Profile: Julian Adams
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Author:  Paul Stokes [ Sun Oct 22, 2006 7:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Julian Adams

Profile: Julian Adams

Julian R. Adams, proprietor of Adams' Bonsai, has been active in bonsai since receiving a gift bonsai in 1971. Beyond improving his own bonsai skills, Julian's primary interest is to make bonsai plants and supplies conveniently available to bonsai enthusiasts and to spread the word about this great art form. Adams' Bonsai was formed in 1984 to facilitate this interest. Julian writes extensively about bonsai via articles for English language bonsai publications and the Central Virginia Bonsai Society newsletter. He offers bonsai plants, wire, and supplies for sale at periodic bonsai gatherings.

Julian's personal blog can be seen at
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Julian Adams:

AoB: You wrote a very informative article titled "Tools for The Beginning Bonsai Artist" which naturally leads to the question, what brand of tools do you use personally and why?

Julian: I have used a variety of tool brands over the years. Some are clearly superior in workmanship and some are just a lot more expensive. I have found that the intermediate grade Kiku brand tools work well for me. The quality is good while the cost is reasonable. As a grower, I use my tools more than most hobbyists, often in abusive ways. The Kiku tools take the abuse well and are inexpensive to replace when I exceed their limits.

AoB: You were given your first bonsai at Christmas in 1970 and rumor has it that it is still living and in the same pot. This may seem incredible to many who have lost their first bonsai due to inexperience, could you tell us more about this bonsai?

Julian: This is almost true. I did move it to a slightly larger pot when I allowed the top to get too large for the root volume. It is a Chamaecyparis (Boulevard) of no certain style. It is not very attractive but it did provide the opportunity for me to learn the good and bad characteristics of that species and variety. One of the great joys of bonsai is the nearly limitless variety of plant material which can be used. This adds great interest to bonsai as a hobby. One of the good characteristics of Boulevard is its ease of asexual propagation. My first experiments with rooting cuttings started with Boulevard. That first tree is the mother of many other bonsai.

AoB: As a symposium participant, you have studied with such masters as Yoshimura, Kimura, Andrews, Naka, Rosade, and others, was there one thing that tied these great men all together, one single common denominator?

Julian: All were much more knowledgeable than I in all aspects of bonsai. In addition, they were willing, often eager, to pass their knowledge of bonsai to others. Although their points of view and areas of expertise varied greatly, there was a common love of bonsai and a common desire to share that love.

AoB: You had the opportunity to assist such artists as Bill Valavanis, Hiroyoshi Yamaji, Walter Pall, Jim Doyle, Peter Adams, Marion Gyllenswan, Jack Billet, Doris Froning, Harold Sasaki and Jack Wikle in workshops. What can you tell us about what you learned in regards to presenting a successful workshop?

Julian: A successful workshop is usually perceived as one that meets the participants, expectations. The difficulty is that the participants will usually have a wide variety of expectations. There is pressure to send each participant home with a "finished" tree. It often is a challenge to get enough "almost finished" material for the participants. Short term success may mean a "finished" tree is produced. Long term success is more likely to be achieved if the participants learn things about bonsai that can be useful in their lifetime of bonsai work at home. My most memorable and successful workshop as a participant was with Mr. Oshima in Rochester. He asked us to wire the small five needle pines used in the workshop. He looked at my feeble wiring job and halted the workshop. The translator turned beet red and refused to translate much of the remarks my wiring inspired in Mr. Oshima. After the dust settled, Mr. Oshima stated that there was no point in talking about shaping the material until we learned how to properly wire a tree. The entire remainder of the workshop was spent on wiring. The workshop material has long since been forgotten. However, the wiring principles he taught that day have been used thousands of times to do a better job of shaping trees in my studio. In this case, the teacher gave us what we needed rather than what we wanted. A great teacher will notice the needs (rather than expectations) of the participants and use the platform of the workshop to teach skills related to those needs.

AoB: What do you feel is missing from most workshops today and how do you suggest that we correct this?

Julian: I would like to see better material available when the object is to create a "finished" tree to take home. The use of workshops to improve bonsai already owned by the participants would go a long way towards increasing the skill level of the participants. In my opinion, the latter type of workshop is not offered often enough.

AoB: You have traveled to Japan three times and to Korea once to study bonsai, can you tell us how the instruction in these countries differs from that available in America?

Julian: I am not familiar with how bonsai instruction for hobbyists is done there. The life of a bonsai apprentice in Japan has been written about by others with first hand experience. In most cases, an apprenticeship is designed to train full time bonsai professionals.


