In control: the modern bonsai artists

The centuries-old craft of bonsai is thriving as both a hobby and art form, with contemporary practitioners around the world challenging tradition — and asking what lessons it can impart in an unpredictable era.

Article by Michael Snyder

BonsaiBonsai created by the Japanese artist Masashi Hirao. Photography by Tetsuya Miura.

In 1913, a shipment of plants from the Yokohama Nursery Co. in Japan arrived in the port of San Francisco, among them a two-metre-tall trident maple destined for the Japanese Pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to be held two years later. More than a century old, the tree was an exemplar of the Imperial style, a type of bonsai developed for shoguns and feudal lords and named after the Imperial court during the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, an era of cultural transformation that arose following the country’s 214-year-long period of isolation. Evenly spaced branches reached out from
a trunk twisted into gentle contrapposto, its clusters of spring-green foliage suggesting the outline of an isosceles triangle. Like most bonsai from that time, the maple expressed an ageless ideal of the natural world wrested into equilibrium.

When the exposition ended, the maple was purchased by Kanetaro Domoto, a Japanese immigrant who arrived in California in the 1880s and co-founded with his brothers what would soon become the largest Japanese-owned plant nursery in the country. When the Domotos lost their property — which once spanned almost 20 hectares — during the Depression, Kanetaro’s eldest son, Toichi, brought the trident maple to his own nursery, located nearby, but by 1942 the family was imprisoned at Colorado’s Amache internment camp.

In the camps, bonsai artists — those forced, like the Domotos, to give up their collections — made trees and flowers from paper and wire, makeshift manifestations of their own heartbreak. After the war, when the camps were closed, those practitioners started local clubs for Japanese American hobbyists, eventually welcoming a broader public fascinated by Japanese aesthetics. Toichi Domoto returned to his nursery, which had been left in the care of an employee, and began the long process of restoring his family’s prized maple. In his absence, the tree had grown scraggly, its wooden container rotted and its roots broken through into the soil below.

In the following decades, the Domoto Maple, which now stands nearly three metres tall and is a centrepiece of the permanent collection at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Washington, became a living symbol of struggle and survival — and an inadvertent precursor to the contemporary bonsai movement. By training native species into forms that express their ecological and cultural climates, bonsai artists from East Asia to South America are proposing a new, expressionist style that both questions and embraces the constraints of this centuries-old botanical tradition, exploring the immensity not just of nature but of human experience itself.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 54 of T Australia with the headline:
“In Control”
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