Bonsai and the art of mud figurines

Tiny little figures, some depicting people, some things from nature. Almost like pieces from dioramas. When I first heard the term Japanese mudmen and mudwomen, I thought, “What?” Investigating, I learned they are tiny figurines used with bonsai to emphasize scale. The custom moved from China to Japan. However, as the asceticism of Zen Buddhism took hold, the Japanese opted for simplicity instead. That didn’t stop them from catching on the West, though, and I was surprised to see quite modern subjects on some sites. There are many websites devoted to bonsai and one can find these ceramic figurines on most of them. Traditional figures show elderly men and women in native dress, sitting or walking, or performing tasks. Also common are buildings, bridges, and lanterns. I have yet to be bitten by the bonsai bug, but I know aficionados become as involved with them as do people who grow orchids. The tiny figurines are in our domain as ceramists and potters, though, because they are made of ‘mud’ and are slipcast, fired, and glazed. The figure of the man reading a book is from a site called Bonsai Boy of New York. It is four inches tall and two and a half inches in depth. The figure below which shows a woman trimming a bonsai is from the same site. In addition to the figurines, the dishes bonsai are grown in are also ceramic…some rustic looking earthenware, others elegantly decorated porcelain. The art of bonsai is ancient. “The container known as the pen originated in Neolithic China in the Yangshao culture as an earthenware shallow dish with a foot,” according to this Wikipedia post. The same article states that “Penjing generally fall into one of three categories classified by subject matter: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Japan’s bonsai tradition (bonsai being the Japanese pronunciation of penzai) is derived from penjing.” The origins of the art of growing tiny trees is shrouded in myth, but the most recent knowledge that is certain comes from the Tang Dynasty. “Penjing seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts,” according to the site. Taoist ethics have never been divorced from the art and opposites are involved, too. Yin and Yang. Mini Forest is another site that sells the figurines, as is Bonsai Figurines. The Bonsai Exhibition of the Hong Kong Flower Show is a good place to see these assemblages created by people who are experts in the tradition. Here are some photos from this year’s show: Figurines in Penjing. If you’d like to learn more about mud figures, please take a look at the Art of Bonsai Project site’s story called “Art of the Mud Man.”


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
This entry was posted in Articles and Interviews, Featured Artists, Home and Garden and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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