Rooted in love

May 05, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Lately, the world has experienced enough controversy to last a millennium or two. But that didn't stop Ron Lang from making a provocative proposal: Why not activate a dialogue between a bonsai tree and its container?

OK, this isn't the stuff of global conflict, but in the rarefied world of bonsai, it's positively incendiary.

"Within these little narrow kinds of interests, whole sets of rules go up," says Lang, a ceramic sculptor and bonsai artist, and curator of Bonsai inSites: Collaborations Between Tree and Container.

The exhibition, which opened yesterday and continues through May 25 at Clayworks in Mount Washington, is intended "not to tear apart the community, but to reaffirm the connection between ceramics and bonsai," says Lang, currently on sabbatical from the Maryland Institute College of Art's ceramics department.

Traditionally, bonsai artists have given little thought to the containers that house their trees, Lang says. For the most part, they are simple oval or rectilinear pots constructed of clay, plastic or resin. Intentionally neutral, these receptacles take backstage to the poetry of a gnarled and elegant bonsai.

But Lang and others who support his artistic probe see a way to advance both bonsai -- a kind of living sculpture -- and ceramic sculpture by fusing the two art forms into a greater whole. In such a traditional realm, though, it's a risky endeavor: "There is danger in this approach in that the pot might become more important, might actually be the focal point, and the tree or trees relegated to secondary importance," writes Thomas S. Elias, director of the United States National Arboretum, a co-exhibitor of inSites. His essay, for the show's catalog, is fittingly titled, Betrayal or Innovation?

To start the dialogue, Lang brought together bonsai artists from the Potomac Bonsai Association and 16 ceramic artists. Lang deliberately chose sculptors instead of potters; he felt it would be a greater challenge for them to create something that is both artistic and functional.

On a Web site set up by Lang's wife, Sharon Edwards-Russell, also a clay artist participating in the show, the ceramists studied digital photos of 40 trees loaned by the bonsai artists for use in the exhibition. Not everyone he asked was willing to "trust an artist to reinterpret [a tree's] container," says Lang, who nurtures some 200 bonsai trees of his own in his North Baltimore back yard.

In his challenge to participating clay artists, Lang asked them to "envision a place within the realm of your artwork to accommodate a miniature tree." They could choose from among a wide variety of bonsai, from an elm "majestic and proud," to a "sweeping forest group" to a cascading juniper "clinging to a marginal existence, bent downward by the forces of wind and snow and time."

Lang didn't overload the artists with too much direction, though. "I didn't want them to be lulled back into tradition," he says.

As the pots, awaiting their plantings, trickled in, Lang was delighted. Sculptor Brett Thomas' container for Jack Sustic's buttonwood bonsai is a moving extension of the tree's serpentine branches. Similarly, Taiwanese artist Ah Leon's wood-modeled pot masterfully echoes the bark of Parkville bonsai enthusiast Mike Ramina's ponderosa pine.

In their sheer whimsy, other efforts surprised Lang, including Paul Dresang's trompe l'oeil replica of a crushed, model airplane kit box created for Richard Meszler's San Jose juniper.

For ceramic artist Terry Whye of Finksburg, the collaboration with Ramina, who also provided a bonsai for her pot, came naturally. "Since I have a love of gardening and plants are a really big part of my life, combining the two was very delicious," she says.

Her piece, a lush female figure, has an opening in her chest, from which spills a cascading juniper. After losing her father suddenly last summer, Whye says, "I was very mindful of the grieving process as one that takes a while. A lot of my attention was in that place in my chest. To have a way to express that in sculpture and the hope of a living thing emerging from that place -- that had a lot of potential for my own transformation and healing."

At first, Ramina was a bit nervous about relinquishing two bonsai pieces to the cause. "All my plants are like my family," he says. "Especially after putting so many years into them; when you water and take care of them every day you're hesitant, yet you want to do it."

Knowing that Lang would care for his babies before and during the exhibition, Ramina felt more comfortable.

He is pleased with the result. When he first saw his 15-year-old juniper in Whye's pot, "It really flipped me out. I just couldn't have pictured it| the juniper covers the whole front of her like a veil." The piece, Ramina says, "brought out the beauty" of his bonsai.

Every day during the exhibit, Lang will carry each bonsai outside to be watered. Most bonsai, like their full-size counterparts, prefer the outdoors, all year long. Exhibiting them inside will be both "dangerous and stunning," he says. When inSites travels to the Arboretum's National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., this October, Lang jokes that he will bring his own tar and feathers in anticipation of purist outrage.

Then again, he thinks, maybe they'll begin to see it his way, and consider asking a clay artist: "Would you work with me to design a container for this tree?"


Bonsai inSites: Collaborations Between Tree and Container can be seen from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at Clayworks, 5707 Smith Ave. in Mount Washington. For more information, call 410-578-1919 or visit

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