The Problem With American Bonsai
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Author:  Will Heath [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 6:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: World Class Bonsai Artists

Rob Kempinski wrote:
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.

Rob, I could place a tree in a world competition and I am hardly World-Class, although there are many names on your list that are worthy, let's redefine this list to those who have placed in the top ten of a judged world class competition at anytime with a tree that they had designed themselves. We are, after all, talking about those who produce world class bonsai, not those who place entries in world class competitions.
Nor does the fact that someone has conducted a demo make them world class and I don't think being a publisher or a writer should automatically qualify someone as world-class artist either. Since we are talking about world-class artists and not collectors, patrons, or promoters, although the lack of such may lend to the American problem being discussed here, we should focus on the true world-class bonsai artists, those few who are recognized as being the best by the judges in world-class events.
But then again, this would leave out the work of artists who can not or do not choose to make it to these shows as to date, they are all overseas. This would give as the names of the world-class artists who show their trees in such venues only.
Maybe we should set up a dedicated European/American area here where artists from each can freely post one tree that best represents their talent? With a couple world-class artists as moderators to weed out the undesirable, over some time the scales just may slip one way or another. Posting a picture or emailing one in is certainly easy to do, even those without Internet access can be represented by a friend.

I wonder?

Will Heath

Author:  Rob MacGregor [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 6:47 pm ]
Post subject: 

Hello,I am new to A.O.B and was very pleased to find this discussion.
I have been growing and caring for bonsai here in the U.S. for 35 years now and i must say I agree totally with Mr. Woods post.
I have always wondered why so many of the bonsai I have seen created in this country seem to lack that certain something that marks a really good bonsai.Maybe,it seems to me,it is because so many try only to copy what the japanese have been doing instead of finding and creating a tree wich reflects the environment and attitudes of the states and its people,as it seems,the Europeans and others have done.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,though I dont believe it is the path to truley great masterpieces in any art form.It is time to allow the spirit , pride , love of freedom and the importance of the individual show thru in the bonsai we create here. Thank you, Rob

Author:  Al Keppler [ Sat Jan 20, 2007 7:39 pm ]
Post subject: 

I find Rob's reply the most interesting so far. It offers a fairly good glimpse into the problem of this thread. While Rob has offered a very nice list of artists from America, a quick scan down the list will show that it is skewed towards the east coast. Many of the best artists in the USA are missing from the list.
George Yamaguchi (deceased)*
Mas Ishii
Johnny Uchida
Jim Gremel
Dennis Makashima
Tosh Subamaru (deceased)*
Ben Oki
Richard Ota
Ryan Neil (currently studying with Kimura)
Hideko Metaxas
Umenori Hatanaka (deceased)*
Mel Ikeda
Katsumi Kinoshita ( my teacher and Walter Pall called him the most under rated artist in the US)
Mas Imazumi (deceased)*
* Their collections and students live on.
I had the pleasure to see Umenori Hatanaka's collection back in the 80's. Boon and Kenji have placed many of his trees into personel collections throughout the midwest that are never seen. Umenori was building Foemina juniper forests during the time that John Naka was building Goshin. The work of Umenori in some ways were superior to the work John was doing. Umenori just never traveled nor taught to speak of. Like Katsumi Kinoshita, they are very humble Japanese men and very quiet and just happen to style masterpieces that most people will never see.
Yasuo Mitsuya, (teacher of Kathy Shaner, Boon) has said publicy of Jim Gremels atlas cedar, " it could be placed into Kokufu and place any day"
Anyone that has never seen the exhibits of the Redwood Empire Bonsai Society, Bay Island Bonsai or Bay Area Bonsai Asscociates has no idea of the quality of the bonsai in America. These three clubs under the tutilage of Kathy Shaner, Boon and others are the benchmark for bonsai on the westcoast. I would say that Bill V. does an extraordinary job on the east coast and undoubtly there are others.
Lets take the leading bonsai producing countries of Europe and their square miles.
Total of 746,768 square miles. Say we took my list of teachers plus Rob's list and put them into the state of Alaska and Oregon combined, which is pretty close to the same sq. miles. Lets also say that we took all their students too and held two or three exhibits a year since now they would be condensed into an area drivable in about 800 mile trips. I would submitt that we might just have something to scream about from America then. I don't see us that far behind at all, besides this problem is curable.

