Profile: Steve Tolley
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Author:  Paul Stokes [ Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:08 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Steve Tolley

Profile: Steve Tolley
Putting the finishing touches to a students juniper during a One to One workshop.

English bonsai artist Steve Tolley began his bonsai education under the guidance of Dan Barton, with an emphasis on aesthetics and philosophy. Steve later studied with some of Europe's finest bonsai artists in particular Japanese bonsai master Hotsumi Terakawa.

He is known for his attention to detail and great technique and for his work in creating beautiful bonsai, being particularly associated with conifers. Pines, junipers and yews are among Steve's favorite species.

Steve is a full time bonsai professional and has realized one of his dreams to open his own bonsai school at his nursery. Here students can learn under Steve's guidance the art that is bonsai.

Steve's nursery holds wonderful bonsai, pre bonsai and yamadori material for the enjoyment of his clients, students and other bonsai professionals.

Steve was a recent winner of the BCI Writer, Artist Photographer Award 2005 and winner of the Noelanders Trophy VIII 2007. Many articles and photographs on bonsai have been published in international magazines based on his work. He also maintains some private collections in the UK and Europe, and many of Steve's trees and trees worked on for clients have received awards both in the UK at National exhibitions and at prestigious European events like the Ginkgo Award and Noelanders Trophy.

Steve is happiest when working on trees in his studio.

The following is an on-line interview with Steve Tolley.

AoB: What is your recollection of your earliest encounter with bonsai? How did you feel about it? Was that first impression the defining moment in your pursuit of bonsai, or did it take more than that to make you get involved with it?

Steve: My earliest encounter with bonsai was when I was about 12 years old and on holiday in Scotland. I was reading an old magazine and came across an article called "How to grow Ming trees". As someone who has always been in love with anything to do with nature I was fascinated by the thought of having a "1,000 year old tree in the palm of my hand" as the article promised. The instructions of how to grow these mystical little trees was to plant them in a grapefruit skin, and to cut the roots as they grew through the skin. Well I found myself a little conifer of some sort growing on a rock while we were in the hills trout fishing. I got a grapefruit from a market in the local town. Removed the fruit and proudly planted up my little tree. It died! Surprise, surprise! I was devastated, and spent a lot of time wishing I had left the tree where it was.

It was not until much later, in 1995, that bonsai would again appear to me. Every week on the drive over to see my wife's Mother, we would pass a small Bonsai nursery. I had never been tempted to go in, despite my passion for trees in the wild and my ongoing love of nature. The memory of my misguided attempt I feel was always in the back of my mind. However one April day we were driving to see my Mother in Law and we were ahead of schedule and had time to kill before my Mother in Law would be home. My wife talked me into calling into the bonsai nursery to have a look around. As we were leaving, the owner came over and asked what we thought of the nursery as he knew we were new visitors. I said that I thought the trees were great, and the shop offered lots of books tools wire etc. But I asked if they taught people how to create and then care for bonsai. He explained that they offered all sorts of services. There and then my wife booked the two of us in for an afternoon "Introduction to bonsai" for the following week as it would coincide with my birthday. Little did I realize how much my life was about to change.

Initially I was very happy with the tree that I came home with. However when I compared it to photographs that my Mother had taken while visiting Omiya Bonsai village in Japan in the late 70's, I quickly realized that my tree had no resemblance to the trees in Japan. If I was going to continue with bonsai, it would only be if I could create trees like in my Mothers photos. Six months after visiting the bonsai nursery and getting that first tree, I would see an advert. The advert was for "Esoteric Pots" and the man's name was Dan Barton. I had read Dan's book and read his articles in "BONSAI" magazine and he seemed the guy who was doing what I wanted to achieve. From that advert I got Dan's address and wrote him a long letter explaining in detail my thoughts on bonsai and what I wanted to do.

Dan wrote back to me and kindly invited me to visit him. That is really when my journey started. I was hooked. In 1996 I decided to pursue bonsai.

AoB: If you had a chance to do it again, how would you go about getting an extensive bonsai education?

