Profile: Dan Robinson
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Author:  Editorial Staff [ Sun May 18, 2008 2:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Dan Robinson

Profile: Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson
Photograph by Walter Pall

Dan Robinson looks and acts younger than his years. His drive and joyful obsession for creating bonsai are crucial elements in his artistry.

In 1978 Frank Okimura, the curator for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, watched Dan create a cascade from a monumental upright Ponderosa Pine. He quietly said "Dan is the Picasso of Bonsai". It is an apt description for an inventive artist who is unafraid to challenge accepted traditions.

Frequently called from his lake-side home in the Pacific Northwest to share his wealth of knowledge and skills with bonsai enthusiast, Dan has traveled the world over helping others develop their own vision. His seminars and workshops on carving and sculptural processes present a unique American perspective; emphasizing natural forms and in effect, rejecting prescribed rules that restrict artistic expression. Dan is credited with the development of a root enhancing technique now used by collectors around the world. He introduced power-tools into bonsai creation arena in 1978. His articulation on "The Aging Process" clarified the design implicit during ascending stages of age in trees. His treatise "Focal Point Bonsai Design", which challenges the perpetuation of the "One-Two-Three-Triangle" design concept has been published in US, Italian, English and French bonsai publications. The subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, Dan Robinson was featured in a Smithsonian article on Bonsai in 1989.

Dan's personal bonsai collection numbers more than 200, and are significant for their quality and age. His work is also represented in numerous public and private collections, including the American Bonsai Collection at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. The National Forest Service purchased a Robinson collected bonsai, dubbed as a gift to America in 1978. It was presented during the 100th Anniversary of the Forest Service as the National Bonsai Tree.

Dan weaves his love of nature with the ancient art form of bonsai. His impressions from the High Cascades form the basis of his artistic education. The University of Washington School of Forestry provided the technical education. For Dan, bonsai has been a solitary artistic pursuit, developing a distinctive and abstract style. He holds no schools nor claims any direct followers. Yet he is a profoundly influential figure.
For 50 years Dan has been a nearly daily practitioner of the art. Still exploring, he has not found the limits of his creativity or his desire to practice the art. Each day is regarded as an opportunity. Whether a tree holds the promise of tomorrow, or is ready to be turned into a beautiful work of art today, he is eager to rise to the challenge, and share the fruits of his labor with others.

The following is an on-line interview with Dan Robinson.

AoB: Your Elandan Gardens have become quite famous. Can you expand about the history and aim of this?

Dan: It occurred to me during my "mid-life" in bonsai that production and results best displayed individual talents. The sharing of bonsai with everyone, not just fellow enthusiasts, was the best way to spread the passion. Elandan Gardens is a family effort. Its grand presentation is my forum, my proof and manifestation of 50 years of effort.

Will Robinson Scupture at Elandan Gardens
Photograph by Victrinia Ensor

AoB: Will Robinson, a world-renowned sculptor, also has a presence at Elandan Gardens, how has his work influenced your philosophy of bonsai design and has your work influenced his?

Dan: William grew up in a family immersed in a love for nature, and the artifacts derived from her. Weathered wood, gnarly roots, ancient trees, and etched stone were all ingredients in a young man's rehearsal for life. Will has never done representational sculpture. All of his designs are one of a kind. Brilliant and never seen before, all are patterns inherent in creative art. He and I both treasure the idea of evoking the response, "I've never seen that before!"

AoB: Many remember your treatise "Focal Point Bonsai Design" and that you are not so fond of the classical Japanese approach towards bonsai. What is wrong with that and what would you suggest instead?

Dan: "Focal Point Bonsai Design" is presented as an alternative approach to dealing with older, perhaps collected material. It is not a repudiation of other approaches. It offers an expansion over many of the narrow, engineered approaches, found in doing things "by the numbers". "Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes" by Yoshimura and Halfords, set the criteria for what has come to be known as ‘classical bonsai'. Such as triangular design, 1-2-3 branch patterns, trunk to branch thickness ratios etc. American bonsai art has bought these values.

