The Problem With American Bonsai
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Author:  Will Heath [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re:

Rob Kempinski wrote:
Sorry Will, but as good as AoB is it really isn't a satistically significant sample of global bonsai to make such a statement.

Okay, I'll give you that, but give us a couple years, we're still new. ;)
Still, one would be hard pressed to find a better sampling of bonsai from around the world in one place. Unless of course we look at the entries from major shows, which is what we should be doing, looking at the results of serious judged events.
Thanks for keeping me straight,


Author:  John Dixon [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 8:51 am ]
Post subject:  Re:

Will Heath wrote:
John Dixon wrote:
... in my opinion. No one will - or should - bring Kimura or the like to judge beginner bonsai, but when the unknowing public sees a display of beginner, intermediate, and advanced bonsai, they will get a quick and permanent lesson about the varying quality of bonsai.

Wonderful post John, I must question this one statement of yours however.
Who should judge beginners? Who should judge the intermediate? Who should judge the advance or the master class bonsai? What criteria should we use? Should beginners judge beginners or intermediate judge beginners, maybe advanced bonsaists should judge beginners?
Should not a beginner's effort be judged by the very best so that they can benefit from the experience? Why lower the standard just because someone is a beginner?
This year I am the show chairperson for our club, the first thing I did was arrange for William N. Valavanis to come and judge our show, beginner class, intermediate class, advance class, and master class. Certainly he is quite qualified to judge all of the classes, unlike some judges who certainly were not qualified to judge the master class entries.
This met with much resistance at first, not because of cost because scheduling workshops with Bill covered the cost, but because members thought that our bonsai was not worthy of such a name. My response was that they never would be either until we exposed our egos and made a commitment to improve.
I don't want my work to be judged by someone on the same level as myself, by someone on a lower level, or even someone on a slightly higher level. I want my work to be judged by the best in the business, or at least the best we can get. Anything less is an insult to those who truly want to advance.
American Bonsai needs to be put under the magnifying glass, it needs to be held to high standards, it needs to see the light of day. The old argument that we should lower the judging standards so that people will have a fair chance is nothing but a cop out. We should raise the standards and let those whose feelings might be hurt by an honest critique stay at home.
The public will benefit from such an attitude, after all the end result will be higher quality trees to view.


To qualify my remarks, it's probably best to explain how my club does it.
Our "local" show is a "Member's" show. It is held publicly and free of charge. The members are given three categories to compete in: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. We have varied between having two-three advanced members judge the beginner and intermediate levels, while the President (or non-competing advanced members) judge the Advanced entries. Sometimes we bring in local artists to judge it. One rule that stays constant is that any winner in the beginner or intermediate level is required to compete at the next higher level the following year. So the winner of the beginner level moves up to intermediate the following year. If they happen to win at intermediate, they are bumped to advanced.
Now I mentioned REGIONAL competition because that is the highest level my club competes at. Those entries are brought to the monthly meeting just prior to the event. They are voted on by the membership and the coordinator has final say in what bonsai will be displayed on our sixteen linear feet of space.
Needless to say, ANY bonsai of ANY skill level member can be considered for this display, but it is known that only the BEST will make the cut. No one is trying to hurt anyone's feelings, but the goal is our best. It's not a popularity contest, it's about quality bonsai. If you don't have them, you won't have one in our display....period.
One last show of note is the Southern Spring Show in Charlotte. Our club has displayed in this for many years (I think we started in the early 80's). the coordinator for this show specifically asks members who he can trust to provide quality, presentation-ready, bonsai. We have seven or eight tokonama where each member is expected to set up a display. This includes stand, scroll, accent, etc. This is not really "kept" from the membership, but it is known that you have to "pay your dues" and prove yourself and your bonsai to be considered.
I feel this a natural and proper "pecking order" if you will. Our Board of Directors is trying to incorporate a philosophy where ALL levels of skill are welcomed and nurtured (after all, every one of us was a beginner at one point). All should feel welcome and motivated to attend our functions. At the same time, beginners with beginning skill will be expected to listen, learn, and improve. As they do, they will be asked to share specific knowledge that they have shown as a personal attribute. Our advanced members are being tasked with the responsibility to teach the membership in roles of leadership and mentoring. As a reward for this, the advanced members who are active will get first dibs at workshops with big names who we bring in. They will also bow out of workshops that are better suited for lower skill levels, and in some cases, lead them.
Once again, I think this is a natural ascention in the bonsai community. No one is looking down on beginners, but at the same time beginners will have to understand they are not the highest level on the food chain. That is earned. No one should "give" it to them. Those in higher levels have a responsibility to share with others of lesser skill so they can progress to the limits of their learning. Some will ascend quickly, many others will not progress at all. If they are happy with Home Depot bonsai, then fine, there is room in bonsai for that and it is perfectly acceptable. However, there are those who are striving to take bonsai to the highest level of quality they can. They are the elite. They are the leaders, and like the saying goes:
Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.
Privates don't command armies, Generals do.
I hope this helps to illustrate my previous post.
Warmest regards,