AoB: Would you recommend that a student studies oversees and why?

Julian: There are a few opportunities for the adventurous foreigner to train with Japanese masters. Some of these opportunities might be considered to be a graduate level course of study for much a shorter time than is required of a true apprentice. If one plans to be a bonsai professional, there is almost no efficient substitute for some sort of formal apprenticeship in Japan. For the bonsai hobbyist, the big exhibitions and bonsai masters? gardens in Japan offer learning opportunities that do not exist in the USA. The observant traveler can learn much about all aspects of bonsai from material production to the details of display for appreciation. There are opportunities to learn in other countries but the bonsai infrastructure is much more developed in Japan, making it the easiest place to become immersed in bonsai culture and techniques. The execution of bonsai techniques by the top Japanese masters is unequaled. Having said that, it should be noted that bonsai of great artistic and technical quality are being created in many other countries.

AoB: In bonsai there seems to be a tendency to look down upon those who imitate the work of the great masters, how do you feel about this practice and do you feel education is best gained by doing so?

Julian: Bonsai is an art form. Part of creating art is execution. Less common but of great importance in creating great art is inspiration. Within limits, execution can be learned. One of the best ways to learn execution is to copy great execution. This learning technique is common in painting, sculpture, pottery, music, and theater. Inspiration is another matter. I'm not sure it can be learned. Perhaps inspiration is a gift or talent. In some cases inspiration is present and obvious. In other cases it may be latent, waiting to be released by circumstance. Development of execution skills by imitating great work lays the necessary foundation for one to be able to adequately express inspiration.

AoB: There are many debates in the bonsai community about bonsai as an art form, do you feel that bonsai is indeed an art and if so, why do you think acceptance as such is so difficult to come by?

Julian: This question was partially addressed in the previous question. Acceptance may be a problem because quality of execution is not given sufficient attention in the USA.

The fact that bonsai are alive adds a dimension that is missing with paintings, sculpture, and the like. A painting is finished when the paint dries and the artist puts away the brushes. There is no well defined finish to a bonsai. It may live for generations with proper care. Not only is it decorative and expressive like other art, but it continues to change over time. Possession of a bonsai requires a commitment to care for it that is much different than that required by a painting.

AoB: Who would you say are some of the leading bonsai artists of the day and why?

Julian: There are too many for someone with my limitations to pick. There are some amazing trees being created in Europe and Asia (outside of Japan). Kimura may be a good artistic role model for us all. He is grounded in exquisite execution of classical bonsai but is inspired to stretch the classical boundaries to try new styles.

AoB: Another issue that is hotly debated recently is the thought that a bonsai should be visually appealing from all sides, what are your thoughts on this?

Julian: All three dimensional objects can be viewed from any side. There will almost always be a "best" or most pleasing view of such an object. When the design elements of a bonsai are intentionally manipulated by the artist, the intent will normally be to create the most pleasing possible viewpoint. The design element manipulation will inevitably diminish some viewpoints while enhancing the favored viewpoint. To focus on making all sides equal can be undertaken as artistic choice but does not appeal to me.


AoB: Bonsai is quickly being recognized as the art form it is in America, something that other countries have long known, what would you say is the reason bonsai in America is slow to catch up in this regard?

Julian: The opportunity to see and appreciate great bonsai has been seriously lacking in much of America. Learning opportunities have been very limited in many areas. This situation is improving but there is much yet to be done.

AoB: Where do you visualize bonsai is going in the States,
now and in the near future?

Julian: I am encouraged by the potential contribution to bonsai education in America by some of the younger artists who have committed to a full time bonsai career. There is a need to encourage skill acquisition among hobbyists and involvement of new young hobbyists. The time it takes to create a truly great bonsai puts off some who might otherwise get involved. The instant gratification culture has much to learn from the philosophical side of bonsai. The quality of American bonsai seems to be improving. Hopefully this will continue as the many bonsai enthusiasts and professionals in America pursue their varied bonsai interests. Personally, I have retired from my long time vocation and have begun a thirty year plan to do bonsai full time. Part of this plan is devoted to the improvement of my personal bonsai collection. A significant part is devoted to actively seeking opportunities to teach bonsai and promote wider involvement in bonsai by others.

AoB: There has been a lot of talk lately about bonsai being three dimensional and that as a three dimensional art form, all sides should be designed as to be visually appealing. What are your thoughts on this?