The Japanese approach to bonsai rarely manifests the same adherence to the ‘classical bonsai' regulations. Each Japanese artist follows his own path in his creative journey.

AoB: Do you feel your formal education in forestry has helped your pursuit of bonsai and would you recommend such education for all practitioners?

Dan: The study of forestry was decided upon as a freshman in high school. As a small child, I was enamored over plants and trees, so forestry was a destiny. The forestry curriculum covers a huge spectrum of math, engineering and other sciences. However, the portions covering silvics, botany, forest management and dendrology particularly interested me. All of these studies contributed to the development of my approach to bonsai. Every practitioner can use this science.

AoB: Why would you not use copper wire?

Dan: I started with copper wire. I understand copper wire. It is appreciably stronger than aluminum. When aluminum showed up it was a better tool. Wire is a tool nothing more. Inspiration, technique, and tools lead to good bonsai, not copper wire!

Dan Robinson
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: You have said that very tree deserves deadwood, really, every one?

Dan: As I have stated in "Focal Point Bonsai" all trees deserve deadwood. In fact, all trees in nature, even juvenile trees, are replete with deadwood. As an enhancement to a bonsai's visual appearance dead wood is magic. It is the ultimate aging feature. If well sculpted and proportional, it completes the illusion.

Do all trees deserve it? I think so!

AoB: Most bonsai practitioners work with nursery trees. You seem to only concentrate on collected material. What is wrong with nursery stuff?

Dan: Old nursery material is rare these days. The ‘Mom & Pop' have yielded to the Home Depot and Lowes plant selections, and those plants are young and small. Working with small plants puts most trees into the 200-year plan. Greatness is possible with a 200-year plan. Most American bonsai were begun as small specimens. Through careful tutelage over 20-30-40 years, a certain level of success has been achieved. A full, well developed crown is there, but the trunk is disproportionately small, another 150 years will fix this.

Show me a great trunk. I can grow a top!

AoB: You have a couple of Ponderosas where JBP was grafted on and maybe RMJ where shimpaku was grafted on. How did this work and why did you not do more of this?

Dan: I grafted JBP on several collect ponderosa in the late 60s. One is in the National collection in DC; the other is my logo tree. Several collected junipers I also grafted, but my success was limited. Experts should handle grafting conifers. In January of 2007, I delivered 5 Rocky Mountain Junipers to Roy Nagatoshi. I helped him perform his magic. I will pick up these trees this spring and being the art of growing a top on a great trunk.

AoB: You introduced power-tools into the bonsai creation arena in 1978, quite a bit has changed since then, what do you think of the path carving has taken over the years. What do you think of Kimura's carving?

Dan: I am pleased with the exponential growth in the carving of bonsai. Many detractors have changed their tunes over the years. Creative artists have always employed sculpture in one form or another, so it is not a new craft. Power tools expedite the fruition of ones inspiration. Kimura validated my approach, and made it acceptable. His genius, skill, and vision is extraordinary. The Europeans are quick studies and excellent sculptural works are being created. America is for the most part stuck in the ‘classical bonsai' approach.

AoB: Your carving on many trees is quite bizarre. Are you aiming to surpass nature? Some say that your carving in some instances is not looking natural. Do you see it the same way?

Dan: Artistic vision is largely based on what our eyes have seen! The scope of what I have perceived in nature is the well I draw from as I sculpt. In my lifetime of exploring wild places, one word says it all, "extraordinary". In my book, which is in development, I will present my evidence of unbelievable natural deadwood. A recent trip to the Baja yielded a world of visual images and one small piece of ancient naturally weathered wood that is priceless. If as an artist the only deadwood you have seen is lumber, firewood, or presto logs, then much of my sculpture may seem overdone.

Dan Robinson
Photograph by John Dixon

AoB: We hear that too many collected trees go downhill after a decade in a pot. Why is this and what can we do against it?

