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 Post subject: Profile: Robert Kempinski
PostPosted: Sun Dec 03, 2006 11:39 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Profile: Robert Kempinski
Robert Kempinski

Bonsai are like potato chips, no one can have just one. Unfortunately I found this out too late. Now my yard in my home in Melbourne, Florida is full of potato chips, rather bonsai trees. It started innocently enough when I first spied bonsai trees in person in 1982 at the Seoul House in Korea. The small microcosms of nature planted a seed, but I was a US Army officer then and couldn't pursue the art. Years later after starting a family and working closely with the Japanese Space Agency, I got acquainted with Japanese language and culture. The seed finally sprouted via a Live Oak acorn found in my yard. Thirteen years later my first tree is still alive and in a bonsai pot although due for a major restyle to fix some errors made way back then. Many other trees have since joined the oak as I have seriously pursued the art.

Neighbors frequently spy me working by flashlight in the dark on my trees as I spend my daylight hours as a Director of Engineering at the Cape Canaveral Space Center for Computer Sciences Corporation, a US Fortune 500 Company. The tranquil pruning and shaping of bonsai serves as a perfect antidote to the count down induced stress of launching rockets and satellites.

Living in central Florida, USA, my collection is a mix of tropical and temperate trees that can take the heat of our summers and very mild winters. I especially like Buttonwood, Japanese Black Pine and Willow Leaf Ficus trees. I've had the good fortune to travel extensively around the US and the world visiting bonsai gardens and exhibitions. Lately I have been traveling sharing my knowledge and approach to bonsai, which as you can tell from my opening is both light hearted but earnest.

Due to my career I have had lots of leadership experience and have applied that to various bonsai organizations. Presently I am the 1st Vice President of Bonsai Clubs International. It is my desire to apply professional business acumen to improve BCI operations and subsequently the value of BCI membership. In doing so BCI will be able to help promote and elevate the art of bonsai across the globe.

Rob's personal blog can be seen at ... /index.php

The following is an on-line interview with Robert Kempinski

AoB: Rob, could you tell us about your history in bonsai, when you started, your journey, your teachers, and what led you to where you are today?

Robert: I like to make things. My career as an engineer has allowed me to do it professionally - submarines, space stations, and rocket launch pads. Even when I'm home I'm making something new. For my home projects though I don't like to use plans, I work stuff out in my head. I dabble in various art forms: painting, woodwork, sculpture, pottery and drawing. My friends say I am a weird combination of left and right brain.

In 1987 working on the Space Station program with the Japanese Space Agency I was studying Japanese language and traveling regularly to Japan. In order to learn how to speak Japanese you also need to study their culture and this sparked my interest in bonsai. Via woodwork and carving I already had learned much about trees and actually harvested them for lumber. Then one day I dug a oak seedling from my flower beds with the goal of making a full size forest. That pathetic seedling got me thinking, "Hmm, that oak in a nursery pot, that could be a bonsai!" And so I started with that tree, and then another, and another. For about 5 years I muddled on my own until I transferred to Florida's space coast in 1998. The Bonsai Society of Brevard and its study group kicked up my interest and desire to have great bonsai trees. A turning point was visiting Jim Smith's personal collection in Vero Beach. It was a real eye opener and showed me in person what is possible in Florida. That motivated me significantly. Bonsai seemed to me to be a great intersection of many of many interests - collecting trees from the woods, designing, woodworking, pottery and drawing. I even enjoy the science of the art. Now I maintain a collection of almost 180 trees which is about all I can handle and still be a good husband, father to a teenager, remain a competitive golfer and make a living at the space center.

AoB: Who would you say was the most influential in your bonsai career?

Robert: The nicest man you'll ever meet and a great bonsai mentor, Jim Smith, of Vero Beach, Florida. Always willing to share his tremendous knowledge and artistic eye, Jim has done much to shape my bonsai vision.

AoB: How did you become involved in the BCI?

