The Problem With American Bonsai
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Author:  Chuck Hickman [ Sat Feb 17, 2007 1:11 pm ]
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I know this thread was not about judging and this is also an old argument that will go on forever.
Do not get me wrong I am not against judging bonsai. I do not believe that it can be done on a world level and be fair. Climate and growing conditions play a large part in how things grow. It appears that the last few years of the "World photo contest" winners are from tropical climates.
Does this mean they are the best artists? I bet if those same winners started their bonsai interests living in Alaska or even Seattle they would not stand a chance. We cannot place each end of a stick in the ground and have a hedge in half a year as in tropical climates.
As to my comment "who will be the judge" as you are aware if the public judges, the pretty one with flowers would win.
How can you say techniques are not judged, if the judges were torn between two bonsai would not the degree of difficulty carry some weight in their decision. It does in other art forms. If Van Gough had only a piece of white chalk would he be as great?
Back to mediocrity in America,
I bet there are mediocre bonsai in Japan not as many mind you (never been there).
We often snub our nose at the bonsai hobbiest that says "that is good enough" as a lot of the viewers here strive to do their best with their trees.
Our club is 90% full of these good enough folks. They enjoy what they are doing finding pleasure keeping a stick in a pot. That is their choice. The other 10% meet every Saturday at breakfast to discuss bonsai, organize to bring in guest artists, critique each other?s work, etcetera. Not every one can be anal enough to create quality bonsai. We constantly are trying to promote good trees, spend the money for workshops and material. If they wish to be good enough so be it. I often ask of our study group why bother with them, and they answer with things such as, they help with club events volunteering or some of them will get serious. If they enjoy it who are we to criticize. Walk a block up my street, some of the gardens are a work of art others are no where as nice but the pleasures that one might get from working in his or her average garden is not to be looked down apon by the master gardener, veggies or flowers.
So it is my opinion that there will be mediocre bonsai everywhere and the truly inspired artists will continue to learn, grow and improve as artists. A few years back at a convention in Seattle the ABS New Talent contest was one by an artist from our club on Vancouver Island. He is from the northern tip and fairly isolated. He studied from books and nature, in awe of the old growth forest and the trees ravaged by seas and wind along the coast. Peter loved the images of bonsai and only saw great works, he was not exposed to mallsai, he did not know mediocre bonsai. Peter's good enough was far from mediocre, he knew not of it.
As long as there is profit to be had by selling crap bonsai to the unknowing we will have people with "good enough" or worse bonsai.

Author:  Will Heath [ Sat Mar 31, 2007 12:04 am ]
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Well, this may not give us a definitive answer, but our new contest putting North American bonsai against European bonsai, may be educational or at least inspirational.

Good thoughts.
There are many people in the world who paint, some just as a hobby or so they claim. However, the talented soon shine and the hobby becomes more. Certainly those with lessor talent have the right to paint, and to enjoy doing so. But they should not condemn, discourage, or ridicule those who choose to pursue the art at a higher level.
I would have to add that these hobbyist all strive to improve, not to would be defeating. So what do they strive for? Better outcome, better paintings, and sharper technique. Nobody ever sets out to create a mess and no bonsaist ever sets out to create a stick in a pot, the knowledge just isn't there yet.
We prune and wire our trees to create something better, there is always a goal to achieve a better bonsai, why else would we do this? Some succeed, many fail, the problem usually is that those who fail, cry hobby.


Author:  Vance Wood [ Sat Mar 31, 2007 9:29 am ]
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I have to agree about the hobby caveat. The thing that irritates me the most about this revelation is the tendency of the hobby only crowd's attempt to invalidate the efforts of those who are convinced that Bonsai is an art. This once more cuts to one of the core elements of what is wrong with American Bonsai.
It's bad enough, or unfortunate, that some do not have the desire, (or talent to be honest about it) to go beyond the hobby level. They endorse this paucity as a goal. They will pontificate the virtues of a hobbyist/craft approach to bonsai and dismiss anyone who dares to strive to go beyond that level as elitists.
We hear that condemnation leveled about AoB and KoB all of the time by some of the members of some of the forums on the Internet.
When we look at some of the mediocre results rendered by some of the images posted on some locations for public view, and in the over-all scheme of things in comparison they may be viewed as failures. I do not rule myself exempt from that comparison. The problem is whether or not we embrace that level of progress, or we venture to go beyond it.
An old proverb states that to do the same thing the same way a second time and expect the results to be different is a definition of insanity. People get into a comfort level where they do not want to put forth more effort or take the time to learn new things. They think some how with time their trees will get better. This is only marginally true, age does improve a bonsai. However more often than not "Caca dejour" will only become "Caca Antiqua" with age. It does not change the fundamental value of "Caca Puro".

Author:  Will Heath [ Tue May 01, 2007 3:43 pm ]
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Brussel Martin said recently in a soon to be released interview, "Most Americans do not know that their bonsai are not up to the standard
of the rest of the bonsai world and usually don't care. Its just a hobby."