Dan: I think that the environment where we try to grow trees is profoundly influential in its survival. A collected tree remaining in its normal habitat is very important. A tree collected in British Columbia is unlikely to survive anywhere else. Some trees are tough. Ponderosa's have the widest range of any western pine, but it still might not like Georgia's humidity. Luckily, I live in conifer country and most trees like our benevolent climate. Only dry land junipers are troubled, and grafting water loving shimpaku to them fixes it.

AoB: We understand that you do not believe in ever re-potting a tree that is established. Can you explain this?

Dan: First, let me say that I have never killed a tree by not repotting it. However, in the same breath, many trees have died in this root tampering process. Trees in the natural confines of cracks survive for hundreds of years without root tampering. I do repot trees when root growth forces the trees up and out of the pot from being properly seated in the container. Without belaboring the point, my advice to neophytes is to begin considering root renewal at about twenty-five years.

AoB: You developed a root enhancing technique now used by collectors around the world, could you tell us more about this technique?

Dan: I devised this technique to guarantee the survival of fresh wild tree transplants. Conifers need a continuous water stream from root tip to foliage. The absence of white root tips is the death knell. Root enhancement promotes white root tip actuation, which if treated right guarantees survival.

Bonsai by Dan Robinson
Photograph by Victrinia Ensor

AoB: A demonstration of yours at the Portland International Bonsai Convention divided artists for many years, could you tell us more about this demonstration and why you think it was so controversial?

Dan: At the Portland Convention, I introduced sculpture with power tools. I took a large ponderosa pine, inverted it into a cascade form, and carved the errant branches into value adding deadwood. The disruption it caused at the time was more a function of my audacity than a design failure.

Everyone carves now. However, back then, peeling a jin was about it. Parochial thinkers are always offended by innovation.

AoB: You do not frequent the internet bonsai scene often, do you see any value in what is being accomplished on-line and what would you like to see more of there? Less of?

Dan: I have never personally visited the Internet scene, so I have no opinion. I do think that sharing ideas and methods is vital to the health and evolution of the art form.

AoB: Many practitioners still consider bonsai a craft or a simple backyard hobby, even in this "enlightened" age. Many people and organizations (like AoB) now are strongly promoting bonsai as an art form. What are your thoughts of bonsai as a legitimate art form?

Dan: Personally, I consider bonsai the ultimate art form. Bonsai encompasses all of the traditional elements in art: good design, technique, creativity, and medium. However, it integrates all of these elements with a living and evolving organism. The complexities of a living art form encompass it all, and the onus of perpetually maintaining life is fantastic. A bonsai is never complete.

AoB: If you could only teach one thing about bonsai, what would it be?

Dan: The proper pronunciation of the word "bone-sigh".

Seriously, teaching someone to see the possibilities within a tree is the key to their success in the art. Technique is readily learnable, but seeing the endless possibilities that nature proffers is the hardest to learn. Creativity should give birth to something new, but most bonsai guidelines only lead to repetition.

Dan Robinson
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: What do you see happening in the bonsai community now that you feel is important and exciting?

Dan: My particular bonsai community is quite small. And my excitement is generated by continually finding extraordinary material to work on. Whether collected in the wild, gathered from local nursery growers, or neighborhood residences, great stuff is still out there. All it takes is good eyes, savvy, and energy to find it. This is what excites my community.

AoB: What do you think is the future of the art of bonsai?

Dan: I think the future will continue along its present course, fraught with the varied opinions of different practitioners. Most enthusiasts will become ensnared in the "by the numbers" methodology and their work will be marginal at best. However, a significant number will go beyond the "one-two-three" triangle methodology. If their eyes learn to grasp the endless possibilities available to them, new and interesting designs could result.

Author:  Mike Page [ Sun May 18, 2008 6:01 pm ]
Post subject:  Dan the Man

My first contact with Dan Robinson was when I attended the 1980 Golden State Bonsai Federation convention in Sacramento, CA. Dan was the featured artist, and used a chainsaw to style collected pines.