Robert: Alan Walker, then the BCI President, and I met over the Internet and then at the BCI Convention in Florida where I was on the committee. He asked me to consider running for Board Member and I did. I had been involved in the local society and the state society and worked on several conventions. Working for BCI seemed like a natural progression and I liked the international aspect of it. I think all serious bonsai growers need to actively belong to some sort of society as these societies are at the forefront of making things happen for the art. There's an old adage 'the more you put in the more you get back.' I would encourage all your readers to actively join BCI. Get on a convention committee, write an article - there certainly is plenty of interesting material on AoB that deserves wider dissemination via print. Get involved and do something for someone else.

AoB: Can you give us a more detailed explanation of how BCI operations could be improved in your opinion?

Robert: BCI started to get clubs organized in the US to provide a support mechanism and to educate. It has served that purpose well, but the bonsai market environment facing BCI has changed since its onset. There are now several regional bonsai clubs, several bonsai magazines and lots of conventions competing for a limited bonsai market share. As a result BCI has lost members and operating capital.

For BCI to survive it needs to take a couple of new strategic thrusts. They can be summarized as better products, more members and more funding.

Robert Kempinski

AoB: What projects can we expect to see from BCI in the near future?

Robert: As it name implies, BCI is the only international assemblage of clubs. This enviable position is a doubled edge sword - it gives BCI the widest latitude possible but it stretches thin resources even further. A major thrust of BCI is to expand globally. Expanding globally though happens on a small scale. Each area needs local work. Its like the environmental movement's saying "Think globally, act locally." For example, China is by far the largest bonsai market. With the great work of the BCI president, Mr. I. C. Su, BCI has started a major recruiting campaign in China. Mr. Su created a bilingual book to explain BCI and it is working to attract members.

In order to retain and recruit members, BCI needs to improve its product mix. The board is in the process of improving products that our customers want and perceive as valuable. Satisfied customers will attract larger membership which will provide BCI with more leverage. A strategic goal then is to provide bonsai services that will offer perceived benefit to all members. These services will manifest themselves in several ways.

A major effort will be the global promotion of bonsai as an art. In some member countries, notably in Asia, bonsai commands serious respect as an art form. Exhibitions draw thousands of attendees and some artists achieve great renown. Markets reflect strength in the variety of product offerings and in the prices those offers command. This is not the case in all member countries. BCI will strive to change that. Over the next few years the board will be implementing programs to vigorously promote the art of bonsai. Doing so will raise the art form, increase the market and open a plethora of opportunity for all bonsai enthusiasts. How can we do this? Consider this example: our President Mr. I. C. Su loaned his antique bonsai pot collection to the United States National Smithsonian Museum for a temporary installation. This was one small step but continued efforts like this will enhance the art for all.

As a collection of international clubs, BCI must reach out to form cooperative ventures with regional and local bonsai organizations. This is a way of thinking globally but acting locally. BCI has already partnered with many regional groups for sponsoring conventions and some special events. BCI will work to sponsor a major annual event in various global locations while also teaming with local entities for smaller regional events.

In recognition of the serious bonsai artist, BCI will improve the artists register. This register will be patterned off similar registers for other arts and will make it easier for patrons to find bonsai artists. It can provide a referral which is a valuable service to artists that frequently work on their own.

Competition improves skills and performance. BCI will work to improve its competition program. We already offer several awards for bonsai achievement. In addition we have implemented the BCI President's award and have our Board members awarding it on behalf of the BCI president at virtually all major shows across the globe. One board member, Gulliermo Castano-Ramirez, a professional bronze sculptor, is working on an artistically designed BCI trophy. This trophy will be given to award winners and will further enhance the worth of the BCI competitions. With proper endowment, we can improve the worth of all awards and possibly grow it to include significant financial remuneration. We have also partnered with other organizations such as the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) to sponsor other bonsai competitions.

BCI will continue to offer its regular publications. Efforts have gone into improving the magazine with a goal of producing it in a multilingual mode. We have also partnered with other promoters to provide more magazines to our members. The Global Stone Appreciation magazine, a bilingual publication, is one project to date. Other opportunities exist for creating new bonsai books and other audio and visual products. The Internet also remains a significant portion of our outreach effort via our web page at We also will use e-mail to continue to distribute our improved Ambassador packet.

Finally, BCI's most important effort must address funding. Funding, or more specifically lack of funding, can hamper any strategic endeavor. The Board has taken on the task of developing a funding strategy to provide sufficient resources to enable BCI activity. Membership fees, revenue from product sales and convention proceeds are major sources of funds. BCI needs to develop alternative funding sources. While this is a nascent program within BCI, it is one garnering attention.

