Bonsai: A Patient Art, published by Yale University Press, presents a collection of living Bonsai masterpieces from the renowned collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Each patiently nurtured tree is presented at the peak of its seasonal beauty; each embodies the quiet energy and beauty of the art of bonsai. In an engaging opening essay, the book introduces the practice and philosophy of bonsai, its spiritual resonance, and its horticultural sophistication.
Unlike other arts that express through shape and colour bonsai involves living things, always growing and changing. To keep and enhance bonsai over a long period of time requires a sense of beauty, technique, and experience. To the two traditional fundamental principles, wabi (calm, quiet) and sabi (simple, old), must be added the equally essential quality ga (element, graceful). Such watchwords can sustain the caretaker as well as the tree. Bonsai hone our awareness of the bittersweet beauty and impermanence of life and encourage humble acceptance of change and the passage of time.
– Susumu Nakamura
Bonsai is a patient art. As in the birth of any entity, beginnings are important. They are filled with promise and expectation. They are imbued with a vision. Likewise, ends bring closure – resolution, a job well done, a life well lived. But, perhaps most essential in this art of commitment are the middles; the years filled with shaping and waiting for fulfilment, years of care and artistry, years of nurture.
Bonsai is perhaps the ultimate collaboration, bringing together human mastery and nature’s mystery. the merger is both formal and spiritual; as the tree grows and is shaped by the eye and the hand, a relationship develops. Artifice, at the heart of bonsai, is convincing only when knowledge of the original is thorough. The bonsai artist studies the full-size tree to guide the miniature; the bonsai responds to the touch and vision of the artist. The collaboration unfolds over decades, even over a succession of caretakers, as the tree is usually longer lived than its human partner.
When passed through generations, bonsai becomes truly an art of stewardship. An artist becomes custodian of a life, nurturing it and then passing on its care. Bonsai is an art of trust.
Bonsai are ordinary trees and shrubs that have been trained in pots to grow into compelling shapes. Growing plants in containers may have begun at the dawning of history in the Middle East or in India as a utilitarian practice allied with medical arts. Plants used for medicinal purposes were collected from distant locales and varied environments and grown in pots for convenience. Over time, the restricted space resulted in dwarfed plants.
The art of bonsai first began in China more than three thousand years ago. Called penjing, these earliest bonsai were naturally dwarfed trees that were collected, potted, and trained to display he appearance of great age. Early in the Heian period (794 – 1185), the Japanese adopted the art and refined it to a new level of sophistication. Japanese and Chinese languages use the same characters to represent bonsai: one character means ‘pot’ or ‘tray’; the other means ‘to plant’. By the late 1800s, the miniature trees in containers were highly sought after by a few enthusiastic collectors outside of Japan. Bonsai exhibits at the world’s fairs in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spurred some interest in the West. Popular interest began at the end of the Second World War with the occupation of Japan. Today, this well-known and respected horticultural art form is practised worldwide.