Rock star of bonsai

Pavel Slovak is a ‘rock star of bonsai’, according to Leigh Taafe, Curator of the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia. Czech-based Slovak has been a full-time professional bonsai stylist for more than a decade and was in Australia recently for Bonsai Week at the National Arboretum in Canberra, giving a one-off performance.

Bonsai is the art of growing miniaturised trees in pots or trays. It developed in Japan around 800 out of the older Chinese art form, penjing. Where bonsai manipulates individual trees to express their character, age and dignity, penjing has a focus on the creation of landscapes, many of which refer to literature, art and recognisable places of renowned beauty.

National Bonsai and Penjing Collection

The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia, which is maintained and displayed at the National Arboretum, features works by local artists using Australian natives as well as traditional exotics. Some 80 works are on display at any one time and each bears close examination.

Small-leaf fig bonsai

My attention is first drawn to a small-leafed fig, Ficus obliqua, in an inconceivably shallow tray, with aerial roots hanging beneath a dome of neat foliage. Twenty-six years after its training began, it has started to develop the majestic tangles of a mature banyan. At the back of the space a blue cedar, Cedrus atlantica, twists like a calligraphic poem, trimmed foliage on one side balancing the sweeping curves of trunk on the other.

Atlas cedar bonsai

I’m admiring a miniature forest of melaleuca, bark peeling like pink tissue, when the buzz from inside indicates Slovak has arrived.

Tonight he is going to work his magic on a shaggy 30-year-old Juniperus procumbens. Slovak’s bonsai style is based on the trees he admires trekking in the mountains near his home. He’s looking to accentuate the existing dynamism of the tree and to frame it with negative space.

A good bonsai, says Taafe, will look good from all five sides, the points of the compass and the top, which should offer a view of a circle, showing the plant perfectly balanced. Watching Pavel at work is like watching a sculptor working with stone or wood, exposing something hidden in the raw material. He cuts and trims and twists copper wire along the branches to conform them to his vision.

Pavel Slovak at work

Form appears out of the chaos as foliage gathers at his feet. More than two hours later, with almost 80 per cent of the foliage removed, he is done. The shaggy mop has been transformed into a tree of great character, with a split, twisted trunk and a gnarled, storm-tossed form.

Bonsai by Pavel Slovak, photo by Jack Mohr

Thanks to Jack Mohr for this photo of the finished bonsai.

A Canberra local paid $1100 in the subsequent auction to take Pavel’s work home and it was clear everyone else was happy to take home inspiration. The rock star’s work fetched the highest price, but the most frenzied bidding was for a woolly Japanese pine that had this audience itching to get their fingers on some scissors.

Bonsai tools

The best way to learn bonsai techniques is to join a local club. Find one through the Association of Australian Bonsai Clubs.

See some more of Jack Mohr’s work


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