Bonsai: The art of the cut

For bonsai artist Ernie Carlomagno, bonsai is a living art, and a piece is never finished. — Photo by Katryn Yerdon Gilbert

The ancient Chinese and Japanese art of bonsai (“bon” means tray and “sai” means little tree) is designed to evoke a peaceful sense of nature. Bonsai (pronounced bon-sigh) is is the art of shaping and developing a tree or shrub into a miniature work of art while maintaining its natural form. According to bonsai artist Ernie Carlomagno of Edgartown, it is a living art as it continues growing, sometimes realigning, “and is never considered a stagnant art.” He adds, “In some cases it can change in a week.”

Mr. Carlomagno has been working with bonsai for more than 30 years, beginning when he was 15, and bought a bonsai Juniper tree at the local mall. He became an avid student of the art, attending classes at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in New York and participating in classes with a well-known bonsai artist in Pennsylvania. After high school, he studied horticulture at Cook College and at Rutgers. His work was featured in the first National Bonsai Exhibit held in Rochester, New York in 2008, and included in the annual “Book of Bonsai.”

Mr. Carlomagno says the most challenging part of the art is the continuous styling that is required. “As it is a living art, you could have a bonsai tree for 50 years and constantly be trying to get it right. In the spring you will have it just where it needs to be, every branch where it is supposed to be, every bud pinched off. If it is an azalea it will be in full bloom but then by the middle of summer you are back to where you were. It is constant pruning to keep it at the level you want.”

His mistakes taught him that good bonsai artists learn the rules and guidelines so that they can break them. He says, “You have to view the tree from all sides. The negative spaces are as important as where the branches are placed,” and explains that a bonsai artist must give the illusion of maturity to a young plant, provide a fluid arrangement of branches without leaving any awkward gaps, and ensure that the entire tree is of equal proportions to how it is found in nature.

“Picture a tree 60-feet tall up against a blue sky,” he says. “Now picture it 12 inches tall. That’s what you are trying to do.”

Accomplishing this requires both horticultural experience and an artist eye, although the balance between each is debated among the artists.

He says, “One without the other will give you one of only two results, a beautiful tree for a very short amount of time or a very long-lived tree that is very horticulturally sound but not a very attractive tree to the eye.”

Mr. Carlomagno lends his creative experience to his job as manager of the nursery at Donaroma’s Nursery and Landscaping in Edgartown. Mr. Carlomagno’s bonsai art is displayed Donaroma’s Bonsai House.

“With the support of Michael, Janice, and Jeffrey Donaroma, we are able to have a fine gallery of finished bonsai trees for viewing and sale, along with a stock of starter trees. For those artists creating at the various levels, it is very inspiring and helpful to have finished trees in front of you for reference. Some people are very visual and we can talk about the art, but it helps if I can put a finished tree in front of them as a reference and say, ‘Make your tree look similar to this one.'”

He says, “Every tree is different, so the pruning style changes.” And he adds, “There are special tools, and you can go crazy with tools, or just get a nice pair of small pruning shears.”

Those interested in the art of bonsai can sign up for Mr. Carlomagno’s class at Donaroma’s Nursery or join his Bonsai Club. The club, whose members have different levels of experience, meets in summer at Donaroma’s, and off-season at Polly Hill Arboretum. Meetings are the second Tuesday of the month at 7 pm. For more information on classes or the club, contact Mr. Carlomagno at 508-627-3036.