Steve: If I was starting over again I would certainly go to Japan and do a full Japanese apprenticeship of some sort. In fact I am thinking of going to Japan to further my knowledge/skill, as I write this. But I would not swap my time spent with Dan Barton or Hotsumi Terakawa. But it is easier to say this now with already having taken the path of bonsai and having some experience. I think for people starting off now I would say it depends how passionate they are and how far they want to go in bonsai. Also I don't think that the discipline of a Japanese apprenticeship would necessarily suit everyone, in particular people from the West.

One of the things I like about bonsai, is that you can go into it as deeply as you want. Really, we are only governed by our finances, our free time and our desires. Not everyone wants to be a bonsai teacher, not everyone has the money to buy trees which cost hundreds or thousands of pounds/dollars. And of course many people are restricted by how much free time they can devote to bonsai or by the size of their backyard. But in bonsai there is something to suit us all. The most important thing however is to enjoy it. And your tree can cost ten pounds or ten thousand pounds and who is to say which person gets the most pleasure.

My advice now to anyone who is really passionate about bonsai, and who wants to go the extra mile, would first be to say that to succeed, you must be motivated to learn. You must have tunnel vision when it comes to reaching your goals. Be receptive to all learning experiences and seize any learning opportunities. Attend workshops with talented bonsai artists. Seek out a bonsai professional or professionals to study with on a regular basis. If time, money, commitments allow. Consider going to Japan.

AoB: Could you describe some of the more important bonsai aesthetics and philosophy that you learned from Dan Barton? Could you also describe your studies under Dan Barton?

Steve: To answer this would take a book.
Suffice it to say, that Dan did not teach me. He guided me, as he prefers to describe it. He once said "I will not teach you bonsai, but I will help you to learn". Dan always encouraged me to look elsewhere for knowledge, to always seek out people who could help me develop. The aesthetics were explained to me from the view point of aesthetics as applied or found in all forms of art, and not simply bonsai aesthetics. The philosophy side was also in depth, and again I could not do it justice in a few lines. However I do feel that this is one area where many Western practitioners fall short. There are many people who talk of bonsai and Zen. But in reality there are not many people who really feel and understand the core of the art. A lot of bonsai outside Japan is very superficial.

I have not seen Dan for a long time, but I know that when I see him, we will end up talking into the early hours of the morning about something. And he is still the only person I can have these in depth talks with.

Preparing my own and clients/students trees for exhibition.

AoB: What were some of the more important Japanese techniques that you learned from Hotsumi Terakawa? Could you describe your studies under him?

Steve: Again this question would take a book to answer. But from this period spent with Terakawa San things started to gel in my mind. I was mixing aesthetics from art with more general bonsai aesthetics or rules and technique. I got a lot in a short time. However Terakawa San was strict and I was treated just as if I had gone to Japan to study. I would rise at 7.00 am, shower, have breakfast and then my work would start. This started with a bucket and tweezers picking up pine needles etc from the gravel under the Masters trees. Then Terakawa San would come to me and I would have to arrange a display in the Tokonoma. Only when this was satisfactory, could I start working on a tree. I would have lunch at 1.00pm for 30 minutes then carry on till around 6.00 pm - 7.00 pm. Then have something to eat and then resume working usually until around 2.00am (my choice!). Several times I worked right through the night because I was so engrossed in my work and did not want to stop while my mind and creativity were flowing. But this eventually caught up with me and I was ill and had to rest. So after that warning I paced myself and usually finished between 11.00 pm - 12.00 midnight.

I came away with a better sensitivity in my technique, more attention to detail. My bonsai technical skills and horticultural knowledge certainly went up a level. And I now worked with the tree and not against it. I also came away with an ethic of how to approach trees, how to care for trees and to put the tree above everything else.

AoB: How did/does your friendship with Pius Notter influence your outlook on bonsai?

Steve: It was Pius Notter who really opened my eyes to working with European yamadori material when I first visited him with Dan Barton. Until that time I had concentrated on imported Japanese trees. My mind was absorbed by working with the classic species of Japanese bonsai and it was as if I was wearing blinckers. I now became aware of working with the incredible species we have available to us in the UK and Europe. Also Pius showed a lot of faith in me, by letting me work on his trees which I still do to this day, and by promoting my work. For that, I will always be grateful.

