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 Post subject: Profile: Jack Douthitt
PostPosted: Thu Mar 15, 2007 3:25 pm 

Joined: Mon Oct 24, 2005 8:51 pm
Posts: 1442
Location: WI, USA
Profile: Jack Douthitt
Jack Douthitt inspecting one of his bonsai.
Photograph by Walter Pall

Jack is a retired architect who has been a bonsai enthusiast for almost forty years. He is a member of several Midwest bonsai clubs and a lifetime member of Bonsai Clubs International and the American Bonsai Society.

He was a member of the Board of Directors of Bonsai Clubs International for ten years and served as President from 1994 to 1996.

He was a founder of the Badger Bonsai Society in Madison, Wisconsin and of the Mid- America Bonsai Alliance, which is an organization of regional bonsai clubs.
He has been a judge of the bonsai exhibits at the Minnesota and Wisconsin State Fairs

His bonsai have been selected, numerous times, as "Best of Show" at various regional bonsai exhibits, and they have won many Blue Ribbons and Awards of Merit. His bonsai have also been featured on the covers of six bonsai magazines.
Jack's bonsai have been selected to be included in both the National Arboretum Collection of American Bonsai in Washington DC and the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection in Tacoma WA.

In 1987 he was recognized as "One of Americas Outstanding Bonsai Artists" by the National Bonsai Foundation

He wrote the forward to the Colin Lewis book Bonsai Survival Manual (published 1996)

Jack had the honor of having one of his bonsai selected as "One of the Top One Hundred" in the Japan Airlines World Bonsai Contest 2000.

Jack is the author of Bonsai - The Art of Living Sculpture published by the Rizzoli International Publishing Company in the spring of 2001.
Jack has presented programs on bonsai at many bonsai, and garden clubs, throughout the Midwest. He has also held continuing classes at his studio.
He was the Chairman of the 2002 American Bonsai Society National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 2002, he conceived, sponsored and produced the first North American New Talent Bonsai Competition. It has now become an annual event of the American Bonsai Society and is sponsored by the Joshua Roth Company of Albany Oregon.
He was the recipient of the "June Kelley Award" from the Milwaukee Bonsai Society for Outstanding Service in 2002. He was also elected President of Milwaukee Bonsai Society in 2003 and 2004.

Some of Jack Douthitt's bonsai.
Photograph by Walter Pall

The following is an on-line interview with Jack Douthitt.

AoB: Needless to say, your book, The Art of Living Sculpture is an excellent addition to bonsai literature. The title strongly suggests that bonsai are in fact sculpture and indeed art. This is often a hotly debated subject on the web. Could you tell us a bit about your feelings on this?

Jack: There is no doubt in my mind that bonsai are sculpture and therefore they must be considered as art. They are different from the traditional arts in many ways, but they are still art. You can look up the words in a dictionary or you can make a visit to a bonsai exhibit and watch the viewers. When you see a bonsai make someone stop in their tracks, their eyes growing large as they see a tree in a new and different way, you know that your art has touched their very being, as all art should do.

I like to think about the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. She often painted small areas of a flower but at a greatly enlarged scale. Her paintings forced the viewer to look at that flower in a unique and different way. Although her paintings did not present a realistic portrait of the flower, they certainly captured the essence of the flower. That is exactly what a bonsai artist does except in reverse. A bonsai artist takes an object that might be a hundred feet high and captures the essence of it in a work of art that is only inches high. The bonsai forces the viewer to see trees in a unique and different way. Yes it is art.

AoB: In your mind, where does container gardening end and art begin with bonsai. Is it in the material or in the bonsaist? When does one stop being a gardener and start being an artist?

Jack: Gardeners grow tomatoes, and green beans, and cucumbers, and flowers. They may enjoy eating the results of their labors, or they enjoy the beauty of their plants and flowers, but they rarely go beyond providing the care that the plant needs to be healthy and productive. In contrast, the bonsai artist works hand in hand with nature to create something that would not exist without the artist's involvement.

AoB: What would you say needs to be done in order to raise the awareness of bonsai as an art form?

Jack: I believe my book was one of the first bonsai books to make the argument that bonsai is art. In doing my research, I discovered that there are many bonsai books out there that have the word art in the title. One of the early English books on bonsai, by Yoshimura and Halford was titled The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes. I also have an older book by Dorothy Young titled Bonsai - The Art and Technique. The book by Debra Koreshoff is titled Bonsai, The Art, Science, History and Philosophy. A book by Isabelle and Remy Samson is titled The Creative Art of Bonsai. I'm sure there are more that use the word art in the title. However, when you read these books they do not say much about the "art" of bonsai.

There are several reasons why bonsai, as an art form, might never reach the same status as traditional arts. The first is that a bonsai is never finished. A painting, when it is completed is hung on the wall to be enjoyed and never painted on again. When a piece of stone sculpture is completed it is placed on its pedestal and never carved on again. A bonsai requires daily maintenance and care. It continues to grow and evolve; therefore it needs a talented curator to maintain its beauty. Secondly a bonsai has often had several different artists contribute to its beauty. It cannot be attributed to one artist like a piece of sculpture or a drawing or a painting. Primarily for these reasons, bonsai will never be collected like traditional art.

