Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The making of "Winter Bonsai"

Winter Bonsai
I have just come across my work, Winter Bonsai, in my files.  I think this will be the first in a series of posts about pieces I live with each day, but often fail to appreciate because I'm so familiar with them.  

Concept and creation are my main joys.  Then comes the challenge of the mechanics of a piece, the hows of putting a piece together.  Once it is complete, I am done on an emotional level as well as a practical one.  I am more impressed with my work when I see it online than when I see it in my home, because my home is such an ordinary context.  When displayed on my walls, on my bookcases, in cabinets and on tables, my work is part of every day.  I frequently fail to notice it at all, and have to go looking for it when something reminds me I once made it.  

Early in my purchasing life on Etsy I'd found a seller in Japan who had some lovely bisque heads for sale.  These are almost always painted (black hair, red lips) and then fired again, but for some reason this lot was available in its unfinished state.  I was amazed by their open-mouthed beauty.  I bought them.  

Fukushima3, detail
The heads were on sticks.  I put them all into a jar on top of a bookcase, and there they sat for a year or more.   I used a picture of several of them in a section of another piece, called Fukushima3.  ( I want to talk about that piece, too.  Soon.)  In that work I think the women are talking to each other.  I see them bleached of color by the nuclear disaster and their losses, purified by their communal strength of purpose.  I see strength and tranquility in their faces.  They are the three women of Fukushima, the Fukushima3.  

Winter Bonsai was not an intentional work, which is to say I didn't think of it before I made it.  It wanted to be made, and it drove its own creation. It was conceived in a fury of creativity, when I was "in the zone," working on several different pieces at once, as I usually do.  When I was looking an element for another project, my eye caught on the heavy metal machine housing that now forms the base of Winter Bonsai.  It sprouted many earth-colored electrical cords.  When I played with the cords they wanted to rise up in a clump, and that clump wanted to be supported.  Suddenly it looked like a very lithe and spare body.  I devised a rod that would keep the clump upright (bamboo, as it turned out), and then looked for the right head.  There was my collection of bisque Japanese women, waiting patiently to be put to some good use.

Of course it wasn't this easy or this quick.  I always ponder, consider and reconsider each decision.  I try things out to see if they'll work.  Then I scrap my final decision, which is often resurrected down the line. So the steps in the paragraph above might have taken hours or days, I don't remember.  The key is to let the process take as long as it needs to.  When I am stuck, it means I need to concentrate on something else, and I do. (This is one of the main things the how-to books don't tell you: things take time.) All the while, I listen to my inner voice, which says "that looks terrible," "wash your hands," "almost right," and "needs more black."  I need to stay focused on what I want to see when the project is finished.  Everything is about achieving that vision, no matter what it takes.

A rooted tangle.
After the base and head assembly were finished, the look was not complete.  It needed a further base, a kind of symbolic bonsai container.  I painted a wooden box lid in a red and black tortoiseshell approximation.  Then I went too far and became literal, trying to find exactly the right pebbles to fill the container.  Tiny gray ones?  Green shards?  When I talked myself out of that wrong-feeling idea, I realized the container needed nothing extra.  It was fine as it was, empty and displaying its underlying form.  Half of successful creation is knowing when to stop.  Maybe more than half.  As T.S. Eliot wrote in Ash Wednesday, "Teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still."  

Names for my work usually come easily to me, and this one did as well.  Although this has a bonsai shape, it is sparse, and spare.  It is all gnarly trunk and no foliage.  It is unclothed.  Therefore, a Winter Bonsai.  This bonsai conserves her strength and waits for spring.