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Author:  Morten Albek [ Sun Jan 21, 2007 5:54 am ]
Post subject:  A few notes

A few notes from an outsider of this discussion, not being American.
Of course the quality of bonsai is important when seeking to raise the level of bonsai in an area. The good bonsai makes the hobby artists eager to make the same quality in many cases, or at least serve as inspiration when working with bonsai.
Only few people will have the skills and will to strive for the best though. Developing great bonsai is very demanding. One has to keep focus and work with bonsai for many hours around the year, disciplined and artistic, knowing when and how to perform the right techniques i.e. and having the artistic mind bringing in creativity as well.
Many enjoy working with bonsai as a smaller hobby at a lower level, but as long as it brings joy and pleasure doing so, I see absolutely nothing wrong in that. There must be a place for every level, accepting that only few people will go all the way. What is important is to make a foundation for both on an organizational level.
We had this discussion many times over the years in Denmark, and there has so far not been given any answers on how to heighten the quality to the top. It just happens if some people does care to work focused and steadily, regardless how the majority feels or do.
For many years Denmark has been nothing in the world of bonsai. But a handful of people didn?t care and just worked with bonsai intensively anyhow, and this shows results now. Over the last one or two years the quality suddenly exploded. The last national exhibition showed the result of the focused steady work, and the quality was all of the sudden much higher than the previous year, and I strongly believe this will continue.
Is it important to be the best on the scene? For some it is, for others it is no big deal. I am glad we are now getting somewhere in my area, but it is also important how it happens.
I do not know how the US bonsai artists collect material i.e.
In my country there is no tradition for spending any money on buying good quality raw stocks, or buying preshaped imported material costing serious money.
This clearly distances us from many other European countries.
We are a country with a culture of gardening, but also having a tradition of doing everything ourselves. This means that we grow bonsai from cheap nursery stocks, seedlings, or find older qualified gardens plants i.e.
Only very few go on Yamadori collecting good plants in nature, and nearly no one buys preshaped imported material, and especially not if it is just a little expensive.
Going to Germany, Italy, England i.e. in Europe clearly shows another gardening culture, or at least bonsai culture. There, many more people are ready to spend very big money to get preshaped or finished quality bonsai, imported from Japan or elsewhere. And big money is spending on pots, help from experts and so on. We don?t do that where I live, and this of course set us a little back in development. On the other hand we get there by patient work, just much slower.
The quality shown at Gingko (with exceptions of course) shows much bonsai from expensive trees.
As an example I helped an internationally well renowned artist at an event, choosing the right tree for a Shohin display with focus on bringing up the standard to Gingko qualifying for a costumer. This customer simply asked what to buy to bring the display to Gingko. No questioning about money or time to train the tree. Just buying a show ready quality tree to raise the level to Gingko standards.
This story to tell partly why the standards of some shows in Europe are high. This is not the full story, but gives a hint of what is part of the game. I know this is generalizing and not the full picture, but is a very important part of the story.
So when you compare own skills and standards, it is also very important what you compare to. Are you a hobbyist comparing to a professional bonsai artist?
Are you styling and growing your bonsai from basic, comparing your bonsai with expensive imported bonsai?
Please keep this is mind, because it is easily enough to discourage yourselves, and that has no point at all.
Who tells European bonsai are better than American bonsai. Probably the Europeans. If we say it repeatedly you may believe it -:)
Bring in the best people to judge your shows, to teach and inspire is important. Also let the best people teach at all levels, no matter if the ?best people? are the most experienced and talented from the local area or international acclaimed teachers brought in for the occasion i.e.
Using the best is the only way forward, keeping the joy of bonsai alive and raising the level.
Best regards
Morten Albek

Author:  Mike Page [ Sun Jan 21, 2007 2:58 pm ]
Post subject: 

