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Less Is More

Text and photos: Morten Albek, Denmark
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Shohin Cotoneaster."/>

Detail of Shohin Cotoneaster.

Should a Shohin or Mame bonsai look like a big tree that is scaled down to miniature size? Will a bonsai look like a small-scale copy of a big tree? No, is the answer. But it sure has to make the viewer think they see a tree. Not a copy, but a picture of a tree.

Bonsai is imagination and fantasy. You canít just scale down a big tree, and put it in a pot. You have to paint the visions held in peoplesí minds. Of course it is much easier to create this picture with a bigger bonsai. But when you make Shohin or Mame bonsai, you are forced to use a minimum of material to form the image.

The Art Of Shohin

Open spaces and few leaves have to suggest the crown of the Shohin tree. The small trunk carries the soul of the tree and suggests the size, age and living conditions. A few roots will be enough to show that the tree is well secured in the ground. The entire story must be told with less material than is normal for larger bonsai. This constraint demands something more from both the artist and from the audience: imagination.

This is why it is art when you succeed in communicating a vision into the mind of the viewer. And that makes Shohin and Mame so extraordinarily fascinating as compared to bigger bonsai. It is simply an extra challenge for the mind.

Another reason to enter the world of these tiny trees is that you can take them in your hands and just drink them in. It is an intense and very satisfying experience to sit with a tree in your hands, turning it to every possible angle, observing all details of the trunk, the nebari (root base), and the fine ramification. Imagination and visualization must be primary tools for forming the tree and the result should coax imagination from the viewer.

The Extra Dimension

Larger bonsai can impress with their strong and powerful trunks. They can overwhelm our senses by their size, impressive branch structures and fantastic jin and shari alone. These advantages are out of reach for small bonsai. Shohin have to evoke the image of a much bigger tree with a stroke of a pencil rather than the swath of a wide paintbrush.

The art of Shohin requires an audience that is willing to engage in fantasy, receptive to the image painted in the mind by the tree. The viewer must be willing to participate because the simplified forms of Shohin are suggestions more than illustrations. The important extra dimension is what you donít see, but imagine without hesitation. This suggestion is what fills in the rest of the picture of the tree. It is the very essence one has to bring out of Shohin and Mame.

Cotoneaster horizontalis.

Breathing Emotion Into Tree And Mind

Experiencing Shohin is quite different from viewing other bonsai. Shohin require effort for you to see them properly. You have to bend down to view them at the right level, and you have to get close to see the rich details of the ramification, the nebari, the structure of the bark and the precise positioning of the foliage.

Some of the feelings one gets from nature have to be present in the tree. For me, it might be the feeling of the big oak I climbed in as a child. It still stands nearby the shore and I go there for walks on occasion. It might bring back memories of the sun playing on the foliage and of the view down to the ground while I sat on a branch dangling my feet.

I get these feelings when I look at my small Cotoneaster. Of course I canít expect others to get the same feelings. But if the tree is able to bring this memory of nature into my mind, it might well wake similar memories in others who view it. We all are not so different.

The elements that evoke these feelings are to some degree inexplicable. The following may provide some insights.

In part, it depends on what kind of relationship you have with nature, your culture, the area in which you are living, and how you approach life. What does the moss in the pot mean to you? Is it just moss put in the pot to cover the earth to look nice? Or do you see the low grass underneath your childhood tree? Are the branches just neatly arranged or do you actually see a tree with the wind blowing through the leaves, making them dance in the sun?

It all depends on how you approach the tree in the pot. You have to have an open mind in order to receive the greatest benefit from meeting a bonsai. And in the case of Shohin and Mame, it is a challenge to receive and express these emotions from the small volume of material.

Measured from the rim of the pot, a Shohin may not extend more than 20cm / 8 inches - 25cm / 10 inches in height, and only 7cm / 2,5 inches is the limit for Mame.

Lonicera nitida. Age: 1930.

Man or Tree

At the WBC exhibition in Munich, Germany a few years ago I had the pleasure to see some nice bonsai exhibited. While I was preparing to take a picture of a bonsai made by a skilled and well-known European bonsai artist, he recognised me. He approached and asked me to take a picture with him standing in front of his tree.

This little story illustrates the difference between a man devoted to his tree, and a man devoted to him self. You will never be able to create a tree with convincing naturalness if you put yourself in front of the tree. And the tree will neither gain nor express the emotions that lead your thoughts out of the room and into nature. You might be impressed. Not by the tree, but by the skills of the creator.


The naturalness that is expected from the tree is not always present when you look at all the bonsai presented in exhibitions. Often they are artistic and powerful, but they lack naturalness.

In 1999 I travelled to Omiya, Japan, primarily to visit the bonsai garden Seikou-en. Seikou-en is owned by Mr. Tomio Yamada, President of Omiya Bonsai Union. The naturalness of the bonsai there was utterly striking. The bonsai looked as though they were just placed in a pot without even the touch of human hands. Also, the harmony between pot and tree was striking. Every detail was carried out in respect for the tree.

Ever since this visit, I have searched for this quality in my trees. And I am first and foremost finding it in Shohin. Because of the necessity of using a very little amount of material, I am not encouraged to overdo my expressions. With Shohin, I find the "natural naturalness" without artistically disturbing and overdone show-offs. I try to bring this habit to my bigger bonsai, and this way my small trees teach me to grow the larger bonsai with better results.

By the way, Seikou-en means the sound of the very green garden. This tastefully expresses the approach to nature taken by Mr. Yamada. Listen to that sound and you will create Shohins worth viewing.

Tomio Yamada in his bonsai nursery, Seikou-en in Omiya - Japan. 1999

Morten performs Bonsai, and Shohin and Mame-bonsai demonstrations and workshops, both nationally in his native Denmark, and internationally. In 2005, his two closest bonsai-friends and he opened a bonsai school to promote bonsai further by workshops in Denmark.

Morten's non-bonsai work is as a camera operator at a regional TV-station in Denmark, which is his full time job.

In 2003, Morten established the Shohin-bonsai Europe website, to promote Shohin and Mame-bonsai more to the western world. This site has become a great success.

Morten Albek has written articles which have been published in Bonsai Europe; for the all Japan Mame-Bonsai Association website; the Danish Bonsai Society and other publications. From 2006, articles with focus on Shohin-bonsai will be published in Bonsai Today, too. Later in 2006 the book 'Shohin-bonsai, Less is More', will be released by Stone Lantern.

Morten has also been busy in recent years, winning the Danish New Talent Competition in 2001 and the Keyaki Masters Talent Competition in Denmark in 2003.

A member of the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association (since 2005), the British Shohin Association (since 2006) and the Danish Bonsai Society (since 1993), Morten was also selected as the European representative to the American Shohin Bonsai Society in 2005.

Morten has travelled to Japan to meet the masters of bonsai to learn more about bonsai by discussing aesthetic views of the art and during his latest trip, Morten also produced a TV-programme about bonsai.

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