Author:  Shaukat Islam [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 11:11 am ]
Post subject: 

A very interesting article by Vance!
And equally interesting inputs from many. Walter had explained the situation very nicely and Will's inputs makes sense.
However, this 'GOOD ENOUGH' mentality is not limited to America alone and I feel similar situation is prevails in my country too............although the bonsai movement is not very old here. Many of our club members had certain pre-conceived notions on what makes a good bonsai. This had resulted primarily from lack of knowledge, ego and from reading very basic sub-standard books, and non-availibility of good reading materials. Worst thing was not accepting any open suggestions or realisitic views on bonsai aesthetics/growing from people who know the subject.
However, Susumu Nakamura from Japan had visited our club twice, had given lectures and demos and had also judged the exhibits. The judging results had shattered the myths and broke hearts of many. It was really an eye opener for all. I agree with Will that if the average and good exhibits are judged by a knowledgeable person, it is beneficial for all.
To Mark, I would say, I am niether an American nor a European but an Asian. And I would, in all fairness, say that the European bonsais are of high standard compared to American.
I would not fully agree with the 'Good Enough' culture highligted by Vance because bonsai is an art, and just like any other art form if someone has the passion to learn and has an open mind to accept positive criticism, then the quality of bonsai is bound to improve, irrespective of which country the person belongs to. It's a different case with others who take it as a light hobby and pastime for chat and gossip during club meetings. The tragedy is the club scenes are mostly dominated by such people who doesn't give a damn on quality improvement as long as they are at the helm of club affairs.

Author:  Mark Arpag [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:41 pm ]
Post subject: 

"In all fairness" I must ask you why, specifically , you say that. Which artists Bonsai are you comparing ? I am sure you have traveled extensively in America and visted many Bonsai artists to back your claim.
No, fairness has nothing to do with this assertion. We do not claim to have the best Bonsai in the world, the Europeans do.
There are many good self promoters in Europe, I consider them Carnival barkers, telling all who will listen that they are the Greatest Show on Earth. When you really are the best, you don't need to say it. When you are the best, you do not need to point out others short comings in an attempt to elevate your self.
Why does no one question the validity of lumping Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, Beligum, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden,Norway, Poland, Lichtenstein, etc in some kind of Bonsai competition that does not exist and to summarily declare a winner?
This question is repeated as fact, but it is FICTION.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 3:00 pm ]
Post subject: 

You beat me to the punch Will, indeed, where is the proof. The proof is in the viewing. And just to make sure I don't get quoted for something I did not say, or blamed for something I never suggested, in my article I make the observation that there are a some good bonsai growers in America but precious few world class bonsai artists. That is not to say there are none of either one.
I don't want to have people think I am bashing America, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone more patriotic and pro American than I. But---I see a problem here that I hope gets addressed. So far no one has convinced me I am wrong, or offered any solutions that I have not thought of. Most of that has come in the form of agreement. Those who disagree have given me a lot to think about but not enough to change my mind.

Author:  Mark Arpag [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 3:37 pm ]
Post subject: 


Author:  Vance Wood [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 4:59 pm ]
Post subject: 

My argument or thesis is not about Asia, Australia, or the North Pole, it is about the problem with bonsai in America. Europe is used as a bench mark. If I used Asia we would really be in trouble. I am beginning to think your problem with this is not that I think American Bonsai has a problem so much as the assertion which European Bonsai are so much better.