The bonsai at the Huntington Museum is a great first step. Bonsai have been exhibited in art museums in this country but rarely. When we see some of the major traditional art museums mounting bonsai exhibitions and creating bonsai collections as a part of their permanent collection we will know that bonsai has arrived in the art world.

Chinese Elm by Jack Douthitt.
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: You are recognized as a leader in the American bonsai scene. What is your opinion on the state of bonsai in this country as compared to other countries?

Jack: I have attended many bonsai exhibits in Japan, Europe and the Far East. In my opinion, the bonsai artists in American are as talented as you will find anywhere in the world. I believe that the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington is the finest public bonsai collection in the world. But it is difficult to put our bonsai on display as a national exhibit because of the size of our country. Therefore our bonsai exhibits are not as concentrated in quality as say the Kokufu-Ten or Gingko Awards. But it has been done. In 1987 at the BCI convention in Minneapolis, MN, a "National Exhibit" was staged. Bonsai from all over the USA were gathered together for the first time in one exhibit. It was awe inspiring. At the last World Convention in Washington DC there was an attempt at a national exhibit and although it was a good exhibit it did not have all of the best trees, or our best artists, from around our country.

AoB: In your opinion, in what areas are we strong and in what areas are we lacking?

Jack: I believe that bonsai artists in America are very creative in their approach to bonsai. However, it takes awhile for this trait to be come apparent because we have been so inundated with all of the "rules" of bonsai. We have all heard them many times, maybe too many times. Rules about where branches should be, how big the trunk should be compared to the height of the tree, what roots should look like, ad infinitum. In my opinion these rules were fabricated in order to 'teach' Americans how to do bonsai. If you look at many of the bonsai masterpieces, these so called rules are ignored entirely. But the masterpiece bonsai creates a sense of beauty that others lack. We need to learn how to produce art without being tied to rules.?

A concentrated study of art would help all us to produce better bonsai. We don't especially need to study painting or drawing, although it wouldn't hurt us either, but we need to study some of the more abstract concepts such as composition, balance, and form. These studies would assist us in our efforts to design outstanding bonsai.

AoB: As a renowned teacher, if you could design the ideal bonsai course or workshop, what would it consist of?

Jack: I don't believe that you can design a bonsai course or workshop that is ideal for everyone. People are different, their bonsai knowledge is different and their artistic visions are all different. The bonsai teacher has to be sensitive to his or her students to provide them with the information they need at the time they need it.

You can't produce a great bonsai in a day as some painters can do with their paintings. Just as a bonsai requires years of growth and refinement to develop, the learning process takes time to mature. Therefore it takes dedication and discipline, over a long period of time, to become proficient in the art of bonsai. There is no easy one way solution.

AoB: If you could only teach one thing at workshops and in classes, what would it be?

Jack: I believe that the most important thing for a student to learn is that 'they should listen to the tree. Not every piece of material has perfect potential. But every tree has its own personal charm and story. The student must learn to discover the story in each tree and, hand in hand with nature, develop that story into a work of art.

Jack Douthitt at the 2006 Joshuah Roth Competition in
Saratoga Springs.
Photograph by Dorothy Schmitz

AoB: It has been said by a few that we are on the verge of another bonsai boom, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Karate Kid movies. Do you think this is a good thing for the art of bonsai or will the art as a whole suffer from it?

Jack: How can the fact that more people know about bonsai or understand bonsai be bad?

AoB: One of the complaints heard often in the bonsai business is that it is very hard to make a living practicing it in this country. Why do you think this is and what steps are needed to correct this?

Jack: Another bonsai boom would help of course. But, it has always been difficult for artists to make a living from their art. Van Gogh, for example, never sold a painting in his lifetime. Even today, many artists, be they painters, writers, poets or sculptors cannot make a living solely from their art. Most teach at a college or university. Another factor that must be taken into consideration is that most traditional art can be made relatively quickly and is made to be sold. Good bonsai takes a long time to produce and is generally, not made to be sold.

AoB: Bonsai has stepped outside of the traditional recently with such innovations as the flat top style and naturalistic styling. As an experienced judge of bonsai shows, which are often judged by traditional standards, do you feel the judging system needs to be revised?

Jack: Judging is a personal and subjective thing. Many exhibits furnish a sheet listing the attributes that someone felt were necessary for the perfect bonsai and they ask the judge to judge the exhibit based upon those attributes. Generally the attributes to be judged are derived from the rules of bonsai as people understand them.

AoB: If you could redesign, or reinvent, the way bonsai shows are judged, what would you change?

Jack: Looking at it as an artist, I would make the judging into more of a critique session. Knowing the judge's comment about my entry, I might learn things about my bonsai that I was not aware of otherwise. This can be accomplished by a scribe talking copious notes of the judge's comments while the bonsai are being judged and providing these to the various artists after judging is completed. Unfortunately, the public always wants to know which bonsai is the best. That's when the judge needs to hand out the ribbons or awards.