AoB: What were your goals with the "Steve Tolley Bonsai School" and how did you go about reaching those goals?

Steve: My idea of starting my school was to try to fill the gap or take over where the bonsai clubs and society's ended. There is an old saying that "you are only as good as the best guy in the club". Well not every club in the UK has a member with the credentials of say a Dan Barton or John Naka amongst their membership, people who they can turn to for that something extra. So people come to me on a monthly basis and we take their trees through their development through the seasons. The knowledge and skills they pick up, they take back to their clubs and this then filters down into their clubs indirectly hopefully raising the club/society standard. But an offshoot of this has been that as some of these people have seen their skills and knowledge grow, and because of this, so has their confidence. They want to go further with their bonsai and now many take One to One workshops or intensive small group workshops on a regular basis, intensifying their learning. Now I am just starting to see trees emerge to challenge the best in Europe.

My goal is to have trees emerging in the UK that would not look out of place in the Kokofu Ten or Taikan Ten exhibitions and generally to help raise the standard of bonsai in the UK.

Certainly in the UK, the bonsai club/society scene is going through a rough spell. One of the problems for sure is that, the reason these clubs were started in the first place was for the dissemination of information. People needed somewhere to go to learn bonsai. However today with videos, dvd's, books and magazines being ever more popular and information being more accessible with the internet, the need to go to a club for information is now not so great for the beginner or intermediate hobbyist as it was. Many people now go to clubs to meet other like minded people to chat rather than to learn. When you are in a club or society and you are passionate about bonsai and you want to progress to a higher level, often a club cannot provide this level of help or guidance. This is where I feel a school can help. Certainly in Italy for example, you can see how a nucleus of people working with a bonsai professional really works.
At this moment, I am about to set up separately, a small study group for really passionate people who see bonsai as more than a hobby and who want to take their bonsai passion as far as they can.

Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: You call your business "Four Dimensional Art" and focus on the artistic aspects of bonsai. The art word often will raise the hackles of many who call themselves hobbyists or craftsmen and has led to many long and nasty debates on-line. How do you answer those who state that bonsai is a mere craft?

Steve: As you say in your statement, the word art or artist always causes a stir in bonsai. But I still find it very strange that people cannot see or will not acknowledge the art aspect. For me it is crystal clear what bonsai is or can be. However I do not spend my time trying to convert people or to get them to see it my way, because bonsai is many things to many people. Certainly bonsai at the highest level is art and horticulture together. But for me it is the art that holds me. The creating and developing of a beautiful living object. But to get back to the question is bonsai art? I would say, not all bonsai is art. And I would say that a lot of bonsai is conducted by hobbyists and/or craftsmen. But bonsai at the highest level is art. We only need look at three primary elements of bonsai to find the answer. Just consider them briefly;

1. Horticulture; knowledge necessary to keep our trees alive, thriving and developing. Without a certain level of horticulture, yours trees will not thrive. At a higher level all the skills of correct watering, feeding, treatment of pests and diseases, grafting roots, branches, encouraging trees to back bud, root pruning etc, etc are a necessity to the development and furtherance of good trees.

2. Technical skills. Good technique does not start and end with wiring. Without an array of technical skills such as bending techniques, carving, steam bending etc, you cannot achieve your vision or design.

3. Aesthetic. The art part. Needed to produce a balanced, nicely proportioned and hopefully beautiful work of living art. A bonsai tree.

If you have the horticulture your tree is healthy. With the technique you can bend or shape and grow your tree to however you wish without harming the tree. But without the aesthetic, the art part, how can you create something of beauty. Or look at it another way. If you have horticulture, your tree may be healthy. But without the art how will it be beautiful. And without the technique, how will you achieve your vision for that beauty. All three elements are essential. How difficult can it be to see? However, just because you paint, it does not make you an artist. And just because you grow bonsai, that does not mean you are a bonsai artist or that your tree is a work of art. Just as not all paintings are art, not all bonsai are works of art. But at the highest level there is no doubt that great bonsai are works of art and created by an artist. I often meet people who call themselves hobbyists or craftsmen, and they may be just that. They may not have the aesthetics. "I just don't have the eye" is the usual quote
I get.