Author:  William N. Valavanis [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:16 pm ]
Post subject: 

You said:
" To Mark, I would say, I am niether an American nor a European but an Asian. And I would, in all fairness, say that the European bonsais are of high standard compared to American."
How can you make such as statement? Have you seen all the bonsai in America? Have you seen all the bonsai in Europe?
There are very, very few individuals that can authoratitivley make that stamement. To make that statement one must have knowledge of the quality of bonsai in America AND Europe, not only by photos posted on the interent or seen in publications. Most of the best bonsai in America are in private collections owned by people who appreciate fine bonsai and are not interested in promoting themselves or showing off their "artistry" to the rest of the world.
I do not think that taking a piece of imported material (usually trees Japan does not want and were rejected by the professionals so are exported) and redesigning them to acceptable bonsai is a big accomplishment. It is more of an accomplishment to train a bonsai from the beginning into an acceptable bonsai.
Oh, let me think awhile, many of the foreign bonasi aritists have NOT been producing bonsai from the beginning because they don't know how, do not want to patiently wait or have not been doing bonsai that long.. Many are more interested in carving large pieces of wood and adding some green foliage to appear like a bonsai. Bonsai is much more than "carving" a name for yourself.
It's easier and quicker to take a piece of "large" (always better, right?) material, either from nature or rejected local landscape, and shape it into a bonsai shape. Those specimens might look fantastic to the untrained eye (and there are MANY on the interent and reading this) but those specimens usually lack refinement and the history of their creation which is important I feel.
Just my thoughts today.

Author:  John Dixon [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:24 pm ]
Post subject: 

Bill just made a very important point:
Assumptions are being made about the quality of bonsai, both in the U.S. and abroad, based solely on what is easily seen by the general public. Until ALL bonsai can be qualified in a predictable manner, this remains theoretical conjecture.
And we all know whose mother Assumption is.
And for the record, Bill identified one of my bonsai in a display recently as a "lazy man's bonsai". It was a Kingsville, and I knew exactly what he meant. It is slow growing and not very demanding. I wasn't offended in the least because he's right. Then he compared it to another Kingsville that wasn't pinched back and commented on how MINE was tight because of continuous pinching.
What that proved to me is there are times when you must be patient and comprehend the message from the judge. That's what I want to help me improve as an artist.

Author:  Will Heath [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:52 pm ]
Post subject: 

While the above statements are interesting and no doubt accurate, how can we possibly judge the quality of bonsai that are not seen? We can not, hence we must base any thoughts on what we can see. Certainly there are better bonsai than those that won the latest World Bonsai Contest, or the Jal, or the (insert major show name here), but where are they?
These "patrons" of the art that Bill speaks of are rare (in my limited experience) and yet I feel they are sorely needed. It is difficult to form an opinion or a theory if the unknown must be factored in. The unseen must, by default, remain the uncounted, as they certainly can not be judged.
Bill travels quite a bit and meets many artists around the world, as does Walter. I would be interested in hearing from each of them as to their personal opinions on European and American Bonsai, not the beginning, the intermediate, or the advanced bonsaist results, but the world-class bonsai. Is one country really more advanced than the other, are they just simply different, or are we comparing apples to oranges?
Certainly the two of you are some of the few individuals that can authoritatively make that statement.

Just thinking out loud and learning a lot,


Author:  Dorothy Schmitz [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 7:13 pm ]
Post subject: 

Reading all your comments,they all sound well minded and even
And what actually happens when an artist creates a bonsaipiece that is
out of the ordinary,something against the flow,something new?This artist
will be torn apart in public and perhaps admired in privacy.This artist will
need to go through very challenging times before he might be accepted.
This artist I am talking about and who went through all this politics is
Mr Masahiko Kimura.
Now,how many Mr Kimuras might have skyrocketed during all this years
if there was no politics involved?
Other examples?Bet you could fill this page with all the people who either
gave up on the mass or chose to create and cultivate bonsai away from
public ,in privacy.I will leave some space..


Author:  Vance Wood [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 10:59 am ]
Post subject: 

