The Artisans Cup – Trapezoids and Parallelograms

Posted by on Oct 18, 2015 | 4 Comments
The Artisans Cup – Trapezoids and Parallelograms

While the trees at The Artisans Cup were undoubtedly the core of the show, they were not the only focus for many visitors. You could do no more than glimpse the room from the entrance before you were convinced that you had never seen a show quite like this one, either in America or Asia.

Quoting Peter Warren’s recent Facebook post:

“…it was a genuine redefinition of what is possible, what can and should be done. It was neither throwing the baby out with the bathwater revolutionary, nor was it the same old thing, reissued repackaged and re-evaluated…”

Among the things in the show that were departures from the norm were the location inside an art museum, the entrance, the carpeting, the furniture, the lighting and the backgrounds.

Exploring the Visual Flow of Table Shapes

Perhaps the most dramatic departure from previous display conventions is the use of rectangle, parallelogram and trapezoid table tops in combination. While it’s tempting to dismiss this not as innovation but just as difference, the key to this innovation is that unlike the static nature of a rectangle, both parallelograms and trapezoids create a dynamic feeling. The directionality, rhythm and visual motion that they inject into the exhibit complements the rhythm and directionality of many of the quality bonsai compositions.

Before reading further, if you’ve never heard of visual flow in bonsai, see my previous article here.

geometry #theartisanscup #bonsai

A photo posted by Skylab Architecture (@skylabarchitecture) on

In the image above from the Skylab Instagram feed, there are at least four types of tables shown, two parallelogram with thick and thin frames, and two that are either rectangular or nearly rectangular with the same thick and thin frame variation. In addition to these shapes, there were also trapezoids where the runs of tables were interrupted for aisles and at the far ends from the point where this photo was taken.

A plan view of a portion of the exhibit, showing the rough configuration of some tables (drawn from photos and memory.)   Tree #53 at top left was Scott Elser's Engelmann Spruce.

A plan view of a portion of the exhibit, showing the rough configuration of some tables (drawn from photos and memory.) Tree #53 at top left was Scott Elser’s Engelmann Spruce.

The visual direction that the table indicates is determined by the sharper point on the front edge of the table as seen from the viewers’ perspective. Thus in the plan view tables 26 and 58 would flow left and right respectively, and away from each other.

In some displays the table directionality matched the directionality of the tree and accent combination while in other displays these conflicted. Where the directionality of the tree/display matched the directionality of the table we see a perfect place to position the accent plant on the table, such as was the case with Konnor Jenson’s white pine cascade (Tree #27) and Scott Elser’s Engelmann spruce (Tree #53). On the other hand, where the directionality of the tree/display do not correspond to the table direction, the companion pieces are somewhat crowded between the light and the stand.

Where aisles cut through from one row to another there were smaller display spaces, in most cases there were smaller scale trees in these spaces that prevented a crowded feeling in the display space.

Scott Elser's Engelmann Spruce (Tree #53).   The trapezoid shape of the table matches the flow of the trees display and the jutting point of the table creates a perfect place for the companion planting.

Scott Elser’s Engelmann Spruce (Tree #53). The trapezoid shape of the table matches the flow of the tree’s display and the jutting point of the table creates a perfect place for the companion planting.

The directionality of the end-of-row table shapes caused some (although not uniform) conflict with the convention of the bonsai at ends of rows having visual flow into the center of the row. In more than one case the tree directionality disagreed with the shape of the table, this was the case with my own display. It would not be possible to place a tree on these tables and have it both agree with the visual flow of the table and the display convention of directional trees flowing toward the center of the exhibit row.

A plan view of one part of the display sketched from photos and memory.      In my own display (58, lower right) the flow of the tree is to the right as is typical for trees on the end of a run of tables.   However the trapezoidal shape of the table gestures out of the line to the right.   In Display 26, Konnor Jenson's Pomegranate the directionality of the tree again disagrees with the natural directionality of the table.   In each case the shape of the table when viewed slightly from above leads the eye in the opposite direction from the direction of the tree.     In display 08 (Greg Brenden's southwest white pine)  we see that the shape of the table and the directionality of the tree agree, and the space for the accent is perfectly proportioned, as it has been placed in the slightly pointed portion of the trapezoid at upper left in the figure.