However, if I play Devil's advocate.

Question; why is it, that only a few people produce the truly stunning trees?

Answer; It is not by accident. It is because they have the artistic element. It does not matter what country in Europe it is or Japan. Or what State in America. It is not a coincidence that the same people produce the majority of the best trees. These are the artists. It should be remembered that in whatever field of art, be it painting, sculpture, drawing etc, there are never many artists. There are practitioners and there are some who are very good technically and who work at a higher level and then there are the artists. Wherever I have traveled to teach or demonstrate bonsai there is always someone who says that bad wiring is not an issue. Usually the people who preach that, it's OK to cross your wires when wiring or don't worry if the wiring is untidy. Are those who can't wire correctly? And with the subject of art, usually those who say bonsai is not art are those who don't have the aesthetics and don't produce beautiful trees. There is a story of a guy who is a Master stonemason. He was once asked, given his experience, how long would it take to produce a statue of a woman of given dimensions. He said "well firstly I would have to recommend someone to you to do the work. He's a real artist. I am just a regular craftsman!"

Unfortunately many people get two basic things wrong when looking at bonsai. But as I tell my students "Just because you like a tree, it doesn't mean it's good. And just because a tree is good, it doesn't mean you have to like it". The Mona Lisa is a wonderful painting and is universally recognized as such, fact. But I find it not to my liking. That's taste. However I can differentiate between the artistry needed to produce such a painting and whether or not I like it. And this is where many people go wrong. If they see a tree they don't like, then they assume it must be no good and vise versa. You can show someone a Kokufu winning tree, and they don't have to like, but they should be able to acknowledge how good it is. One is seeing and understanding, and the other is personnel taste. It is important when looking at any art form, be it painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and even bonsai to understand what good art is. To understand colour, texture, balance, form, proportion, light, shade, movement etc. Anyway that's enough. I'm sounding like I am trying to convince people.

Steve Tolley
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: Would you describe your experiences with three major demonstrations, the World Bonsai Congress in Washington DC, the Noelanders Trophy 2006, and the Brussels Rendezvous 2006? What were the major differences you observed in these events?

For me, it was not really the differences of the events but the similarities that I noticed.

Steve: First of all, being asked to demonstrate at the World Congress in Washington DC was a great honor. It was a chance to meet some great people and to see some of the world bonsai "names" demonstrating. The organization was incredible and everyone was well looked after. The only real negative for me was having three hours to do a demonstration which I thought was not befitting a World event. I think it is about time we moved away from 2-3 hour rushed demos. And particularly at international events I feel we need someone who knows what they are doing to source and select demonstration material, because it's a difficult but very important job. But that is my only criticism.

From the World Congress gig, I got my invite to Brussels Rendezvous 2006. Everyone at Brussels was great, really friendly and helpful and it was a great event with people traveling from all over the US. The guys at Brussels work hard to put on a good event and it's like a bonsai carnival there. But again, time is at a premium. I would urge anyone in the US looking for good trees to visit Brussels?. I was knocked out by the nursery and trees, especially considering the obstacles that have to be overcome to get trees into the US.

The Noelanders Trophy was slotted in between the World Congress and Brussels Rendezvous. At "The Trophy" I was demonstrating for two days and not holding workshops. Unfortunately I was struck with a bug on the second day and could not do my second demo. Again at this event, time was at a premium. Where the Noelanders Trophy differed from the other two events was in the quality of the material supplied for the demonstrators. It was very good.

With all three events you got good exhibitions of trees for people to see. You have vendors selling everything for the bonsai hobbyists and there is much to do and see. What I can never understand is that you have people traveling a long way, some traveling several days, to attend these events, including the demonstrators/workshop leaders. When you arrive you want to relax. So why do they cram in as many demos or workshops as they can in so little time. There is already plenty to see and do. Whether I am an attendee or a demonstrator, I want to relax at these events and meet people and chill. But I always end up caught dashing between people to chat, answering questions or dashing from demo to demo. It is difficult if you are a participant more so than visitor. Why can't things be slowed down a little, with less going on, but for a longer period with more content? Isn't bonsai supposed to be amongst other things, relaxing. When I am at home working on my own trees or clients trees I am not racing here and there with my brain overloaded. I am at peace, one of the reasons I do bonsai in the first place.