Could this be true? Based on many discussions on bonsai forums that I have read and on the continued attempts by quite a few American bonsaists to invaludate any discussion of artistic aspects of bonsai, I am afraid that this indeed may be very true.
But how can we not know our bonsai is not up to the standards of the rest of the world?

Interesting, at the very least.


Author:  Morten Albek [ Tue May 01, 2007 5:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Will Heath wrote:
Brussel Martin said recently in a soon to be released interview, "Most Americans do not know that their bonsai are not up to the standard
of the rest of the bonsai world and usually don't care. Its just a hobby."


This is in general true I am convinced. It is not a problem only for Americans, if it is a problem, because it just is so.
Only few dedicated enthusiasts and professional or semi-prof. bonsai people are seeking the highest level of the art. Many have a relaxed doing-it-alone-at-home approach, not doing much else than having a little fun with growing some bonsai look alike trees. So it is.
So get frustrated about the truth, or live with it, and work for what satisfies you. Then they may follow your path that wants to do so. The others? Let them enjoy themselves, without ignoring their fully right to be part of the experience. Maybe you move others to a more ambitious path once in a while, and if not, others maybe will, Will.
The only way to encourage people to go for it is by leading the way through enthusiasm. We can?t talk people into it, just showing them what?s worth going for. You do so by your acting here. Keep up the good work.

Morten Albek

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue May 01, 2007 6:32 pm ]
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People today that are just getting into bonsai do not know how good they have it. There is so much literature, there is an availability of material that was no where to be found even twenty years ago and there are experienced people to help if help is sought. The main thing that should be sold is the fact that doing bonsai well is not an unreachable goal and world class trees are not necessarily out of reach to any who may wish to have them or make them. When I started bonsai we did not know what was possible as to achievement. Improvisation, of materials, and even tools, was the rule of the day. The books were bad, there were few capable teachers and the trees you desired were unheard of in the nursery trade.

Author:  Anonymous [ Mon May 07, 2007 4:47 am ]
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I could not aggree with you more! I accept your premise that we are spiraling down through our "GOOD ENOUGH" mediocre acceptance of an inferior out-come. However, I submit the following. I would not by any stretch consider myself "an American who is doing bonsai the same way I do everything else as you say, - half-hearted, half-assed and lacking committment." On the contrary. I am an artist an extremely pasionate student of bonsai for the past 30+ years with a collection of 30+, 100-400 year old collected trees. My opportunities to attend workshops, and conventions with quality show trees is hugely limited and EXPENSIVE. My local club has one annual event in which members are "allowed' to submit one or two trees for show which at best were judged by 2-3 technically proficient members with little true ARTISTIC abilities. Through out the whole of the United States we have some true natioal treasures like Harry and Ben Oki, who live in the far SW - I only wish I lived closer to Southern California.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Mon May 07, 2007 4:12 pm ]
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My remarks about the paucity of the Good Enough Crowd fall into the "If the Shoe Fits Wear It" category. Of course this does not apply to everyone, but it does apply to enough to have created a problem.

Author:  Chris Johnston [ Tue May 08, 2007 2:11 am ]
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I was steadfastly refusing to participate in this thread until I saw its spawning ground reprinted in all its glory in Bonsai magazine. I couldn't disagree more with the premise, assumptions, tone, and conclusion of this article.
Its premise: that American bonsai are deficient because a lazy breed of do-nothings fail to give proper respect to their elders and betters, and have "dumbed down" the art to the point of ultimate mediocrity. I say American bonsai has never had a better base to work from. Rob Kempinski and others are in a far better position than I to detail the fantastic and artistic work of so many North American artists who are gathering their own communities and promoting truly artistic bonsai. I have not been able to travel extensively and so visit bonsai masters all over the world, or even all over the country. But I have been exposed to great bonsai. I have worked on them and prepared them for display, and participated in what is arguably the best bonsai exhibit in North America. And this has taught me what photos and articles never could: what makes a great bonsai.
Its assumptions:
A) American bonsai lag far behind European bonsai. No evidence has been offered for this pessimistic, defeatist, and apparently self-loathing view, a view, I might add, that I have heard echoed repeatedly in this bandwidth. Whose bonsai are better? Boon's or Suthin's? Who could possibly care? I don't think Boon or Suthin do. Producers are always thrilled to see another producer. Truly great people recognize greatness in others and are spurred to even greater accomplishment because of it, rejoicing, not trying to overcome.
B) "Several world class masters and gifted amateurs" in Europe "would not exist if it were not for their bonsai communities (sic) desire to excel." Hogwash! Where do those communities come from? Do they spring whole from the mountainside and then elect a master? No, those with exceptional ability and passion naturally draw the like-minded and aspirers to themselves, like moths to the light. The masters make the communities, not the other way around!
C) Arguing that bonsai is not an art is ego driven. Perhaps there is an element of truth there. I would suggest that arguing it is an art has its own share of ego involved. Let him who is without sin...

