Bonsai is an art form I have referenced at least once before on WhatItMeansForArt. It is not an art form practiced in K-12 classrooms, but it provides an interesting perspective for that very reason. Because bonsai is not an integrated part of the western art tradition, is stands as a sort of different-but-parallel art culture which art educators can analyze from the outside.

This recently released Bonsai Empire interview with bonsai master Masahiko Kimura highlighted two aspects of the tradition of bonsai teaching and learning that stand in stark contrast to modern educational practice and theory. These are the apprenticeship structure, and a distinct mindset around artistry.

The first is found in the very language used to refer to teacher and student. Translated, it is master and disciple. These words have significant connotations in English which may differ somewhat from those of the native Japanese language and culture, but if you read from the perspective of a bonsai apprentice like peterteabonsai, you will see it is not so different after all. He describes his initial understanding of the word Oyakata, or master, as somewhere between “boss and god.”

A bonsai apprenticeship is designed to prepare the apprentice for a career as a bonsai professional. This makes college level learning a more appropriate comparison than K-12 classrooms. Even so, Mr. Kimura says he was in training for 11 years, and through the apprenticeship “came to like bonsai gradually.” Can you imagine going to college for 11 years to prepare for a career you didn’t particularly like in the beginning?

More for consideration of K-12 art teachers is the methods employed in this learning environment. Kimura says, “My Oyakata rarely directly showed me how to do a bonsai task, he just gave me some good advice whenever he saw my work.” He expands on this by explaining that a master teaches the basics of the art, and the apprentice “must learn these basics very, very well to be able to come up with his own style after apprenticeship.”

Today’s educators know we must design instruction for specific learning outcomes in an established length of time. That is the nature of a course, is it not? But I fear too many art educators hold onto a lingering thread of this philosophy believing they should just respond to what the student is doing or just teach the foundations. All of the educational research would suggest these methods are not effective.

Layered on top of these ideas about the nature of the master and apprentice relationship is a distinct mindset that has persisted throughout Kimura’s life, and has no doubt influenced his students.

Hints of this mindset are revealed when he shares something of his own skill saying, “I get inspired right after I see a tree” and describes this as a “gift” he believes he got from his parents. We begin to form a more thorough understanding of his mindset when he describes the “most important qualities a bonsai artist should have.”

  1. Sensibility, the ability to react and evaluate intuitively
  2. Natural inner talent
  3. Inspiration, [you] can’t make a good bonsai without proper inspiration
  4. Creative power, a tireless force that makes an artist great, and…
  5. You must be brought up with these qualities.

Watch it yourself to double check, but I believe he actually shared that last one as number five… as a separate quality. He elaborates on this with a Japanese Proverb

“what is learned in the cradle is carried to the grave”

Now, I believe deeply in the power of early childhood education. It’s absolutely true that parents have a huge opportunity and obligation to begin teaching their children early, but as an educator I will not concede to an idea that what children have when they come to us at age five is going to determine their success or failure in school and in life.

Our mindset about our students ability to learn is one of the major factors I see that influence the success of teachers and schools. We must believe that our students are able to learn, and likewise, we must not believe that certain abilities are some sort of divine gift. Skills are learned and practiced, even if not in a traditional learning environment. If you want to read more about mindset and my feelings about talent read  any of these:

Before any bonsai people get upset with me, let me state clearly that I associate this mindset with master Kimura, not with the bonsai tradition at large or all bonsai professionals.

It is no longer the norm, but the master and disciple, or master and apprentice relationship has existed as an important part of the history of western art (not only in bonsai). Listening to this interview, I wonder if the art world hasn’t inadvertently held onto some of that culture and mindset. Art is not an activity for the wealthy and the privileged. The arts are an inherent part of human culture and therefore the birthright of every human (if you want my opinion). In public schools most of all, we must avoid taking any stance that suggests a student doesn’t have what it takes, or that the abilities they need to succeed are somehow innate rather than learned.

Art teachers, look hard at your own thoughts, words, and actions and ask yourself, is there any remnant of the master and apprentice system in my classroom? And if so, is it serving my students? All of them?


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