One of my first teachers, John Boyce, a founding member of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco in 1960, approaches bonsai from a seemingly unique direction. Incorporating elements of minimalism, Japanese Literati aesthetics and one other strong influence… John has always had a strong preference for bunjin trees – and he likes his bunjin on the sparse end of the spectrum. His trees have a delicate feeling but are simultaneously rugged and aged. John has been making bonsai since he was 28 years old and he’s now in his 80’s.
John says that he had decided that he wanted to be a florist when he was in 4th grade. He was fascinated by everything having to do with flowers. He eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in floriculture from University of Illinois, having been fascinated by the senior-year design courses. One of his instructors called him to work at a large floral shop in Illinois soon thereafter.
Along came the Korean war and John found himself in the service, the navy specifically, sailing around the pacific ocean on a coastal minesweeper. For two years he and his crew mates were stationed in Japan. While he was there he saw a sign for Sugetsu lessons in the window of a shop and inquired about them. Sugetsu is one of the schools of ikebana, the Japanese art flower arranging. He took lessons from the shopkeeper for two years while each day sharing lunch or dinner with his instructor. (I’m baffled how he had time to do this while enlisted in the Navy) Then, upon returning to the US he returned to work as a florist; he continued his study under a teacher of Ikenobo before becoming a teacher both of Sugestsu and Ikenobo himself. Professionally John worked for many years as a florist in San Francisco.
These days John spends much of his time volunteering at the Bonsai Garden Lake Merritt (BGLM) in Oakland, CA. The Garden is maintained entirely by volunteers and John is among the most active.
The trees in the BGLM collection are nearly-uniformly amazing, having been donated by many enthusiasts over the last 15 years. Among them is a tree that will be making an appearance at The Artisans Cup next month.
I sat down on a bench at BGLM in front of these trees to talk with John about bonsai.
Eric – What influence has your background as a florist and your interest in Ikebana had on your bonsai?
John – I saw bonsai while in Japan and of course flowers were still big in my head. Ikebana has taught me about voids. Voids have visual shape, volume and weight. And you have to understand that, no matter what style tree you do, but especially in bunjin, the voids make the tree. Indeed, the negative spaces are very important, and when people first start in bonsai they don’t understand that. Even in that tree here, (gesturing to a large-trunked sweeping California juniper in the BGLM in Oakland, CA) there are spaces inside the tree, in front of the tree from the branches down to the pot level and the shape of the voids. What gives shape to it are the negative spaces You have to think that way, that helps you design the tree and makes it look real.
Eric – What do you think about if you combine the words “Bonsai” and “Minimalism?”
John – They’re basically the same thing. You have to have only the minimal parts even in a tree like that (gesturing again to the juniper) to make the bonsai or enhance the trunk. Whatever style the trunk is, lots of foliage, or just a little bit of it. That’s what makes the tree. Minimalism and bonsai are flip sides of a coin.
Eric – So, you’re saying that all bonsai has an element of minimalism because you’re reducing something to create something more dramatic or something more clear?
John – More clear, usually dramatic, but more natural, that’s the hard thing – to make it look natural, like your hand is not stuck in that tree bending it. It has to look like nature did it or it just grew that way. That’s why the best bunjin are the ones you find. It’s virtually impossible to make bunjin out of just any kind of a tree by bending it this way and that way. The natural trees that you find, the best two that I have, those I found.
Eric – Do you mean your old rotten plum bunjin that’s here at BGLM now?
John – Oh, no, the plum…a squirrel jumped on that and broke the whole top off of it. Someone here saw it happen. So we only have about 10 inches left of it. It’s got a wonderful bottom of the trunk so I’ll have to make something else out of it.
Eric – Wow, Timber! A squirrel lumberjack!
John – Yeah, well that happens, the trunk was rotten so… Sometimes you have to chop the whole top off, redesign it and bring it back to vigor again.
Eric – What do you think is the most important part of bunjin?
John – I can tell you lots of what Bunjin is not. It can be dramatic, it can be humorous, it can be very natural, it can be exciting, it can be quiet or calm. The branches can be anywhere on the tree but the more branches you have the smaller and shorter they have to be. The trunk is the main thing. You’re looking for something exciting in the trunk, a little bend, a little mistake, a borer got in at this point or whatever, and that’s what you bring out.
Eric – You did an exercise where you cover branches on a bunjin with a paper towel to illustrate to an audience the look of the tree with them removed. When you do that kind of design exercise, do you think of the tree in terms of the pads that are there or in terms of the spaces between the pads?
John – I look at the tree, what it doesn’t need, cut it off. Automatically, that makes the voids. I try to bring out the essence of that particular tree by tilting or rotating the tree or removing or adding branches in my mind. I look at my trees every day when I water and turn them a little bit more and think about it. And while I’m doing other things that little tree is up in my head and I’m looking at it, thinking. Finally, usually in fall when I can wire, especially for pines, that’s when I do it and try to make a tree out of it. I try to bring out the essence of that particular tree, whether it’s bunjin or another style it is, I try to bring that essence out in that particular tree. You know, you have ten black pines and they’re all different, even though they’re all black pines.
Eric – Did you ever find yourself drawn to mame or sparse shohin compositions?
John – No, mostly because everybody’s looking for heavy trunks. I had a couple black pines, that were about a foot high, one of them reminded me of a geisha dancing. It has that movement, very graceful, very calm. Bonsai doesn’t always have to be exciting or dramatic. Drama can be very quiet, like in music or movies or plays. It doesn’t have to be BANG! like a police chase with bullets flying. All that’s not important. I like the quiet drama of a tree in a tiny pot, it’s like a conversation between you and the tree, and you’d better listen. You can leave it in that little pot because it just looks great and the bark keeps getting flakier and flakier but the trunk still stays small.
Eric – Did you start that tree from a seedling?
John – No I got it in a gallon can. They were just little straight trunks. I wired and bent them and shaped them. I didn’t take any workshops with them, but I let the tree grow and develop and develop. I like bunjin because it reminds me of my flower arranging.
Eric– you’re talking about your little pine that you showed at the Asian Art Museum show with the descending branch?
John – Yes.
Eric – Yes, I have that tree now. I almost brought it to show you but I didn’t decandle it this year and I could just hear you being upset with me about the trunk getting too big because of that. [laughing]
John – Well, if it’s not growing strongly then just let it grow, that’s the right thing to do.
Eric – Naka is quoted as saying that it helps to know some Kanji to be able to design bunjin. Do you think that’s because the artist is conceptually trying to design a tree that resembles a couple pen strokes?
John – I think he meant that you look for a tree that resembles kanji. The best bunjin that I have or had are trees that nobody ever wanted I picked up at club sales for next to nothing. They just did not see what was there. When I did the club auction I thought – what in the world are these people thinking”
John’s thoughts on bunjin have always fascinated me, and I have to thank him for taking the time to talk to me about them. If you want to see at least one detailed timeline of his trees, check out the previous post “John Boyce’s Bunjin”