The Art of Bonsai

The ancient Japanese art of bonsai has been practiced for thousands of years. Its goal is to produce small, perfectly formed trees that mimic the shape and scale of their full-size relatives, writes our art critic Malcolm Storer.

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On a bright sunny day in Mobberley recently I went along to meet one of the latest generation of bonsai practitioners; Nicholas Grasby.

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Nicholas, who works for the Environment Agency, lives a stone’s throw from Mobberley Church. At the rear of his house is a beautiful courtyard garden containing many of the superb specimens he’s cultivated over the years; each one lovingly tended and displayed in pots that maximise the oriental aesthetic.

The first thing I learn is that bonsai originated in China, not Japan.

Over a cold beer, I asked Nicholas how he became interested in such an ancient art form.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture and have a passion for the environment, especially aquatic ecology. When I lived with my parents in Lymm I dug an ornamental pond in the back garden and stocked it with Koi carp.

I then started to build around it, landscaping the pond with rocks and gravel and planting trees like Acers and Junipers. It gave me a real insight into Japanese philosophy, their minimalist approach to Nature and Zen spirituality. From there I developed an interest in bonsai. What I do is incredibly meditative. I work in collaboration with the trees. They’re shaped by nature, and it’s my task to bring their inner beauty to fruition.

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Basically, it’s a conversation between myself and the tree, and what ends up happening is that I bring out what the tree wants and vice versa.”

What sort of age can trees reach?

“Bonsais can live up to a thousand years. There’s a famous one in Hiroshima that survived the atom bomb that’s almost four hundred years old. The oldest one I have is a three-hundred-year-old Juniper.

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And because they live for such a long time, I see myself as a mere custodian, developing it from the previous owner.

Others though are young trees I’ve collected myself from the wild. Depending on the species, each one has its own specific needs.”

So how do you go about shaping a tree, training it if you like?

Nicholas motions to his stunning collection. “That’s the lovely thing about bonsai, a tree can be crafted into so many different styles, around thirty to forty in all.

But you have to be careful. A tree can only be put through one ‘insult’ a year. That might mean re-potting it or removing or reshaping certain branches. You have respected the natural cycle of the tree.

It’s rewarding in so many ways, spiritual as well as artistic.”

So, you class what you do as an art form then?

“Absolutely! It’s like when a painter looks at a canvas; they think ‘Is the form right’? ‘Is the balance right’?

It’s the same for me. The biggest difference of course is that, unlike a painter or sculptor, I’m working with a living thing.”

Finally, I asked Nicholas what it takes to become a bonsai practitioner.

“Find out all you can about the subject; read books, watch videos on Youtube, join bonsai forums. But the most important thing is to respect the tree. We’re only on the planet for eighty years if we’re lucky, whereas trees live for centuries. So respect. Respect, and a great deal of patience.

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For more information on bonsais, contact — nicholas.grasby@hotmail.com

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Photographs by Claire Hampshire.

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