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Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Fairy Tale Bonsai Style

The Fairy Tale Bonsai Style (FTS)
by Walter Pall

When the International Bonsai Academy was at Sebastijan Sandev's place in summer of 2o13 Sebastijan and I noticed that our ideas about styling some trees were so far away from standard bonsai that we better call it something else.

This is how this all came abut:

"And Sarah and John left their home in the afternoon because their mother had told them that she could not feed them anymore and would sell them to the rich farmers who would keep them like slaves. So the children walked away into the woods holding their hands. They went deeper and deeper into the forest and became quite afraid. It was getting dark and the forest made it even darker. The children felt without protection against all the wild animals and the ghosts and the evil ones. They became very tired and finally saw this enormous tree from far away. They were scared of the size, the mighty trunk and the branches which were so thick like other trees and moved into all directions like an octopus. They almost did not dare to get closer. But since they had no choice they finally arrived at the tree, which was even mightier than it had looked before. And they crawled over the enormous roots and found this crevice in the trunk which was large enough for both of them to enter. There they felt safe and fell asleep. Then at midnight they woke up because the tree spoke in a deep, gentle voice to them and asked them to crawl out. He wanted to show them the forest and introduce them to all the animals and to the other trees. And Sarah and Joe knew they were in a save place and loved the tree. From then on trees meant something very special to them."

This is the trees that we try to create. It has not much to do with what bonsai normally is other than that it is in a container, often not even in a pot. It is mighty, spooky, grotesque, appearing monstrous but being very warm and friendly, a tree that it so ugly that it is beautiful again. He does not know that he is ugly, and he does not care. Much more important is friendship and shelter for many. It is a giving tree, a very soft core in a very hard shell.

How does one go about creating tree in the FTS? First the material is most important. It does not make sense in general to force whatever form and style one is determined to create onto any piece of material. The tree will tell you what it wants to become. What one gets as bonsai material in general is not suitable for this kind of style, it usually is suitable to become a standard bonsai. But the 'impossible' material, the monstrous collected tree which has so many options but not a single 'good' one, the last dog, they can well be good material for the FTS. One of the great advantages of this style actually is that otherwise worthless material can be used for great results. But this is not the real reason to work in this style. Some will spread the word though that it is and we should ignore them. They won't get it, anyway. There must be something in this chaotic tree that you see which makes some sense. But sense in a fairy tale way and not in a bonsai way. It can be a monstrous nebari, or very strangely growing branches, or huge wounds which could be spooky hollows.

Here some bonsai in the FTS:

What's the difference between the FTS and the naturalistic Style? First let's see what they have in common. Both are controversial. This is a given if something threatens the bonsai establishment. Both are here since a long time already, but hardly noticed. The Chinese have done naturalistic and fairy tale trees since a very long time. Both seem to be easy, but are more difficult to do well than a so called classical bonsai in the neoclassical bonsai style. Both are striving to create a tree and absolutely not a typical bonsai. Both want to give the tree a soul so that it can speak.
Now the differences. While in the naturalistic style one usually tries to create something beautiful this is not the object in the FTS. There one tries to create something, impressive, unique, dominating in a nice way.

This all is in the very beginning and there will be many more examples. This is only to start the discussions.

Here some more images of trees in nature that could be the model for us:


  1. Fairy Tale Bonsai - pushing the bounds of the bonsai artists' imagination.

    Initially I was perplexed by this style, but I'm coming around to it. With sufficient ramification, these trees portrait an ancient character, reminiscent of something out of the Lord of the Rings' Fangorn Forest. I envision a tree of this style in a worn and rugged wooden pot, like driftwood on a beach. To me, a tree with this much character just doesn't fit in a clean-cut bonsai pot.

    Keep up the good work Walter,

    -Kirk @

  2. Dear Walter
    I have read ALL the articles on the blog now; this means the ones in a language that I can understand...
    One thing I keep asking myself: why are we keeping the word BONSAI?
    The species we use can be bound to the place where we live, the way we give them a FORM is also related to this. Why still use a word that is so clearly Japanese? It might be a big part of all the controverse about styles and forms. To illustrate this in an absurd way: a quercus robur can never be a bonsai. It can be a POTTED TREE, a ARBRE EN POT, a BAUM IN EIN POT, a BOOM IN EEN POT, but never a BONSAI...

  3. After seeing your Mugo pine 56 I had to ponder again these styling definitions of yours. I would see the naturalistic style somehow being at the edge of more accepted "mainstream bonsai", featuring natural forms that are not common enough to be accepted as "proper" bonsai. Thus the naturalistic style seems to slowly feed or inspire "mainstream" bonsai with natural forms, features and some aesthetic ideas that have previously been neglected or seen too outrageous. This idea it is somehow hidden in the pre-modern motto of bonsai: "make your bonsai look like a tree" otherwise said: "art imitates nature".

    Then this fairy tale style appears to me not just controversial but merely contradictory to what we have been used to see in a pot. Just as modern art has detached itself from aesthetics - which is is considered as just one means of expression - here you say that FTS is not focused on it either; at least not as much as the naturalistic style. Therefore in FTS there is a greater freedom of expression as it is (more) detached from the culture dependent bonsai-rules. And i would also see it inspiring and reshaping the naturalistic style on its turn as well.

    However, I would think that the interesting aspect about FTS is still the way it treats aesthetics. This is because i do not think that bonsai art is on its way to loosing natural forms as its main reference (say that we would start to make Chinese letter forms or just abstract "unnatural" compositions from small living trees) but (to me at least) the joy and the clue in bonsai is in this play between planned, artificial aspects and seemingly coincidental natural aspects. The FTS opens a new opportunities in this direction without actually discarding aesthetics. It also highlights our, sometimes childish manner to judge nature according to our own preconceived ideas.

    Romanticism seems to be a significant element in FTS and that´s just wonderful. The fairy tales themselves are often romantic as well, but often also terrible, especially the older ones. Romanticism is about the soul, about being alive just as robust and just as mysterious as the life itself. Could we say that an essential method of expression in a FTS bonsai is to distract the viewer out of ordinary bonsai and aesthetic patterns and thus open him/her for a new unforeseen reality?