Abstract vs. Realism

If your eyes have managed to scroll down the page before you read this, you are probably wondering what these images of Mount Rainier have to do with anything related to bonsai. They are actually what I do most everyday to support my bonsai habit. That is, creating tee shirt designs for companies like Eddie Bauer, Columbia Sportswear, and Icebreaker. Eddie Bauer is an active outdoor lifestyle clothing brand with headquarters near Seattle and is nearing 100 years old. Mountains and trees figure in heavy with their Northwest heritage and the lifestylethey represent. And since you can see Mount Rainier right out the window of their home in Bellevue, they quite naturally want to feature that majestic giant in just about any design where there’s a mountain. There might be a whole collection with Denali, or Everest, K2, or the Tetons, but there is always Rainier. So every season, I have to figure out a new way to represent the mountain, whether it is the feature or in the background. 

By stepping out of bonsai and using tee shirt designs as examples, I am hoping that we can take a close look at the concepts of what we are dealing with and what we are trying to accomplish in our bonsai. What you can see by these examples, all from the same person, is that there are many ways to represent the same physical object and it can be associated with many different ideas. Maybe it’s very literal, as in a photograph, or abstract – to the point where you might barely recognize the source. 

What we have in bonsai is making some of the same choices in the way that we style trees. So, right off the bat, we put a tree in a pot, and in doing so we have removed it from world of reality and into some level of abstraction, even if we do nothing else. We could go so far as to put a pot of soil out and let the wind blow in whatever seeds it wants and come back in ten years and see what happens, but you can’t get around the fact that someone made the pot. So much for being completely natural. 

Now that we have that tree out of the relative comfort of the ground and into a stuffy, confining pot (which might actually provide much more comfort and stability than it ever had in the wild) we have some decisions to make. How much are we going to intercede on the behalf of both the tree and art, to make a bonsai? 

We have to decide what our goal is, even with each individual tree, and what we want to represent. Do I want to create the sensation of standing on a certain mountaintop where that tree came from? Am I trying show off the beauty of its blossoms? Do I want to show it all full of vigor and health, or is it barely surviving? And more to the point of this article, do I want to show it as a highly stylized abstraction of what a tree can be, or simply represent the singular specimen that it is? Is this tree going to announce itself or just sit quietly in the corner? Will it be highly sculptural, creating defined, consistent shapes or just a, grow as you may, haphazard style?

Culture definitely weighs in heavily on what we want to see. The Japanese refined the art of bonsai through technical prowess and cultural sensibilities. The technical aspects of growing and maintaining bonsai speak for themselves. Plants don’t change the way they work, so we have to learn to work with them, to support our efforts. But the cultural aspect is something that we can control. A good place to start is with Japanese aesthetics. They have learned how to evolve their trees into a style that is both pleasing and maintainable over hundreds of years. But even that style is ever changing, and different among various practitioners. 

The Japanese, it would seem, crave a peaceful balance, with not a hair out of place and as close to perfection as possible. Take for instance, putting moss on the surface of a pot for exhibition. It definitely makes things look better, but for the Japanese, the thought of bringing dirty soil seen on top of the pot into their home is quite unfathomable. Contrast that with myself, who regularly piggy-backs dirt into the house from my waffle stompers. Cultural habits are different and lead to varying aesthetics.

So, back to the trees. Take a look at Mount Rainier 1, the usual view represented of themountain. It’s basically what you see along I-5 especially from Seattle. Then there is view number 2, which I took much closer to the mountain on the southwest side. Doesn’t even look the same. I choose rather consciously to represent the mountain in its most familiar form on tee shirts so that folks recognize it. I myself would be much less recognized by my back side, than my front. That is a constant that I have chosen.  

Rainier 1  

Rainier 1  

  Rainier 2

  Rainier 2

Now take a look at Rainier Park. Do you recognize the mountain? Yet I traced it from the very same views. I just used a few straight lines is all, but it’s the same. Even though its roots are in a very real mountain, it is really just the suggestion of ANY mountain. The shapes are broad and highly stylized, even the trees are just one step away from Christmas ornaments. 

Now observe Rainier Pixel. It’s definitely based on a photo, something we would call real, but now the resolution in some places gets very coarse and you can barely make it out. This focuses your attention to the peak, very much in the same way that we use foliage to frame a piece of deadwood or control the way that our eye flows through design of a tree.

Rainier Park

Rainier Park

Rainier Pixel

Rainier Pixel

Then there is Sketch Rainier. This one is totally made up of lines with no shapes at all. If you get to close, it’s very difficult to decide which is a positive or negative shape, but it becomes much more interesting, and even refreshing with that push/pull aspect.

Sketch Rainier

Sketch Rainier

Puget Sails

Puget Sails

Then there is Sketch Rainier. This one is totally made up of lines with no shapes at all. If you get to close, it’s very difficult to decide which is a positive or negative shape, but it becomes much more interesting, and even refreshing with that push/pull aspect.

 Scott Elser

Spring Show in New Home 

Our annual spring show returned to the Japanese Gardens one fine, rainy weekend in April. Back to the garden, but in new quarters, as our display was divided into two separate rooms across the new plaza, plus an outdoor display by Brian Lonstad. It was a great success, even though it featured fewer trees than we are used to. We saw many new trees and several new exhibitors. 

Folks had a really good time during the day visiting with attendees and Saturday evenings critique was a great hit. During the critique, we voted on the best trees, shown below. Congrats to all of the winners and many thanks to all who participated, either by showing trees, helping set up or take down, tree sitting, and demonstrations. We hope to expand further into the plaza next year with more outdoor displays. Thanks everyone!  See the May Newsletter for the photos of the winners.

Scott