Saturday, 31 March 2012

Elephant No. 181: Bonseki

I've been meaning to try something with sand for awhile, so today I thought I'd try the Japanese art of bonseki.

Bonseki—literally "tray rocks"—is the ancient Japanese art of creating miniature landscapes on black lacquer trays using white sand, pebbles, and small rocks. The paintings are quite fine, requiring delicate tools such as feathers, sifters, tiny spoons, skewers and bits of wood. The trays are either rectangular or oval, and usually have a low rim.

Typical bonseki scenes feature mountains, gardens and the seashore, with small rocks representing land and rocky outcroppings. Sometimes small copper structures such as bridges, temples and houses are added to enhance the scene. Bonseki pictures are meant to be temporary, although the images are sometimes preserved as bonga ("tray picture") or suna-e ("sand picture").

Bonseki scene of Mount Fuji, Japan.

Bonseki is thought to have originated in the seventh century A.D., when Emperor Temmu is believed to have described natural features using bonseki techniques. Interestingly, some of Kyoto's gardens were likely planned and designed using bonseki as a temporary blueprint. By A.D. 1300, the aesthetic principles of bonseki had been described by the Japanese Zen monk Kokan Shiren in a prose poem, and by the end of the fifteenth century, bonseki had become popular among the nobility.

A century later, the first bonseki school was set up, followed by several more as the art gained in popularity, particularly among the well-born ladies of Tokyo. Following the end of the Edo Period in 1867, bonseki declined sharply as more emphasis was placed on embracing Western culture and modernity. In recent years, however, bonseki has been revived, and is now being taught again by new masters of this traditional art.

For today's elephant, I was going to use an unpainted wooden tray, then a piece of black bristol board, then I decided to use the black griddle I use for encaustic and the like. It's more or less tray shaped, and it's black: two conditions neither of the other options really met. Obviously, I didn't turn it on.

For sand and rocks, I had these two jars of purple ground-up dyed quartz. One was somewhat like coarse sugar; the other was like fine gravel. Why purple? Because I like purple, and because the other colours they had were hideous.

I had no idea what I was doing, so I started by scooping out a tiny amount of sand and pouring it on the griddle in a vague elephant shape. I then pushed it around with a feather. Fingers are too clumsy, and a skewer is too pointy; but a feather is perfect because it's delicate enough to be fairly precise, and firm enough to move the sand.

While I didn't mind the abstract brushstroke look of this, most bonseki seems to use relatively solid shapes, so I decided to be bold and pour on a lot of sand. I used a tiny measuring spoon for this, however, and added the sand in stages, pushing it around with the feather before adding more. This photograph below show what the elephant looked like when I was more or less finished with it.

Next, since bonseki is essentially a landscape art, I figured I'd better add some landscape elements. Fair warning: I'm not good at landscapes at the best of times. My trees always look weird, and anytime I try to draw or paint rocks, grasses or the ground, I might as well be drawing the worst theatrical backdrops you've ever seen.

I started by pouring on small amounts of gravel for a tree, the ground and a few rocks.

To flesh out the landscape elements, I added more sand in what I felt were strategic places. I poured the sand on gingerly with a small measuring spoon again, then pushed it around with the feather. I also used my fingers a bit for this part, since less precision was required here.

The whole thing took me a little over an hour, and it was a quiet, meditative sort of activity. I see, however, why people go to school to learn how to do this. The main thing, I guess, is that, if you're going to produce something that relies on landscape elements, you should actually be good at landscapes. I should also maybe have had finer sand to get the true bonseki feel, and the sand should probably have been white.

It's not the best thing I've ever done, but I didn't mind doing it at all. It would be interesting to try something like this with more sizes of sand and stones. I also think this might be interesting to try with coloured sugar and candies on a cake. Then again, maybe I'll just leave all things bonseki to the experts.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In August 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported on the elopement of a female circus elephant named Savitri with a wild bull elephant. The wild elephant broke down a gate and led Savitri off into the jungle, much to the dismay of her keeper, who had raised Savitri from a calf.

The wild male had turned up at the circus when it stopped at a village in India's West Bengal state. It broke into a temporary enclosure and led Savitri into the jungle, trailed by three other female elephants from the same pen. The trumpeting of the latter alerted circus workers, who successfully led them back.

Except for Savitri. All attempts to lure her away from her new love proved ineffectual. Her mind was clearly made up. According to one forestry official, she was last seen bathing with the bull in a jungle pond. When handlers called for Savitri to come, she looped her trunk around the bull's leg, and he protectively shielded her with his body.

In the wild, mating pairs of elephants will often separate from the herd for a week or so. In this case, forestry officials said they would continue to monitor the pair to ensure that they didn't cause too much damage, but it is not known whether Savitri ever returned to the circus.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation
Elephants Without Borders 
Save the Elephants
International Elephant Foundation Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Elephant Nature Park (Thailand) 

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