This was an epiphany in my short, up to that time, bonsai life. As soon as I got home from the convention I went looking for a small chainsaw so as to practice this great new technique. I soon found a good one which I still have and which still runs as well as when it was new.

In the yard was a 5 gallon Hollywood juniper that I decided to use as the sacrificial lamb. I carved the trunk from near soil level to about 2/3 up, crossed my fingers and let it sit. To my surprise it didn't die, and I still have it with much more carving done since the first time.

Three or four years later I discovered the die grinder and the many bits that could be used for bonsai carving. Another epiphany.

It's been a great lot of fun, thanks to Dan and his 1980 chainsaw demo.


Edit later: I found a 3 year old picture of the Hollywood juniper in my digital file. Height is about 29 inches.

Another edit: In 1987 Dan and I did a demo for the Bonsai Society of San Francisco annual exhibit. Dan styled an old Ponderosa pine he had collected, and I worked on the rock structure to plant the pine in.
The rock was originally attached to a piece of black slate, but after a year or so, the roots were breaking through the slate. It became necessary to break the slate away and place the rock in a pot.
The real point is that is was always great fun, and very educational to work with Dan and gain an understanding of his bonsai vision.
The image is the pine as it appears today..


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Author:  Victrinia Ensor [ Wed May 28, 2008 1:14 am ]
Post subject: 

The first time I saw Daniel was in the garden at Elandan. His long silvering hair was pulled back into a ponytail, with a packet of Miracle Grow stuffed into his shirt pocket. He had a big smile on his face, and asked me... "How do you like my garden?"

From that moment I was hooked... this man has more heart and passion than any other person I have ever met in the art. Having spent the last couple of years studying with him (though he's always treated me as his peer), I am still in awe at his ability to teach me something new at every turn.

Last year he celebrated 50 years of practicing the art... and still he is bonsai's most original maverick.

I look forward to new generations of bonsai enthusiasts learning about his methods. Having a glimpse of this very eloquent man through an article such as this is a great start.

Kindest regards,


Author:  Mark Arpag [ Sat Jul 12, 2008 7:38 am ]
Post subject: 

50 years in Bonsai.Thats a long time.
After reading Dan's thoughts on deadwood, I think he has spent to much time in the sun.
We all choose our own way to express ourselves through our Bonsai which is a great thing. I could not disagree with Dan more on this point though.
Deadwood, in all its forms is an Artistic tool until you suggest that it be used on EVERY TREE. It then becomes a "step" to create Bonsai by the numbers.
I shudder to think of the Bonsai zombies carving up every tree in their collection "cuz' DAN said so".
It makes no sense at all. Victrinia, are you willing to drink the kool-aid and carve a big honkin' shari on the front of your precious Satsuki? How about jinning a branch then? Remember," EVERY TREE DESERVES DEADWOOD".
Daniel said so.


Author:  Victrinia Ensor [ Sat Jul 12, 2008 2:41 pm ]
Post subject: 


Have you seen my "precious" Satsuki? It has deadwood... it would not be nearly as lovely without it. It adds a fragile elegance which would not have the same impact were it not present.

See attachment below

Would it still be lovely without it... of course... is it better with it? Exceedingly so.... the tree deserves to be better does it not?

By all means, disagree with my aesthetic taste. I have no problem with that.... because the fact that we can love vastly different things and still be practicing the same art is a aspect of bonsai that I cherish.

When I first came across Daniel's work, I was very impressed, but I struggled to understand it. Having spent a great deal of time studying the trees at Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, my mind was not used to interperting the trees I was seeing. But they were fascinating... and drew me into knowing Daniel more, by way of becoming a volunteer in his garden. I was content to pull weeds.... Daniel instead gave me a magnificent cascade to work on. That was the most nerve wracking day and a half of my bonsai life. I have worked on literally hundreds of his trees... and each time I touch one... I am blown away by the elegance and artisty which he imparts to the tree through his carving work. Some of it is very subtle, and is hidden within a crown like a treasure to be found. Others are strong images of struggles to survive. All of it equates to value being added to the image.