Its tone: I'm appalled that this article has been held up for reprint in a publication. Its tone is negativity in the extreme, blaming unnamed straw men for all that its writer perceives as wrong with America, bonsai, and his own experience. Americans do everything "half-hearted, half-assed, and lacking commitment." Sir, that is nothing less than an insult. I can't believe you ended your article with it!
I think there is quite a bit that is right with bonsai in North America. Of course I don't think it's all it should be yet, but here are a couple of concrete suggestions that might make it better.
All the so-called "masters," those itinerant bands of nursery stock killers, should get off their high horses and learn some bonsai basics and some bonsai ethics. Quit playing to the mediocrity of "clubs" that want cookie-cutter demos for raffle to members who will kill them. Get into the locals and teach, for goodness' sake!
Every one of you open your eyes to more than one way to enjoy bonsai! If you wish to teach, you should know more than one species. If you want to teach, you should work with more than just collected trees, or just prebonsai stock, or just nursery stock. And if someone prefers to treat their bonsai as a hobby, then, who are you to say that they are wrong? It's their hobby! And as a more pointed aside, the sense of pride that one has never paid more than $XX for a tree is doing as much to spread mediocrity as any whippersnapper who doesn't toe the line.
Move beyond Naka. Teach those you teach to learn better ways to do things, beyond what the local clubs have seen. Learn to wire better. more beautifully, and more effectively. Guy wires only do so much! Encourage your students to use better, more effective soil mixes. And please, please, teach them to feed their trees! In my opinion, horticultural knowledge is truly one of the areas North Americans could improve their bonsai exponentially if they would learn it.
Finally, quit showing all your trees! One real advantage that might be seen from the European point of view, is that Americans seem willing to show almost anything! Compare your trees with the best trees in the world and then you will begin to see how far you may have to go.
The fact is that there are a large and growing number of masters who teach these things on a regular basis, and that's a beautiful thing. I say American bonsai as a culture and art is on the rise.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue May 08, 2007 2:39 pm ]
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Beautiful and passionate argument, Chris,
I enjoyed reading it very much.
If for nothing else, Vance's article was worthwile just to stimulate such a response as yours (I am not kidding).

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue May 08, 2007 4:03 pm ]
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Chris: Maybe you should write an article about what is right with American Bonsai, rather than "#$%&*@!" about my article and voice a lot of assumptions about what I think, what I do, what I feel and why I feel that way. Of course you are entitled to do just that but lets see the evidence that I am wrong....or maybe the America versus Europe photo contest might at least put a spin on it independent of personal agendas.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue May 08, 2007 6:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Vance Wood wrote:
Chris: Maybe you should write an article about what is right with American Bonsai, rather than ...

Chris just did that in his last post. Nothing wrong with honest and passionate debate.
Every debate has two sides: some see the glass as half full, other as half empty. Obviously, Chris sees the glass as half full (or may be more than half full). It is just as valid as of those who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs.

Author:  Will Heath [ Tue May 08, 2007 6:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Chris Johnston wrote:
I'm appalled that this article has been held up for reprint in a publication.

I am excited that it got published, it rightly deserved to be and obviously those in charge at The ABS Journal thought so too. Congratulations Vance.
This article has been a huge success here, sparking 11 pages of responses so far and 7963 views to date. It sparked the creation of the North American vs Europe Photo Contest that is currently underway here at AoB and that has brought in some absolutely amazing trees so far, some which I believe have never been seen on the Internet before.
Do I agree with everything Vance has wrote? No, of course not. but everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, that is what makes this forum so great.
However, I must interject here and remind you gentlemen of our posted guidelines which state that "Passionate disagreement is encouraged, but mutual respect is essential to our mission and verbal hostility will not be tolerated." Please keep this in mind as we tend to have a low tolerance for those who push the guidelines.


Author:  Chris Johnston [ Tue May 08, 2007 8:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Vance Wood wrote:
Chris: Maybe you should write an article about what is right with American Bonsai, rather than "#$%&*@!" about my article and voice a lot of assumptions about what I think, what I do, what I feel and why I feel that way. Of course you are entitled to do just that but lets see the evidence that I am wrong....or maybe the America versus Europe photo contest might at least put a spin on it independent of personal agendas.

Vance, you opened up the door to the way you feel about things and how you think when you typed that article. I was presenting an opposing viewpoint, and allowing for what I saw as some of the main weaknesses with American bonsai practice. Where American bonsai artists are achieving greatness, it is because they have forsaken the 40 year old regime of "Master Weekend" and moved beyond the chopped-up nursery stock mentality that was cutting edge back then simply because nothing else was available at the time.
I waited a long time to post that rebuttal. I actually wrote it three times. I wanted it to be about the ideas, tone, and premise set forth in the article, and I think I succeeded in that. Let's not make it personal.

Author:  Will Heath [ Sat Jun 02, 2007 4:21 pm ]
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I was wondering what people thought now, after seeing the entries in the North American vs Europe Contest?
I personally think both sides will walk away with a slightly changed worldview.


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