AoB: You are mentioning BCI as the medium to cultivate the art of bonsai worldwide. Do you feel BCI will also be able to promote the same level of activity here in the States?

Robert: Yes, because the US is a very wealthy country and has one of the largest bases of art patrons. Promoting bonsai will take some outside the box thinking, but it is possible. Bonsai as an art has many similarities with other arts, but the biggest difference is the maintenance requirement. So in promoting the art one must always factor this into the equation. In many ways bonsai appreciation is like thoroughbred horse appreciation, (even though horses are not considered an art). There are patrons that own these horses and provide them with living quarters and training arrangements. And these horses command market premiums. Every so often the horses get together to bring fame to their owners. The same logic structure should apply to bonsai art appreciation. High end trees have to be presented to high end patrons. This hasn't happened in the US yet. Walter Pall's recent show of bonsai at a top notch art gallery in German was very encouraging. This is exactly the type of activity that needs to occur.

Robert Kempinski's bonsai gardens

AoB: Some voices are asking for a more or less centralized American version of the Kokufuten in the US, perhaps every 2 years or so. What are your thoughts about it?

Robert: It's the next step. I'd like to see it happen and I am working on BCI's role in bringing it about. But a copy of Kokufuten in the US won't be enough. On behalf of BCI I am building a business case to align BCI with a commercial entity to put on a grand show unlike any other seen in the US and perhaps the world. We are investigating a whole new paradigm for bonsai shows. Our inspiration comes from overseas, in part the Ginko awards, but more significantly, the recent show in southern China. Do you know over 4,000 people attended the opening ceremony of that show. A common theme of these overseas shows is they are for profit. That is what is really lacking in the US. BCI was able to license its name to the Chinese and create decent revenue. The Chinese themselves worked with a multi-million dollar budget.

AoB: William N. Valavanis and others are currently working on putting together a major show here in America, but due to the size of the country this show will most likely be held on the East Coast one year, the West Coast the next, and then the Midwest. Based on your experience, what do you think will be needed in order for this to succeed and be recognized as a world class show?

Robert: One word - money.

AoB: Some people believe that an event such as the one mentioned above is what it will take to raise the level and interest in the art of bonsai here in the states, what are your thoughts on this?

Robert: No doubt. This is why it is my major goal as a BCI Vice President. If we can raise the bar at the top, there will be tremendous benefit for all levels of bonsai practitioners.

AoB: You won the first Joshua Roth New Talent Competition in 2002. How did it influence your bonsai career?

Robert: "Bonsai career" - that sounds kinda funny, I don't think of myself as having a bonsai career. However, the competition certainly gave me some publicity - my 15 minutes of fame as Andy Warhol said. Since then I have traveled and given some bonsai demonstrations and workshops. I enjoy public speaking, and have what I think is a somewhat laid back and logical approach to bonsai that seems well received.

AoB: In the following year, 2003, you won second place in the Ben Oki Award with your "Tsunami Buttonwood." That was quite an achievement with a tropical bonsai. How did you feel about it?

Robert: Westerners look to Japan for bonsai direction, and rightfully so, as Japanese trees have attained a very high level. But China, which has a varied climate, Taiwan, and the southeast Asian countries have tropical bonsai trees just as good and if not better. My Tsunami buttonwood would be a modest tree there. I think bonsai enthusiasts need to pay more attention to the work in that part of the world. Tropical trees enjoy long growing seasons, are very resilient and make great bonsai.

The problem with tropical trees is zone envy. Bonsai artists will always fare better if they grow trees that will thrive in their temperature zones. Nonetheless, the temperate growers want to grow tropical trees so they buy small ones they can fit in their basements and grow under lights. They have a self selected view of tropical trees. Tropical trees grown in their proper temperature zone are probably the best bonsai there are. Ben Oki, who has traveled all over the US, has said several times that Jim Smith's personal collection is the best collection on the US east coast. There are other Florida growers: Ed Trout, Jim VanLandingham, Ernie Fernadez to mention a few, that have trees that would knock your socks off.