"Many enjoy working with bonsai as a smaller hobby at a lower level, but as long as it brings joy and pleasure doing so, I see absolutely nothing wrong in that. There must be a place for every level, accepting that only few people will go all the way. What is important is to make a foundation for both on an organizational level." Morten Albek
Well said, Morten.
Every human endevour operates on a continuum from rank beginner to great master, with the vast majority somewhere in that continuum, depending on their talent and willingness to study and practice. Many may aspire, but few will attain.
Bonsai at the club level is often looked down upon, but shouldn't be. It provides an opportunity to congregate with people of like interests, learn from those that are of a higher skill level, and progress above and beyond that if you have the talent and work ethic. However, if you do rise above this level, never forget the people who provided you with the opportinuity and helped you on the way.
Bonsai clubs in the United States have been the start for many that are on some of the lists I see posted here. One of the best examples of this process that I have personal knowledge of is Boon Manakitivipart. I remember when he first joined Bonsai Society of San Francisco. His talent soon became apparent. Now he is a world recognized master.
In the House of Bonsai there are many levels. Level 1 may be called Hobby. Level 2 may be called Avocation. Level 3 may be called Way of Life. Every bonsaiist should inhabit the level that fits their ability, but always have the opportunity to rise above that level if they possess the willingness and talent.
Finally, remember the old saying: "Be kind to those you meet on the way up, because you may meet them again on the way down".
Mike Page

Author:  Al Keppler [ Sun Jan 21, 2007 4:25 pm ]
Post subject: 

Mike, I find it ironic that this thread would come about just after you and I discussed this very subject while walking the aisles of the premiere bonsai exhibit in the country. Timely to say the least.
al keppler

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Author:  Colin Lewis [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 6:27 pm ]
Post subject: 

Marc: Typing things in capitals does not make them true. It is clear that you have little if any awareness of what gows on outside your own community. You want proof? I challenge you to join us on the trip to the Ginkgo Exhibition in September, and you will see proof enough.
Now then, I guess most of you have either read or heard my thoughts on this topic, and were expecting to hear from me sooner or later.... As an exhibitor, organizer and teacher on both sides of the ocean, I have had first hand experience of the problem (for want of a better term) and its roots.
Vance: I think you recognize the disparity but you beat yourself up a little too much. It's not all the fault of American culture. And American (or any other) culture is not the fault of the people.
Rather than write an essay, let me point out a few differences between America and Europe in general, that may have an effect on bonsai.
- America is a rule-oriented society, far more so than even the most conservative European society. This has led people here to want, almost need a set of rules for virtually everything. Art makes its own rules.
- American people are the most overworked in the west. Not that you necessarily work harder, but you work more for less. Huh?!? Every European in a job has a mandatory minimum of four weeks paid vacation - six is commonplace. In the US the mandatory minimum is zero! You may get two if you're lucky and not in a union. Americans pay - directly or indirectly via insurance, loan interests etc - about 25% more tax than most Europeans.
- Virtually all activities in the USA are driven by commerce: sports, health care, news reports and yes, even bonsai in a watered down form: Consumers are left to fend for themselves (the concept of caveat emptor is ancient history in Europe). In America people sell bonsai seeds - in Europe it is illegal to sell anything that doesn't exist or isn't precisely what it says on the pack. JoeBonsai or BonsaiBoy wouldn't last five minutes. Neither would many of the so-called bonsai experts who run nurseries.
- The American way: "If you didn't buy it it isn't real". Or: "If you didn't pay someone to do it, it's no good". In Europe: If you want a good job done, do it yourself.
- Finally, Americans look up to figures of authority. The local club president, although maybe a total bonsai numbskull, is respected and obeyed. In Europe the club scene was abandoned as the vanguard of bonsai progress years ago (ah! rememebr those days, Walter?) in favor of individual enterprise and personal endeavor. Strangely, doesn't that sound more like the American way?
These generalizations are not by any means criticisms, America has been good to me so far. But they are sociological differences that affect the approach to bonsai (among many other things, of course).
There are other differences that have significant effects:
- The climate, for the most part, is harsher and more difficult to deal with.
- The native species, with few exceptions, are coarser, rarer and have larger leaves.
- In Europe you do not get shot for trespassing and you do not (as I did in MA) get arrested for pulling up a tree from the roadside!
- Europe is smaller than America, yet has several countries, each organizing their own national events. Nothing in America could ever be national because of the logistical and cost problems.
As for judged, high quality exhibitions... Why has no one done anything about it yet? Who are we waiting for? Forget the voluntary organizations because they do not have that motivation and it could be seen by some as contrary to their personal interests.
After returning from the Ginkgo show in 2005, Bill Valavanis, Julian Adams, Roger Lehman and I decided to form a professional association with the expressed mission of organizing a series of top quality judged exhibitions along the lines of Ginkgo. I was offered sponsorship for prize money by a large household name corporation. We are almost eighteen months down the road, and the association is still not yet fully registered and running.
This is the land of opportunity - right? This is the land where even a lowly born peasant can achieve great things - right? So why the heck don't people who feel like you get off their back sides and do something?
Ducking for cover.....