Author:  Paul Stokes [ Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:10 pm ]
Post subject: 


Demonstrating at the World Bonsai Congress 2005 in Washington DC.

AoB: When demonstrating do you find yourself trying to please the audience with an instant bonsai or do you style the tree as you would any other for the future design.

Steve: When doing a demonstration, of course it is nice if the audience is pleased. But you have to always say to yourself that you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people, all of the time. Demonstrating is not always easy. Many people find it difficult to address a crowd of people. Well with a demo you have that issue, plus a tree to style.

However I do bonsai for me. When I style a tree, I style it for me, not the audience. I have to like what I have done with my work. If you like it, that's OK. If you don't like it, that's also OK. But in the end I myself have to be satisfied with my work and that's where it ends. I am not willing to compromise my work standards. Sometimes you are lucky and you get a piece of material that allows you to give the tree a "finished" look with the first styling. This usually pleases an audience. However, very often the material dictates that you finish with a basic structure of a tree which needs many years of development. Of course in this situation there will be people watching who are not experienced enough to be able to visualize this progression, that may go home a little dissatisfied. Whereas the more experienced members of the audience will know exactly what your future goals are or they can at least follow your explanation for future development. One of the biggest problems with demonstrations, are those where you are given very little time say 2-3 hours. It can be very difficult to style a tree sympathetically and do the tree or yourself justice and at the same time impart good information, which I feel is important. Also sometimes, although rarely, the material is so complicated that realistically you could do with an hour to study the tree to get the best from it and so instantly your time for your demo is ticking away. Sometimes you may need to tailor your design to fit the time period. You may see several possible images in a piece of material but you know that under the time limit placed on you, only one option is possible. So you tailor your choice of design and give of your best for that design and give them a polished demo. But you know if you had been given more time you may have chosen a different image. This happened to me at the World Congress when the juniper I had, had multiple crossing trunks which all had shari running up them making them difficult to manipulate in the few hours I had before of the hard deadwood. With more time I could have done a much more interesting demo, and also have been able to explain things better.

It still never fails to amaze me how you will be given a complete piece of rubbish for your demo to "test the Master". You know the tree I mean, a broom handle with two branches and six buds, a real non starter. I am not sure whether it is a test or an insult, but I do know that people pay demonstrators good money to come along and give a demo and then often present them with material from which the audience will learn very little from the demonstration. This seems a waste of money to me and very negative. Many times I have been given very poor material that will never ever make a decent tree. In this case you have the opportunity to impart information by explaining exactly why the tree is not suitable for bonsai or why it will never make a good bonsai and describe what all the problems are, so that no one in the audience goes out and buys such poor material themselves thus wasting their time. This situation then becomes more of a critique than a demonstration, but you are trying to do your best as an educator/demonstrator to turn a negative into a positive. You then hope that the audience is appreciative of what you have told them and that they are above expecting some incredible transformation. I often make a joke at some demos that I am still waiting for the time when I arrive to give a demo and I am given a BONSAI SEED KIT to grow. When I was introduced for the World Congress demo, Joe Gutierrez said "It's been said Steve can get a bonsai out of a telegraph pole". Well maybe, but I need a little time!

To quote a great bonsai teacher and embassador John Y Naka "You can't make chicken salad from chicken crap".

Steve Tolley
Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: After conducting demonstrations in the United States, what would you say are the major differences between bonsai in the US and Europe?