AoB: This year you won another award, "Best North American Bonsai" in the Bonsai Today/Art of Bonsai Photo Contest, again with a tropical, a Florida elm. Do you think people will finally consider tropicals as serious as other non tropical species?

Robert: Well sure, as I said above, tropical trees out pace the temperate by a mile. People in southeast Asia see it this way. I believe the Japanese Masters do too. They judge the World Bonsai Photo competition. Six of the eight first place trees and 16 of 24 top three trees in the World Bonsai Photo contest have been tropical specimens.

AoB: You have displayed a Japanese Black Pine and several other trees in the annual Walt Disney World Bonsai Display where it is said that over 400,00 people visit each year. Could you tell us how you came about receiving this opportunity and what are your thoughts on the display there?

Robert: Each year the EPCOT Center of Walt Disney World in Florida hosts a Flower and Garden Show for one month, usually in May. The Bonsai Societies of Florida (BSF) and Disney have been cooperating for over 11 years to display bonsai trees at the Japan pavilion and now penjing at the China pavilion during the show. There is a competitive juried process and having a bonsai tree selected creates a highlight of the year for the exhibitor. Disney pays travel, provides accommodations at the resort and awards park tickets for the winners so there are some perks. The display is truly first class as Chinese and Japanese pavilions accurately capture the feel of those countries and make wonderful settings for the display of their cultural art.

These trees might be the most viewed at any exhibition. Disney says nearly half a million see them. I don't doubt it. For instance, a few years ago shortly after the show, I was flying cross country and wore a shirt with a bonsai logo. The man sitting next to me on the plane said "Ah, a bonsai shirt, I saw some bonsai at EPCOT. There was this one big one under the Tori gate with lots of white wood?" He was describing my buttonwood Dante's Inferno to me, and he was merely a visitor to the park. The trees make an impact and I highly recommend any bonsai enthusiast to visit the display.

AoB: You mentioned the show lasts a month - how do the trees handle a month away?

Robert: BSF trains the Disney horticultural staff on how to water the trees. That time of year the trees require hand watering each day. Once a week a member of BSF visits the park and trims and weeds the trees as necessary. Its a testament to the camaraderie of the BSF members that they let other members look after their trees.

AoB: You have traveled all over the world giving bonsai lectures and demonstrations in such countries as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, and of course, here in the States. What common denominator have you discovered among all the bonsaists you have met?

Robert: Even where bonsai is most popular, it is still not a mainstream activity. It is a fringe art that while beautiful has to compete with movies, TV, sports and other entertainment forms. Therefore, bonsai artists everywhere are very open and willing to share and learn. If you visit Mr. Masahiko Kimura, he will welcome you and share tea. He will take time to show his collection and to explain some technique. Think about that. Would Jasper Johns just let you in to his studio and wander around. Probably not.

AoB: Is the mindset of the artists in these other countries really that different from those artists here in the States?

Robert: Not that I have noticed. Compared at the same skill levels, the mindset of the artists are the same. In some of the other countries, where the bonsai market is more developed, the artists can expect a better return on their investment. The markets also provide for different source materials. For example, the field grown material in Taiwan equals and might surpass collected material available in the US. Knowing that you have access to such premier material means an artist there wouldn't even think about working on some little seedling, like many US artists are forced to do at owner-tree workshops. Therefore a Taiwanese artist's body of work will be larger and more impressive than the comparable US artist. But if the US developmental market mimicked the Taiwanese market then our top notch artists would be up to the task.

AoB: How do bonsai artists in these other countries feel about the American bonsai scene? Have we earned respect yet?

Robert: I think we have earned some respect. Comments made by the visiting Japanese artists at US conventions have started to include more and more phrases like "This could be displayed in Kokufu ten." But judging by the World Bonsai Contest where other countries, notably the southeast Asian are consistent winners, we still have a ways to go.

AoB: Which of the many countries you have visited has the best educational relationships between student and teacher, and why do you think this is so?

Robert: I was really impressed how the members of the audience treated me when I was in India. Their culture seemed to place a lot of reverence on the role of a teacher and that is important for learning.

