese, and European reflecting the melting pot theme in America?
Which I believe echos your sentiment. Its funny no one picked up on that.

The topic of a American style makes the US enthusiast almost bristle at the thought and offer resistance at this notion. However if you sit in a class/workshop with one of our teachers whose origins are from someplace else. This very topic pops up each and every time, usually from an inquiry to the students ..... So what do you think the American style will be, and what will influence it?
 
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Dwight

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Just a beginner here so you all know what this is going to be worth. We seem to forget that a countries " style " is more a reflection of it's culture than a true style. In Japan few hobbiest exist who do their own work. The Japanese style is therefore dictated by professionals who are second , third or even forth generation artists. This is traditional of many forms of Japanese art and is the result of a truely old continuous culture. In the USA and Europe , boinsai is relatively new so the ameture is still , and may always be , a driving force behind the style of the regon. Because westyern bonsai has so many ameture practioners there will naturally be many styles and we may never settle down to one style for one region. Walter is a good example....an ameture who became a professional and is one of the most influential artists around. But is he a driving force ? Probably not because there are so mant central European artists who are of opinions different from Walter. He can no more dominate his region than Nick can dominate the North East so his influence is much less than say Kimura ( sp? ) who CAN dominate a region due to the culture of the region.
 

cbobgo

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Well, I wouldn't say that Kimura is dominating Japan - we certainly haven't seen kokofu taken over with kimura style trees by multiple other artists. I think Walter has had as large, if not larger impact on bonsai in Europe and America. Not only is he an excellent artist, but he is also excellent at talking about the art, which is more than can be said for many others.

But I think the roles that any individuals play in defining a style is probably secondary to the affect that the local environment plays. The way that trees look in a place where an artist lives, or where he/she grew up has a big effect on what their bonsai ends up looking like (well, at least if they are not creating cookie-cutter trees.)

That's why I think regional styles will have more validity than national styles. As was mentioned in a previous post, nations are just lines on a map. Trees from my area of California have more in common with trees in the mediteranian area than trees from the east coast of the USA. It's climate and geography that are the influences. My trees don't know that they live in the USA. They only "know" that it's hot and dry in the summer and mild and wet in the winter.

- bob
 

irene_b

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In most ways I agree with Will Heath.
But I also agree that the trees need to be kept and admired as trees.
And Tom we do have a name for it....Bonsai-ist.....:D
Bonsai is borderless, but what creates the differences is the individuals not the nationalities.
We were originally all focased on Chinese than Japanese "Styles" because that is where we learned from. But from there on it has evolved into a More personal style for each of us.
So I don't see it as American Style as much as each persons chosen style.
Just my wooden Nickel...
Irene
 
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The term "Chinese bonsai" has always bothered me, because I assume we are talking about Penjing. Penjing has its own design guidelines that have little to do with bonsai guidelines. I find the two art forms about as similar as comparing either to English topiary. :)

True, it is a bothersome term. Penjing is scenery in a tray, translating roughly as tray scenery (I believe) while Punsai is the single tree, bonsai is the Japanese pronunciation of Punsai. Many people wrongly classify all Chinese trees as Penjing.

Because of our own history of Japanese influence, not many people actually have seen the work of the Chinese. Most likely many know of and have seen the work of Qingquan Zhao, Chinese Penjing and Punsai at it's finest.

Here's a challenge for those who think styles can be categorized by region. Take a look at the link below, this leads to a contest where 17 countries are represented. Scroll down just enough to see an entry but not the text below it and see if you can guess the country of origin just by the styling of the tree. Impossible isn't it?

http://www.artofbonsai.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=467

While a particular region in the past possibly could have evolved its own distinct style due to being influenced only by others within traveling distance, these barriers that created "regional styles" no longer exist today. With the development of truly world-wide events, shows, and contests, not to mention the Internet and traveling masters, we all are influenced by the entire world bonsai community. As in the link I gave above, with a single click we can be influenced by Chinese masters, Japanese masters, European masters, etc. The "inbreeding" that led to regional styles in the past and which well may have hampered innovation as well, is history. As in my own collection, we are influenced by the world now, making a true blood regional style unlikely.

The Flat top style many refer to as an American Style is more apt to remind people of African trees....etc


Will
 

cbobgo

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I never said that all bonsai in a region would look a certain way, or that you could tell exactly where a tree came from by what style it is. Certainly I could have a tree in CA that is styled like a Florida Cypress. Just like I could style my tree like a Japanese tree, or like a Chinese Penjing.

But it's also possible to say that a certain style of tree reflects what is naturally seen in a particular area. I could make a forest that reflects a scene in the Pacific Northwest that would look different than a forest representing New England. But just because I have a tree that reminds someone of a tree in New England doesn't mean that it came from New England, or that I came from New England. But it still could be called a "New England" style, if such a thing exists.

Think of the California Oaks that Walter likes so much. He has posted many pics on IBC. If I styled a bonsai tree like one of those oaks, I could call it a California Oak style tree. It would be distinctly different than trees from other areas, and anyone who has seen those trees would recognize it. Someone who hasn't seen a California Oak would say it breaks all the rules and is not a good bonsai. Would they be right?

- bob
 

Dwight

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Interesting.....I was born in Cal but moved to the desert when I was two wks old. I've been here ever sinse. If I ever get good enough to have a " style " I wonder what it will reflect ? Not many trees here except tame ones and most of them don't look like any bonsai I've ever seen ( I read a lot ). So what are my influences ? I really have no idea but I do love junipers and eventually that would have some effect. There are a lot of junies around here but most are bushes ( not that again ) and only tame ones really llok like trees , usually lolly-pop trees. Maybe there are not even regional styles as so many artists travel as do many ammetures it seems. Could this be diluting regional styles.
 
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Bob,

We are on two different subjects here. Designing a tree to look like a tree growing in nature, no matter where the inspiration comes from, is quite different than having a American style of bonsai.

The topic of American style bonsai assumes that there would be a style distinctly "American" and I pointed out that there is no other region (with the possible exception of China) where the overall styling of bonsai by the majority of practitioners is so much alike that it could be called a regional style.

The Chinese example above leads back to the globalization argument I presented, as their own self imposed exile from the world created an environment where a regional style could exist.


Will
 

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