Even in the Rim, you can see something magical in the difference between trees which possess deadwood, and those which do not.

This is a beautiful tree...

See attachment below

This one takes my breath away...

See attachment below

Both trees are beautiful images... one is simply more so because the deadwood adds profound age to the appearance of the tree.

We live in a place of old and ancient trees... we honor them. We express them in our art. It really is that simple.

If you cherish the more juvenile image of a tree, then you will honor that... and express it in your art. Again, it really is that simple.

Also... by the numbers is refering to the 1-2-3 triangle philosophy many people start with, and never depart from. But when it comes to having principles and time tested methodologies around the art of bonsai... Daniel has more than most. And frankly you would be hard pressed to explain to me how having such is a detriment to his art.

I must confess I found the tone of your writing to have a bit of a sneer in it. If that was not your intent, then please say so. If you have somehow surmised that I am a lemming to be led without thought, then you are no friend of mine, because you know me not at all. Should you persist with that tone, I will not bother to respond. Should you wish to engage in discussing the merits, or lack, of deadwood as an element in bonsai, I would be happy to do so. Not so much for your benefit, but for that of any other person who reads the discussion.

I have a question for you, which will then beg another.... Do you see the work of the rightly honored Kimura in the same light? I have seen a tree he owns which does not have deadwood... but that is a rare happening for him.

If you do not see Kimura's work in the same light, is it possibly because he is a Japanese master, and somehow more acceptable because of the origins of bonsai? I would find it challenging to find any other position to take, when looking at their desire to infuse their art with deadwood... if you found Kimura's use acceptable and Daniel's not.

With respect,


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Author:  Mike Page [ Sat Jul 12, 2008 3:17 pm ]
Post subject: 

Complex art forms elicit complex reactions. We all view art through a different set of eyes, and while we may not always see the beauty that another sees, we must respect the artist for his or her efforts, and keep an open mind.

My mother had a quaint expression that I heard many times in my youth. She would often say in answer to a controversy:
"To each his own", said the lady as she kissed the cow.

I've applied this saying to the famous painting of a soup can. While the artistic value may escape my eye, I do see the perfection of artistic workmanship lavished on the painting, or illustration as some might put it.

So, while we may not always appreciate the work of an artist, we should respect and honor him or her for attempting in their own way to make the world a better place


Author:  Mark Arpag [ Sat Jul 12, 2008 7:34 pm ]
Post subject: 

To your points...
I remember when you first posted your Satsuki , you were so excited I could not help share your excitment. So when I called your Satsuki precious, I meant it. As to the jin, it is not my taste but I see why you feel it adds a fragile elegance. As to adding age, there are other ways to achieve that without the jin.
As to Dans Bonsai, I never faulted them, after all they are his personal expression.
The two Bonsai you posted really do not help us here. The larch happens to be a tree that I have admired for years the other is not . I could post fantastic Bonsai with no deadwood and then poor ones with alot.
As to age, I respect and love old trees I just disagree that the path to creating them must always have deadwood. I have jins and sharis on many of my Bonsai. It is a tool that sometimes works with the type of tree and the design and sometimes it does not.
What I was refering to with by the numbers was it is making Bonsai a step by process rather than an Artistic one. It is a default.
Why my strong reaction?
This profile has been up for a while, not one person has challenged the idea that "every Bonsai deserves deadwood". I do not not have an issue with use of deadwood, it can add a great deal to a design.
I do see more and more poorly crafted jin and shari that do not add to design. It has become a quick fix, an instant road to "old looking" trees that fails. These are not the thoughtful and artistically executed kind you find on Dans trees. So from where did these hideous treatments arise?
Deadwood is not the only tool available to an Artist to suggest or create an image of age in my opinion. When someone like Dan (a Bonsai authority) makes an absolute statement that "every tree deserves deadwood" it needs to be challenged.
I think you are a kind person and I did not intend to ofend you or Dan.
As to Kimura, he has created many, many outstanding Bonsai with little or no deadwood. Quiet, refined, graceful and still with a feeling of great age.
I like them as well as his famous carved ones.