Julian: This is almost a repeat of question 11 but I do have a bit more to say. Of course bonsai are three dimensional! Failure to incorporate that fact into bonsai design results in diminished results. I find excellent classical bonsai designs attractive and instructive when viewed from all sides including from above and from below. However, there is always a side of the tree which is most pleasing to the viewer. This is the front. Viewers may disagree on the best front. It may even be changed from time to time. To the extent that they can be moved, the design elements will be reconfigured to maximize the appeal of the chosen front.


AoB: Do you think bonsai will ever be displayed like statues where a viewer can walk around the piece rather than, as is common now, like a painting up against the wall?

Julian: Bonsai are commonly shown in this manner now. Many of the finest bonsai gardens in Japan and elsewhere display some of the best bonsai as free standing pieces on individual outdoor pedestals. Some other venues are suited to the type of display you suggest and it has been done more than once. American homes seldom have a space for display in the traditional Japanese manner yet most of us who have bonsai find a way to display and enjoy them. The traditional Japanese tokonoma display of bonsai presents the tree in the most elegant manner, in my opinion. The best view of the bonsai is presented with minimum distraction. Large exhibitions such as Kokufu necessarily use the painting against the wall method for a host of practical reasons. It is not as nice as traditional tokonoma display but is a pragmatic solution to the problem of presenting hundreds of wonderful trees to thousands of viewers in an affordable manner.

AoB: Walter Pall has recently had his bonsai displayed in a fine art environment, the Terminus Galerie in Munich, Germany, where they were displayed as art and viewed by contemporary artists and critics alike. Do you see bonsai becoming accepted as a valid art form and the display in such environments becoming more common?

Julian: Yes. Yes.

AoB: Do you think bonsai growers should adapt the Asian method of preparing and manipulating good pre-bonsai material over the course of years?

Julian: Other than collecting, this is the only dependable way of getting good pre-bonsai material. I have grown exclusively with these methods for the last 25 years. The results are excellent: good varieties, good trunks, good roots, and good branching. However, the economics are very difficult for the commercial grower. It takes ten to twenty years to get quality plants. During this time, there is much labor required and the threat of destruction by disease, insect, and weather is ever present. Meanwhile, there is no income from the plants in process. For me it has been a labor of love. I'm not sure that there is sufficient demand at this time to support much commercial activity of this sort.

AoB: Do you collect bonsai material? Is the perspective to collect trees and develop yamadori in your eyes underestimated?

Julian: Good bonsai initially trained by nature will always have a special appeal. In America there are some opportunities for collecting native species but they are often localized. Where there is the opportunity, I do not object to the collecting native material if the probability of survival is high. Lack of suitable species and circumstances make collecting in my area unattractive. This is one of the factors that encouraged me to undertake growing pre-bonsai material with Asian methods. I do have three or four collected trees in my collection but they were all purchased from experts who knew how to capture and tame them.

AoB: Clubs often seem to struggle in recognizing and developing bonsai talent. What is your advice in following a successful path?

Julian: Most organizations (and many individuals) are susceptible to "crabs in a bucket" syndrome. Any crab which climbs toward the rim of the bucket is pulled back down by the others. Bonsai clubs are not immune to this problem. It is very satisfying to help another reach their potential, even if it is above and beyond our own achievements. We should look for individuals with talent in our clubs and then encourage them at every opportunity. If the talented individual is financially challenged, the club should consider the possibility of providing assistance with registration fees and the like so that the individual can be exposed to as many learning opportunities as possible. The investment will be returned to the club and the bonsai community at large.

On a personal basis, each of us should take every opportunity to learn more about the technique, art, and philosophy of bonsai. I have never been to a bonsai event where I did not learn something that raised my personal level of bonsai skill. The goal should be not just to do bonsai, but to enjoy the intellectual challenge of learning as much as possible about bonsai so that our personal "doing of bonsai" gets better every year.

AoB: Clubs often seem anxious about bringing in talented artists, almost as if they are afraid of being judged, what advice would you give these clubs?

Julian: Most of the artists who travel to give presentations and workshops are interested in being helpful and teaching bonsai. They bring other points of view which may be new to the local folks. The intent will usually be to lift the group, not diminish it. This will almost always be done in a pleasant way. I suspect that much of the reluctance lies with local group leaders who may fear losing control of the group if their teachings or philosophies are contradicted. Sometimes this is subtly related to local commercial bonsai interests who may be reluctant to encourage awareness of other sources for bonsai related products. Any club which does not have regular visits from outside artists is shortchanging its membership. New viewpoints are stimulating, even if controversial. Club members should demand that visiting teachers be included in the calendar of events as often as the club's finances will allow. If this is not allowed, I suggest that the members should change leadership or seek high level instruction at another club or regional bonsai gatherings which offer many learning opportunities.

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