Jack Douthitt sharing his knowledge.
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: Do you feel there should be a standardized judging sheet and guidelines?

Jack: No, because a standardized judging sheet would result in cookie cutter bonsai. How can you define, with a check list, what makes one work of art better than another? There are too many variables.

AoB: Is there a way to judge artistic merit?

Jack: Many bonsai artists do not want their work to be judged. But art has always been judged, in one way or another. Originally, the impressionist painters were not allowed to exhibit their work at sponsored exhibits because their art was "judged" to be inferior compared to the more traditional paintings that were in favor at that time. Today their work is widely admired. Today, at the many art fairs that exist, artists have to submit samples of their work before they are selected for the event. At some of the most prestigious bonsai exhibits in the world, the bonsai are judged before they are even allowed into the exhibit.

In every case however, it is the personal opinion of the judges that takes precedent over every other aspect of the judging. Why are certain people selected as judges? They are selected because their opinion is respected by the people selecting the judges. Opinions are constantly changing therefore the criteria used in judging is constantly changing. What is in vogue today will be replaced by something else tomorrow. Judging will follow the same pattern.

AoB: If you had to list out the order of importance the various aspects of a bonsai that is to be judged, what would that list be?

Jack: Based on my answers to some of the previous questions, this is a difficult one to answer. Since we use living material for our art, I believe you have to separate the horticulture from the artistic. The horticulture is easy and can be easily listed. Is it healthy, and pest free, Is the foliage typical of the species? And so forth. The artistic is not so easy. I don't believe that you make a list of definitive items that differentiates an outstanding bonsai from a mediocre one. I think that the first thing that attracts my attention to a bonsai is its dramatic impact. Does it take your breath away? Does your eye move around the composition, continually finding something of interest? As you continue looking, do the details of the tree all fit well into the overall composition?

AoB: You have many of your own bonsai on permanent display around the country and you have won numerous awards for your work. Where does your inspiration come from?

Jack: I don't always know where my ideas come from. I enjoy looking at trees in nature and will often stop to look at a tree that I see growing in a meadow or on a hillside. My bonsai library is extensive and I use it as a resource when I am searching for solutions to some of my design problems. All of my trees are temperate climate trees and have to be put in storage for the long cold Wisconsin winters. For the first month or so, after they are put away, I relish my free time. But by February I am getting anxious to be working on trees again. Unfortunately there is still a lot of winter yet to come. That is when my bonsai books and magazines are pulled from the shelves and I start thumbing through them. By the time the weather allows me to start work, I have many pages marked with ideas for my trees. Some will work out and some will not.

AoB: What native American species do you feel are uniquely suited to bonsai?

Jack: I believe that we have a great many species of plants growing in the US that make wonderful bonsai. I believe we have not yet scratched the surface of using native American material for bonsai. Years ago I managed to collect some marvelous common pasture junipers here in Wisconsin. Andy Smith collects some fabulous material from the Dakota's. There is wonderful material being collected in California and the Pacific Northwest. Recently I have been collecting elms and hackberrys in Oklahoma.

AoB: What native American species do you feel is wrongfully overlooked as bonsai material?

Jack: I think this is a question that is yet to be answered. There is a wealth of potential material out there. Once we become more interested in using our native material rather than imported material, we will find material that has not been seriously considered as bonsai material. Along this line of thinking, I have to tell you a little story. For many years I attempted to grow a white birch bonsai. I believed that a tree with such a distinctive bark would be spectacular as a bonsai. I have never been successful. A few years ago I found a wonderful white birch bonsai that had been developed by Scott Clark of Chicago IL. When I asked how he managed to do it, he replied that it responded well to his efforts and that it was not a problem to grow. How many more species are there out there like the birch? Let's find out together.

Jack Douthitt, Will Heath, and Jack Wikle at the Michigan All State Show in 2006.
Photograph by Vance Wood

AoB: As a person who gives many demos and workshops and who has to acquire stock for such, how do you feel about the current state of stock in this country as compared to other countries?

Jack: It is hard to find really good material that is not imported. Japan and China are probably the leaders in developing bonsai stock. As the market grows more people will spend the time and effort necessary to produce stock for the bonsai artist to use.

AoB: What would you like to see happen with our bonsai nurseries over time?

Jack: It would be wonderful if they could make a decent living from their love of bonsai. But right now it is difficult.

Last edited by Paul Stokes on Tue Jan 29, 2008 9:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2007 3:08 pm 

Joined: Sat Feb 03, 2007 8:30 pm
Posts: 9
Great article with some very good insights. However, I always see people comparing Bonsai as an art to Sculpture and painting. While that is true aesthetically, I feel Bonsai has more in common with music or plays. Every time a song or play is performed live, there is the opportunity for it to grow and evolve. This part of the art is more similar to Bonsai. While Romeo & Juliet will never evolve into MacBeth, the way a Bonsai may evolve from a semi-cascade to an informal upright. It is still a living art to some extent.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2007 3:24 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Hi Dan,
May I refer you to another article that addresses your comparison? ... lpture.php


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