Steve: First of all I must say that there is nothing to beat American hospitality, period. The American bonsai community, really make you feel welcome. From a demonstration point of view I think that there are two obvious differences between the United States and Europe. Firstly the majority of people I have met and spoken with during my few trips to the US so far, look more to a demonstration for entertainment rather than for knowledge. They want a show. Whereas in Europe. The majority of people watch a demo for knowledge and inspiration, and less so to be entertained. Even some of the demo's I have witnessed in the United States have been geared towards entertaining the audience with poems and anecdotes etc. This is fine, there is nothing wrong with this because people go home happy and this is important because then they come back. But for me the emphasis should be more about imparting knowledge so that the people go away having learned something. For me the emphasis should be on teaching, giving inspiration with a little bit of entertainment thrown in. Laughter can brighten up the proceedings for sure. There is nothing wrong in throwing in a joke when you can see the audience falling asleep as you wire a tree. Demonstrating and teaching are not easy. There are some people who are great artists but who can't teach, they are just not good communicators. And there are people who can teach and/or entertain an audience who are not necessarily great artists and don't have particularly great trees. Not everyone has an outgoing personality and is able to relax in front of a crowd AND perform magic. My good friend Marco Invernizzi, from Milan, is a guy who can talk for Italy. If talking was in the Olympics he would get the gold medal. BUT, and it's a BIG but, the guy is also a great artist, he knows his subject and can also entertain an audience. I know other good artists who are not so extrovert but who can teach and who produce amazing trees themselves. But they don't get so many engagements if any in the US because they are quiet, not extrovert, they don't catch peoples eye! But in Europe they are really busy because they are good at bonsai. So what does this tell you? When we have demonstrators come over to Europe from Japan, not many entertain. Usually a smile is as animated as they get. They are more formal and see a demo as educating first. So I think you have to question why you go to see a demo. But to turn things around, I have also witnessed demonstrations by people who spoke well, had the audience spell bound with their tales, but who actually produce very average bonsai and in some cases poor bonsai. And these people get lots of bookings because they are "nice people". And that's OK, I like nice people. But they are not necessarily judged by what they can do with trees. If bonsai was a sport, maybe more "experts" would be judged by their results. In Japan, Masters are judged on their trees. It is the trees who do the talking. Would you get a guy to teach you to run, who never won a race? You need to learn from those who can do bonsai. If I took up acting, I would be knocking on the door of Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino begging for lessons.

Possibly the second major difference is the time allowed for demonstrations and some times workshops. In the UK and now in Europe more, most major events, National or International, allow the demonstrator a day or even two days to style a good piece of material. Very often the demonstrator/s are not on a stage but on the floor with the audience who are encouraged to come up close and watch what is going on. Whereas in the US it seems time is cut to a minimum and often the "experts are up on a stage. This is OK if you have projection screens to show the audience what's going on, but of course it is extra expense for the event organizers. At one of my demos in the US, I tried to explain this difference in the time given for demos. I started by saying that "2 - 3 hours for a demo is not really suitable". Before I could continue, someone in the audience said "Yeh Steve, 30 minutes is quite enough, you can't concentrate for much longer after that". I got a lot from that statement. For me this is McDonalds bonsai, as in fast food. But in this case quick fix bonsai. Unfortunately many people new to bonsai see a two hour bonsai demo and think this is the way, rather than being taught to work at the trees pace. For sure this has something to do with culture where work and leisure are carried out at pace. Everyone is in too much of a hurry. I could go on more but I think these are probably the two major differences in the demo situation.

I think at this time Europe is far ahead of the US with its bonsai, and in fact one of the questions I am most frequently asked when in the US is "why is Europe ahead of the USA with their bonsai?" This is a difficult one to answer without treading on toes, but I think a little of what I have said above is one of the reasons. But it could easily change, and there are some good guys coming along like Michael Hagedorn, who might start a change in the US. Exciting times!
In bonsai, individuals really can make a difference. All the best European events are organized by private individuals not organizations. The best bonsai schools are run by talented individuals, check out the Italians!

However I also hear many times in Europe that "the Europeans are catching up with the Japanese". Well if people think that in Japan they are resting on their laurels they are totally mistaken. There are a few individual people in Europe who are producing trees which would not look out of place in some top exhibitions in Japan. But just as we are progressing so are the Japanese. You only have to go through some of the Kokufu albums say from number 65 up to the most recent, number 80, to see the dramatic change in the level of trees exhibited in Japan. Also people forget the incredible trees being produced in Asia. So if you think your country is catching up with the Japanese you are kidding yourself. They are continuing to evolve and progress just as we are and so we are playing catch up. But playing catch up is good. It pushes you to improve. But remember, while you are telling everyone how good you or your country is, the Japanese are quietly making fantastic bonsai.