Best Regards,

Author:  Dave Williams [ Sun Jul 13, 2008 5:27 am ]
Post subject: 

I agree with Mark. I think deadwood has an extremely important role in bonsai, but I don't think every tree deserves it, nor would necessarily be well served by its presence.

There is a kind of reciprocal determinism that helps shape a persons' aesthetics in bonsaai; a two-way interaction between a person and their environment. Even when a person has reached the stage where John Nakas' principle of "don't try to make your tree look like a bonsai, try to make your bonsai look like a tree" is taken as a given, the 'idea' of a tree is strongly influenced by a persons' environment.

For example, in rural England, we have some ancient forests, but the landscape consists generally of gentle, rolling hills and the climate is kind and mild. The trees to which we are exposed, should we choose to look (sadly, many don't), are often very old, but growing in fertile, well watered soils with no real hardships to deal with. There are few harsh winds, winters are generally mild and the summers are not brutally dry or hot. As a result, even our oldest trees show few signs of struggle. They are massive trunked and broad canopied with low, sweeping branches and they drowse gently under the summer sun.

These examples will influence peoples' beliefs concerning what constitutes the image of 'a tree', and consequently, their beliefs will influence what they see in their environment. To them, trees with lots of deadwood (particularly broadleafed trees) will tend to look diseased and so less attractive.

This is not a failing on their part. They, like everybody else, are a product of their environment. People (still in the UK) who are raised in North Wales or Scotland, where there are some extremely harsh conditions in the mountains, or near the West Coast where there is a fairly consistant wind off the Atlantic and strong winter storms, will be exposed to different kinds of trees, grown in very different conditions. In the same way as those from the South East of England, their ideas of what constitutes 'a tree' will be influenced by this exposure.

People who are raised surrounded by these differing examples will, when trying to 'make their bonsai look like a tree', tend to be guided by their personal experience. This is entirely natural.

Personally, I think there is a strong argument for the value of the image of a fully healthy yet mature/old tree. It carries a lot of grace and projects peace and tranquility, reflecting a long and peaceful life. This is just as valid an existance as one spent clinging to survival on the edge of a cliff, battered by grit laden winds and I don't think there is a case for greater merit on either side.

I do appreciate the skill that goes into the creation of convincing deadwood in bonsai. I doubt I could do anything like it, but I don't consider that a flaw on my part, it is simply the result of not having much experience with such examples in the wild. I just don't have the schema for it. I could learn, of course, but without visiting such places and viewing over and over again, natural examples of deadwood on living trees, anything I did would lack that experiencial template (schema) and so, even if it was convincing, it would be contrived, as I would be creating it because 'that's what bonsai have' and not because 'that's what a tree is to me'.

I think bonsai are not really a reflection of trees in the wild, but are a reflection of the artists' experiences, perceptions and feelings towards trees in the wild (they have to be, it's unavoidable. We are not cameras and we don't work that way). This being the case, whilst I don't think there is an argument for greater merit on either side of a 'with or without' deadwood' debate, I do think there is an extremely strong argument for honesty (to one's self) in which a person attempts to create an external representation of their own personal understanding of, and feelings towards trees, rather than adding or subtracting elements to better fit other peoples' understanding or emotional responses to the tree.

Author:  Victrinia Ensor [ Mon Jul 14, 2008 7:04 pm ]
Post subject: 


First off, I wanted to express my appreciation for your change of tone.
Interestingly… To my mind I think you and I are not very far apart in thought in many respects. I may be wrong, but from what I read in your response, I think we may well worry at some of the same bones.

I think the divergence you feel may be rooted in the fact that a one sentence catch all like, "Every tree deserves deadwood.", does NOT manage to convey the other necessary convictions which Daniel holds, whether he has put them to an official statement or not.