Author:  Vance Wood [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 6:45 pm ]
Post subject: 

I happen to agree with you Colin. But again many of the things you cite as problems are cultural in nature, and many of them point back to many of the points I made in the article. Perhaps my use of the term cultural may be incorrect but there are social trends that are at the root of many of these issues. We have a society in flux, where often we are not sure which side is up. We have people turning what we eat and drink into politics, and we have people trying to decide what we can and cannot do in our own homes. It is no wonder half the time we cannot find out back sides with both hands tied behind our backs.
I am glad that at the least people are talking about this issue and not just shrugging it off as we in America tend to do a lot. I look forward to a show like the Ginkgo awards in this country. Good luck in pulling it off, you have my support.

Author:  Colin Lewis [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 7:09 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Vance Wood wrote:
Good luck in pulling it off, you have my support.

Thanks Vance. I suspect most serious bonsai enthusiasts would offer their support. But what is really needed is their action.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 7:25 pm ]
Post subject: 

Colin, has anybody within your group done a calculation as to how much would it cost to put together such an event that you are referring to? This would include overhead costs, speaker fees, and incentives for those who own top quality trees.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 7:44 pm ]
Post subject: 

Here is an example of how this could be done:
Let's assume that this can be done with $100,000. It would be a 3-day event: 3 days and 2 nights. This is much cheaper than a 5-day event, and it is plenty enough to satisfy the most avid enthusiast.
$50,000 could be from corporate sponsors and the other $50,000 from donations (500 people donating $100 each).
Every $100 donated would buy one share in the event. At the end of the 3 days, someone would count the money that came in during the event (gate money, workshops, part of the auction money, etc), and this money would be refunded to the shareholders.
I would imagine, that at least 1/3rd of the cost would come back to the donors.
Each year a little booklet could be printed and sold to the bonsai community. The names of donors, of course, would be published in the booklet, in a prominent place..
Just a quick and dirty scenario....
What do you think?

Author:  Colin Lewis [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 8:10 pm ]
Post subject: 

There are many ways to make it work, and that could be one of them. What we need, however, are ways to get people motivated. I'm a foreigner, I can't go it alone.

Author:  Howard Smith [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 8:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Colin Lewis wrote:
Marc: Europe is smaller than America, yet has several countries, each organizing their own national events. Nothing in America could ever be national because of the logistical and cost problems.

I believe this is the single most limiting factor for a national show to take place in the US. A person in California for example bringing a tree to the central US (probably a 24 hour car ride) would most likely not be able to get their tree back to California due to horticultural restrictions. There are probably similar limiting factors on the East Coast as well.
Find a solution to this and I would bet everything else would fall together and a fantastic show would be had.

Author:  Colin Lewis [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 8:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Mark Arpag wrote:
.... the idea that European Bonsai is so far ahead of America was stated as fact by Europeans and repeated in hopes it will be accepted as fact.

No. It was started by Americans who visited European bonsai events and reluctantly accepted by the greater bonsai community - apart from you ;o) - who became convinced by the plethora of pictorial evidence tha now exists. The fact that an imported tree won ONE of the prizes in 2005 is irrelevant since the judge was a Japanese traditionalist collector.

Author:  Colin Lewis [ Mon Jan 22, 2007 8:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

William N. Valavanis wrote:
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...

That is patently untrue, grossly unfair and you know it. Neither do they rely on carving big pieces to "look like bonsai". And you know that, too. Furthermore, to use "bonsai from the beginning" as a yardstick of competence or artistic merit is missing the point entirely. I'm at a loss to understand why you made that statement?

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