The master - apprentice role in Japan has to be the most intensive but I am not convinced that an apprenticeship is the best mode of learning. The apprentice devotes a significant portion of their life to learn the art. That time comes with a cost. I refer to it as an opportunity cost. If you apply that same cost to selective study and work on your own, it would be interesting to see the results. If apprenticeship was better then we would still have it for all kinds of fields.
I feel the best educational relationship is what we have in the US. The options are there for a student to select. Attend a convention, take a workshop, join a study group, attend a club meeting, latch on to a mentor, read a book, surf the net, but most important of all, grow and practice on your own trees.

Robert Kempinski's bonsai gardens

AoB: What would you consider to be America's greatest strength in bonsai, its greatest weakness?

Robert: Our greatest strength in bonsai has to be the variety of native material. From tropical Buttonwoods, to Larches, Ponderosa Pines, Mountain Hemlock, US artists have lots to choose.
Our greatest weakness is that our predominant culture does not fully appreciate bonsai as an art.

AoB: Bonsai as an art form or a craft is an often debated topic on English speaking forums, taking into consideration that most other countries view bonsai as an art without debate, why do you think this issue is so hotly debated here?

Robert: It all boils down to money. The marketplace may not be the best way to judge art versus craft, but it is at least measurable. Those that argue for art, no doubt see the potential value of a great bonsai tree. A tree that will sell for a million dollars (as happens in Japan), does it because it is more than nice looking. The tree has some emotional connection and some intrinsic value as art. Those that argue for craft can not see the value in greatness. To them, a tree is a commodity that follows some rules.

If you set your sights high and attain them, you are an artist. If you have low ambition, and are content to produce copies or cookie cutter bonsai, then you are doing a craft. That these two camps would argue doesn't surprise me as they are debating their fundamental approach.

AoB: What people or organizations would you say are leading the art of bonsai forward in America, who are the "Movers and Shakers" in the art?

Robert: I like to think that the current board of BCI is leading us forward.

AoB: Some of this country's bonsai publications such as Bonsai Today have recently come under attack for a perceived decline in quality, could you share your thoughts on this subject?

Robert: It's money again. There are lots of great articles waiting to be submitted at the right price. That's why we need to promote the art. If we raise the level all aspects of bonsai will rise with it. In the meantime those that complain about the poor quality should do something about it, even if there isn't immediate personal gain.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Tue Dec 12, 2006 6:21 pm 

Joined: Sat Nov 04, 2006 10:05 am
Posts: 37
Location: Devon, England.
Hi Robert,
I was interested in your response to questions re your "Profile" .With regard Show Profortabilty, in Europe we pay a premium and expences to attend any show. It can cost me $300 to attend a U.K. show and more for Europe. Without our support there would not be a show but the orginisers seem to think otherwise.This is one of the problems of our particular form of art. We all have to contribute to promote it.

RE the U.S and Bonsai as art, we still have the same apathy here. I have tried on numerious occasions to promote Bonsai as art locally,only to be treated as a weirdo. One of our local gallerys had an exhibition promoting trees in autum but would not accept any of my offerings of trees in autum colour.

I have always tried to set my sights high with regards bonsai design,but if you are not accepted because others fear competition you will not always be allowed into the fold. I fully realise that i am putting my head on the block with this one,but all i hear is that someone can teach me better.
Is this because only a few can make a reasonable living from Bonsai and they cannot accept any amature artist ?

I have enjoyed looking at your gallery and found some of your trees stunning in their design and planting. Regards, Peter.

 Post subject: Bonsai Shows
PostPosted: Wed Dec 13, 2006 9:51 pm 

Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2005 2:06 am
Posts: 91
Location: Melbourne, Florida USA
Peter, there is no doubt that without good trees there can't a good show, so the promoter has to figure out a way to motivate the showers. In the US it seems many artists are recalcitrant to display trees. The World Bonsai Competition in DC was an example - many notable artists did not show trees at perhaps the biggest convention there was to date. So we have to figure out how to get the trees to the show. Merely expecting artists to bring their work to a show at their own expense is not very realistic unless the show has attained some level of prestige or there is some other reward. However it is hard to come up with a reward if there isn't some way to generate income. Hence my comment about money.

Assuming we get the trees to the show, now we have to figure out a way to attract attendees. If attendees pay entry fees it can help solve the problem in the first paragraph. A solution to this conundrum will enhance bonsai in the west.

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