A personal maxim developed after my own early failures and subsequent exposure to great trees is, "Just because a tree can be a bonsai, does not mean that it should be a bonsai." Many of the botched quick fixes you have doubtlessly seen over the years are victims of failing to understand that truth. We watch mediocre and grossly inappropriate material being turned into a novice's next love on a regular basis, regardless of the presence of deadwood. It has always happened… but due to the ease of the internet, it's paraded around with unending regularity. The fact that someone TRIED is not alarming, that should always be nurtured… the fact that they were ill equipped or informed on how to approach the task is what troubles me. This leads me to a premise which Daniel has OFTEN voiced to others… that every artist should have the opportunity to work with great material. Anyone can have a reasonable hope of creating something to be proud of if they start with great material. Sadly crumby material, in all but the most experienced hands, generally leads to crumby bonsai.

But once we have this great material there are certain treatments which have to be exercised in it's use. Since it's usually collected from wild or urban environments, unless it is naturally stunted, a great many of these trees have to be reduced in order to obtain correct proportion. If one is reducing the mass of a specimen, and has the choice to leave a stub for a potential carving… it would behoove the artist to consider it. One can always remove it later, or create a shari/sabamiki if more appropriate. Leaving a bulls eye scar on a trunk is hardly appealing, even once it creates a heal mark.

Great material can be grown from seed, with a commitment from the artist to train it from juvenile stages to a point where it has matured enough to be workable. But many of these techniques require sometimes significant sacrificial tops/branches to expedite the process. Again… a stub must be cut, which can be left as a potential carving site of some variety.

I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the nature of good deadwood. The eye poking jin, dreaded pencil top, or indiscriminate hole punched into a trunk, are by no means the kind of deadwood Daniel is referring to. To point out what he said in his interview… "If well sculpted and proportional, it completes the illusion."

There is nothing indiscriminate in that statement. It completes the illusion… it is a means to an end, not the only element.

Daniel has trees without deadwood, some of which are even on display in the garden. It is a teaching garden after all. But they tend to be younger maples, without sufficient mass to have any carving be appropriate. He would be the first person to tell you when not to bother with carving on a tree… because it won't amount to anything worthy. In the future, maybe those trees will reach a level of maturity, or require a design change to make it a worthy candidate for that treatment, but until it is… he just enjoys it for what it is. Instead he imposes the one feature never missing from a tree in his keeping…. gnarly undulating movement.

There are trees which I would not choose to give deadwood to, at this time. They are the rare trees which I regard as a celebration of symmetry. The Ohashi Japanese Beech in the PRBC is my principal example.

See attachment below

This tree delights me just as it is. But that being said… if something occurred (because life happens to bonsai despite our best intentions) which removed that symmetry, I would not fail to see if I could incorporate it at that point… because I do believe that every tree deserves it… in it's time.

There are many VERY fine bonsai which are technical works of perfection… to the point of the surreal. I find them interesting, from the "soup can" perspective that Mike P. mentions. This is especially true of pines. But they do not light the fires of my soul… because they lack identity for me. They have no distinction which separates them from dozens of other technical and horticultural marvels.

I'll be honest enough to say that a major part of my evaluation before I bring a tree into my personal collection, centers on its general ability to justify the addition of deadwood into its long term plan. But a tree's lack of ability to support it in that moment does not mean I won't acquire it. My Satsuki was one of those choices. I couldn't see where adding deadwood would be the right thing to do when I first considered buying it. But I loved its ramification, and its movement. However when I had spent some time pondering it, and talking it over with Daniel and many other people… redesigning it became necessary and the addition of deadwood was an element I chose to incorporate. I am not sorry I did.

I think the thing to rail against, is not that Daniel has the audacity to suggest that every tree deserves deadwood, and he has certainly never misused it simply for the sake of its presence. I think the thing to rail against, is the rampant misuse of it as a design element. And the inability or failure of individuals to acquire appropreiate material to work on. I can tell you, he would be happy to disabuse anyone of the mistaken use of deadwood, just come visit him in the garden… he'll talk your ear off.