Bill, you are right having seen more bonsai accross the country than I, but still the over-all culture of bonsai in America is still at that hobby stage.
Dorthy you point out the crab factor. I know Will likes this story but I'll share it here because it is relevant. Crabs right off the boat are tossed in a barrel. The barrel does not have a lid and the crabs do not escape because the ones that try are pulled back in by those it attempts to leave behind. This kind of defines the world of American bonsai and even world bonsai if you go to the highest levels, or you seek to join them. This is not an issue discussed in this article but it does deserve mention.
Politics, within the bonsai community are like politics in any community. Those who seek or attain to political power are not void of ego or strong points of view. What makes politics destructive is the exercise of that power for reasons other than the sake of bonsai but for personal reasons. There is kind of a joke saying that asks the question why does a Cat lick it's back side? The answer is because it can. Often politics are like this. The reason something happens is because it can happen.
Dorthy brought up Kimura. I have followed every article written about this man for probably twenty-years from International Bonsai and Bonsai Today mostly. There is an under-toe that can be gleaned from the early articles when he was first gaining prominence. The Bonsai community in Japan did not welcome him with open arms. In fact it seems that they, if not working against him, were looking for him to fail.
The reason being (as I see them) his ideas and techniques were radical and different, they rocked the boat. His artistry was exceptional and seldom equaled. He was in short a threat to many of the powerful in that community---the political power. Every error he made became subject of public scrutiny and discussion. The White Pine with he bulging trunk is the one that comes readily to mind as it was documented in one of the publications.
Here is part of the point I have been trying to make. You can go to Europe and there are quite a few Internationally know and traveled masters whose names are know by bonsai growers all over the world. You can go to Japan and the same thing, Kimura probably outshines all of them. South East Asia and so on all can boast of a world class artist. Is there an artist in America that falls into this category? If so why do we not know him/her. Is it that old a prophet is without honor in his own home syndrome, or is it that there are none of that caliber?
You can say I am wrong in all of my assumptions and pontifications. In this debate I am, as a lover of bonsai, in a win win situation. If I am right then maybe people will look at this and decide we have to do something, personally and collectively. If I am wrong, and I would love to be proved so, then in my failure is hope for the art form I love.
As it stands so far I have had excellent opinions and well thought out debate contrary to my position but all have ended in the nether world of "I think", and "Can I prove my point?" arguments. The fact that no one so far as been able to prove their point shows the validity of this argument.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 1:33 pm ]
Post subject: 

Just curious Mark, did you ever take any classes from Mr. Yoshimura? Did you know that in his last days he was experimenting with ideas and designs that are extremely controversial?

Author:  Will Heath [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 5:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Mark Arpag wrote:
I would invite others, to share anything they are doing or have thought about doing if it will benifit Bonsai, worldwide or in a small way locally.

I am most likely the least experienced person in this debate so far, my own bonsai are out-shined many times over by all others involved here. Yet, each and every day I work to promote and advance this art I love. With forums such as this one, where such debates can be had without the usual attempts to silence them, with articles that are designed to create thought and discussion, with trying things that haven't been tried before like cultivating mushrooms for accents, and with many other activities locally.
Who am I? I am a nobody, but a nobody who cares and just maybe I am a nobody who is making a slight difference, at least I hope so.
The good news is that I am not alone, people are pushing the boundaries everywhere. My only advantage, I think, is that I am not trying to make a living at bonsai, I am not trying to sell books, I am just trying to give something in return, I have nothing to lose.
But, back to the subject, is European World-Class bonsai better in artistic quality than that in America? Anyone?


Author:  Rob Kempinski [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 5:49 pm ]
Post subject:  World Class Bonsai Artists

It seems the problem being espoused is the US does not have world class bonsai artists.
To try to solve this problem perhaps we first need to define ?world class?. For purposes of discussion let?s assume a world class artist is someone that has placed a tree in a world competition, conducted a demonstration over seas, or has published a book or magazine about bonsai or has a large and outstanding personal collection.
Using these criteria I could nominate the following Americans:

Peter Adams
Jim Barrett
Shane Cary
Scott Chadd
Randy Clark
Rodney Clemons
Dale Cochoy
David DeGroot
Jim Doyle
Doris Froning
Guy Guidry
Warren Hill
Harry Hirao
Michael Hagedorn
Larry Jackel
Arthur Joura
Robert Kempinski
Ernie Kuo
Nick Lenz
Colin Lewis
Mary Madison
Ted Madson
Dennis Makishima
Hal Malhoney
Gary Marchal
Boon Manakitivipart
Cheryl Manning
Jerry Meislik
Frank Mihalic
Mary Miller
Pedro Morales
John Muth
Kenji Miyata
Roy Nagatoshi
Ben Oki
Michale Persianno
Dan Robinson
Chase Rosade
John Romano
Harold Sasaki
Martin Schmalenberg
Kathy Shanner
Lindsay Shiba
Jim Smith
Jack Sustic
Suthin Sukosolvisit
John Thompson
Ed Trout
William Valavanis

There are probably lots more but that?s who I could come up with off the top of my head so I don't mean to offend anyone by omitting them.
Even so this is a pretty good list and collectively can be attributed to over over 100,000 quality bonsai.
The US is a large country with many climate zones and quite a few bonsai artists. Its hard to generalize with such a large group.

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