A plan view of one part of the display sketched from photos and memory. In my own display (58, lower right) the flow of the tree is to the left as is typical for trees on the end of a run of tables. However the trapezoidal shape of the table gestures out of the line to the right. In Display 26, Konnor Jenson’s Pomegranate, the directionality of the tree again disagrees with the natural directionality of the table. In each case the shape of the table when viewed slightly from above leads the eye in the opposite direction from the direction of the tree. In display 08 (Greg Brenden’s southwest white pine) we see that the shape of the table and the directionality of the tree agree, and the space for the accent is perfectly proportioned, as it has been placed in the slightly pointed portion of the trapezoid at upper left in the figure. The flow of each tree and each table are indicated by the arrows drawn in the figure.

Dynamic Versus Static Shapes in Styling

The correlation between a statically shaped tree and a statically shaped table may not be readily apparent to beginners without some explanation. Taking the example of a formal upright (see tree “a” below), the tree has a roughly isosceles triangle crown shape which feels visually stable and is basically symmetrical; the same thing is true for a rectangular top table – with symmetry in the table top there is a stable or static feeling. In contrast, when the triangle of foliage is created in the much more dynamic scalene triangle configuration (see tree “b” below) there is a dynamic feeling, and a lack of symmetry. This corresponds well to a table top that is a parallelogram, or trapezoid.

One of the first things I noted when I first discovered TAC co-founder Ryan Neil’s Bonsai Mirai website was the dynamic quality of many of his bonsai compositions. In many cases an artist can choose to make a tree more stable or more dynamic. A static or stable look is accomplished by placing the foliage over or near the base of the trunk and by making the lower line of the foliage pads horizontal to the ground. But, Ryan has been creating a more dynamic feeling by employing the scalene triangle configuration and placing the foliage mass in a more precarious position, the effect of which is to create a composition that is asymmetrical and feels visually tense. In some cases the use of non-horizontal bottoms on the branch pads create such a dynamic quality that the tree looks like it is moving even as it rests.

(a) Is the rectangular shape below the formal upright tree matching?  Both the shape of the tree, an isosceles triangle, and the shape of the traditional bonsai display space is relatively static feeling.   (b) This more dynamic tree has a foliage shape roughly as a scalene triangle, is it inherently better complimented by the dynamic feeling of a parallelogram shaped table top?

(a) Is the rectangular shape below the formal upright tree matching? Both the shape of the tree, an isosceles triangle, and the shape of the traditional bonsai display space are relatively static feeling. (b) This more dynamic tree has a foliage shape roughly as a scalene triangle, is it inherently better complimented by the dynamic feeling of a parallelogram shaped table top?

Did the visual flow of the tables affect the scoring of the trees? Based on images of the tables correlated with the trees, there were 28 trees that did not match the flow of the table and 43 trees that did match the flow. The mean for all trees was 42.80, the mean for trees with flow not matching the table was 42.53. Based on the numbers, it seems that the judges were not concerned with the table shape when scoring. (Rightly so, it’s not mentioned in the rubric.)

Lessons for All

Bonsai organizations all over the world can benefit from the professional design that went into The Artisans Cup; we can utilize the redefined elements and move forward with them to create better displays and better shows. Take a look at the way that the exhibit was arranged and determine if any of the progressive elements might be beneficial for your next bonsai show. The real challenge to using the lessons that the TAC offers is in implementing them in a way that is accessible to many bonsai artists.

4 Comments

  1. Thomdec
    October 18, 2015

    Great job, Eric. The show truly was awe inspiring. My mind is caught in the interpret and implement mode. What a wonderful place to be!

  2. Martin
    October 19, 2015

    Cool post, Eric!

  3. Scott
    October 30, 2015

    Hey Eric, great analysis. I was actually going to check out the placements myself and never did. However, being in charge of the crew that carted all of these displays in and set them up (four truck loads), I can give you a bit of info. All of the display frames were parallelograms with exactly the same angles. There were two thick models, each a mirror of the other. Since they held up the back of the display, they needed the two versions. The thin frames were simpler, and exactly the same in each display. We just turned them over when needed to get the opposite angle. These thin frames (solid steel, not tubular) actually nested inside of the large tubular frames for easy storage and transport. So the illusion is created by the way they were arranged together, and offset. Think of a chevron and that is what you had. Keep up the great work.

    • Eric Schrader
      October 31, 2015

      Interesting. I was thinking that they might be all the same based on a couple other shots that I saw….but there are some images (trying not to rely on memory here) that show something that really looks like a trapezoid. Well, nuts. Thanks for the info.

      I suppose my core point regarding visual flow is still valid regardless of whether they were all just parallelograms or mixed.