I've read your response a couple of different times… and really pondered how I wanted to approach responding to it… I am certainly willing to dig deeper into the discussion. There is no be all end all… but as this discussion has proven, it is very hard to encapsulate a principal without a pre-knowledge of the other details which lend to its validity. I can only say that there is a great deal of work under way which will help dispel many misconceptions held about his philosophies and methodologies.

Kindest regards,


File comment: This tree delights me just as it is.
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Author:  Anonymous [ Mon Jul 21, 2008 3:01 am ]
Post subject: 

I'm a little late to this discussion, but having read it now, it occurs to me that Dan's statement about deadwood has been taken a bit more drastically than it needs to be.

Both in his profile here and in his original writing on Focal Point Bonsai Design (also published as Bonsai Redefined: The Robinson Addendum), Dan stated that every bonsai deserves deadwood. He did not state that every bonsai must have deadwood, as if it is a rule to be followed blindly or rigidly.

In fact, in his original writing, those familiar with it will recall that this pronouncement about deadwood was the first of his "four principles," and that he specifically emphasized that he called them priniciples rather than rules because he preferred the less "sinister" implication of the former term.

A few sentences later, then, he also refers to the four principles as "guidelines," stating that he found them "useful and stimulating," once again not implying that they are rigidly mandatory.

Dan delights in words, and chooses his spoken and written words very carefully. "Deserves" is most definitely a suggestive term, not a mandate. We might say that every car deserves a nice set of tires, or that a person deserves a nice meal on their birthday, without implying that we are making a decree that others must follow. Similarly, Dan's statement simply doesn't need to be taken so heavy.

Posting guidelines on this site seem to prohibit me from simply quoting in full the appropriate sections of Dan's writing that I mention above, but they are readily available through a Google search to anyone who wants the original source.

Will Hiltz

Author:  Will Heath [ Mon Jul 21, 2008 8:08 am ]
Post subject: 

Will Hiltz wrote:
Posting guidelines on this site seem to prohibit me from simply quoting in full the appropriate sections of Dan's writing that I mention above, but they are readily available through a Google search to anyone who wants the original source.
Hi Will,

Very asute observations on the intent behind the words of Dan, thank you.

Our policies do allow quoting the works of others, as long as full credit proper citation is given. However, instead of quoting, the complete " Robinson Addendum" can be seen at


Author:  Richard Moquin [ Sat Jul 26, 2008 6:04 am ]
Post subject: 

I think the thing to rail against, is the rampant misuse of it as a design element. And the inability or failure of individuals to acquire appropriate material to work on.

Combined with Will's analogy of Dan's words, this pretty much sums it up in a nutshell.

Speaking of Kimura, although renowned as a magician with the chainsaw, his "mastery" in and of the art far exceeds his chainsaw antics.

I believe that the Internet plays an enormous role in nurturing these mis-conceptions, while at the same time providing an avenue to not only discuss but clarify matters intent etc... on occasion but unfortunately, the original exposure to mis-conceptions are not easily removed once stored on our "hard disk" (brain)

A thread entitled "deadwood and helmets" is being discussed at another venue. Artistically speaking these "works" were without a doubt masterfully done and a direct representation of the artist's foundation and exposure to bonsai.

Therefore depending on how we were first introduced to this art, that original introduction may, but not always, carve the path one will follow, as it is much easier to "duplicate" (to some extent) than create. Bonsai is about time and patience. One aspect that seemingly lacks in any discussion is the time it takes for individuals to find "their" identity in this art form.

In closing,
And the inability or failure of individuals to acquire appropriate material to work on.

... this particular statement is one that is being over utilized IMO these days. Albeit to some extent true, not extremely accurate. It is the talent and understanding of techniques and artistic expressions, not to mention soul, that create a great Bonsai.

BTW, the judicious use of deadwood on your Satsuki is gracefully done and without it, may not be appropriate.

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