There has been a lot of press recently on pot. Lots of folks making speeches and writing proposals for the right to buy, sell, and grow pot. So I have begun my own pot initiative. Asserting my rights to grow in homegrown pots. That is to say, the evolving idea that maybe my homegrown, northwest native trees would look best in homegrown, American pots. The trees that I find myself gravitating towards as I continue to hone my bonsai collection down to a manageable size (A never ending and daunting task, I assure you), are our own native trees that speak of wildness and an untamed, enduring spirit of life. The Japanese, and Chinese before them, have done an awesome job of designing containers that work both horticulturally and aesthetically for the creation and maintenance of bonsai. They have a great variety to choose from. But there are times when I look at my trees and feel that there is something not quite right, something that is lacking.
So now I am on the hunt for new containers that will enhance the sense of ruggedness that many of my trees exhibit. With that said, one of the hardest things to do in bonsai is finding containers which enhance and support the aesthetics of the tree, but do not upstage it. Maybe it’s a little like strawberry and balsamic ice cream. Never had it, but how do you take two disparate things and make them work together for the greater. It is relatively easy to find great pots with lots of character, but the more character the pot has, that harder it is to find a tree that it may compliment.
For me, the tree always has to be the driver. It comes first in the definition of a bonsai – a tree in a pot. But it is the marriage of tree and container that make a bonsai and doing so is a skill that is very hard to learn. The pot should be just under our level of consciousness, where we appreciate it, but we don’t linger too long on it.
Imagine walking into an art gallery and all you looked at were the frames of the paintings, not the paintings themselves. I am sure that you have all seen the large, gold, ornately decorated frames the museums often use to say that this painting is really important. But this can interfere with viewing the picture. It is not quite so simple for bonsai though, as it is three dimensional. This is where art really comes in, where you can’t really give any hard and fast rules. Maybe the container is not even a pot at all. Maybe it’s a stone, or piece of wood. Or maybe a found object. If you get the chance, take a stroll through Greg Brendan’s garden and you will find a myriad of found, created, and manipulated containers for trees. It will inspire you to think outside of the pot.
The pots that I choose to go with certain trees tend to push the edges of what is horticulturally practical for some bonsai, in terms of size. It’s what takes me to the aesthetic edge to really make a bonsai great. And it’s why when I look at trees that might be shared at one of our shows, I might mention to an owner that a particular bonsai could be placed in a much smaller container. Ultimately, that means that you have to work harder to keep all of the needs of thetree in balance – water, air, fertilizer, sun, etc… But again, that is where the art dwells. Many of you are much more comfortable with larger pots and that is fine. Dead trees are not, by definition, bonsai. But the real point is to have containers which really show off the trees best.
If you have a highly refined tree that is very formal, very lush in growth, then maybe a highly refined pot is in order. It doesn’t matter where it came from, it just has to work. Any artist is affected by the cultural that they live in. Asian culture is somewhat different than western cultures, and you can see it to different degrees in bonsai containers. I am hoping to find containers that have that undercurrent of the Northwest spirit that will really synergize with trees. I see it being done at times, so I know it can be done. I just have to watch for the opportunities as they present themselves.
So back to those pots and where do I find them. Good question. Not an easy one to answer, but let me give you some ideas. The web has been a great new source and method to access potters. We have lots of great American potters out there, and many have web sites. Unfortunately, you can’t always see exactly what the potter has in stock. So you will have to write them about particular needs. I was fortunate to meet Charles Smith and his wife Michele during a Juniper class at Bonsai Mirai. You’ll find them under MC2 Pottery. They make very different and wonderful small pots. When you can find a vintage Michael Hagedorn, and they are out there, buy it. I have found no better quality in a US potter. They are simply awesome, and I hope he makes more sometime, rather selfishly.
The most astounding American artist would have to be Sara Rayner out of Minnesota for the pure quantity of high quality work. The pots are exquisite and she makes some larger ones missing from other folks repertoire. And speaking of large, about the only other person besides Sara making large pots is Ron Lang. It is pretty much special order and he might be a year out by now. Hence, the reason for this column - now is the time to be working on next year. There are others, like local Jan Retanauer and nationally known Byron Myrick, Nick Lenz, Jim Gremel, Dale Cochoy, and Jim Barrett. Gary Wood also does some great work. You might be able to find something from Max Bravermen, with a Pine Garden Pottery stamp on it. Literally. He is no longer with us, but his designs often have a chunky rustic charm that really speaks of the Northwest.
Some of these folks can be found at conventions and shows, which allows you to actually see and handle the pots before purchasing. I think that I have a pot from most everyone I have mentioned, many of the them actually have trees in them! Nature itself may feature some of the best containers – I am on the prowl for a very large piece of lava for a new bonsai that came off the same lava. So, lots of words here to help prompt you all to start thinking about your needs for next spring and how you can take your trees to their next level through the appropriate choice of containers. Enjoy this great fall weather.