AoB: You were awarded the Bonsai Clubs International 2005 Artist, Writer, and Photographer award. This was a huge honor and quite an accomplishment, how has this award affected your bonsai career?

Steve: As far as recognition, or more bookings as a demonstrator go. It has not made any difference to me or my career in the UK or Europe. There has been no change to my life. However on a personal level, it was nice to receive the award while at the World Congress in Washington DC. It was totally unexpected and nice to get recognition for my articles where I have tried to impart a little information and give something back to bonsai. My only regret is that because I have been ill and plus a heavy work schedule, I have not been able to sit down and put some more articles together for BCI. In fact, you have been lucky to get me to finish this interview.

In the UK the trend is to support the underdog and put down success. We don't support success or achievement. We make people who fail into national hero's, because they tried hard. This is one area where the UK and the US differ. In the US they celebrate achievement. I received no congratulations on my BCI Award from people in the UK. I recently won the Noelanders Trophy VIII in Belgium, but you could count on one hand the people from the UK who congratulated me, and yet I received dozens of emails from Europe, in fact from around the world. But this UK trait of knocking people is what makes us put our heads down and push on. British grit. If you are continually told how good you are, maybe you will start to believe it and stop developing. For me personally, the BCI Award was an honor and complete in itself, as was winning the Noelanders Trophy. I do not feel the need for a pat on the back or the recognition from others because I am my own biggest critique. But as one of my students said "it looks good on your CV".

Working on the winner of the JAL Competition, Pius Notters Mugo Pine.

AoB: What do you think the art of bonsai will be like over the next few years? The next few decades?

Steve: On a technical level i.e. innovation, I don't think that there is much that could come along to surprise us that people like Kimura have not been doing for years. But I do feel that the level of excellence at which bonsai is practiced and understood is going to rise dramatically in the Western world. You only have to look at how the level of trees exhibited in Japan has risen in the last 15-20 years. I also feel that there will be a better understanding and appreciation of aesthetics.

For me personally, the future is exciting. And I think the rise in bonsai we are going to see in the future will be inspiring. In Europe there are one or two people out there who continually raise the bar and people try to follow. It is important to continually try to improve yourself and not get too content with your work. I may be happy when I initially style a tree, but after a while I am analyzing it to see if I can improve it. As I myself am still improving I look back at trees I have done and I can see how I can improve them. And I am always trying to improve on the next tree I work on, not just in the finished image, but also in the quality of my work. When you think you have gone as far as you can go, when you have reached your limit. Push on further. Reaching beyond the edge of end...

In Europe the level of bonsai has been helped by the Ginkgo Awards and Noelanders Trophy and other such events. In the UK we have the Newstead Awards and the JOY OF BONSAI which set the standards for bonsai exhibitions. It is an achievement simply to have a tree selected for Ginkgo. This in itself is something to aspire to, and every year it is held, it gets tougher as Danny Use raises the entry level. Like in Japan, it is an achievement to have a tree selected for the Kokufu Ten, to be able to say you have a Kokufu tree. Well in Europe, people want to be able to exhibit in the Ginkgo Award. When people come to me with a tree or to buy a tree they often ask "will it be a Ginkgo tree?".

Some of the early European yamadori material that was styled is going to be maturing into nice bonsai. At the moment although we have some great trees, they are not yet really mature in Japanese terms, they may be old in years, but still young as bonsai. But we are getting there slowly. There are some good artists coming through, and in several countries there are bonsai schools which are having great success. In the USA in the near future you should start to reap the rewards of having guys like Michael Hagedorn and Ryan Neil who have apprenticed in Japan.

Many nurseries in Europe including myself are acquiring very high class Japanese bonsai and material to work with. And there are more people now with the enthusiasm and the confidence to work with these trees. Also, what I feel is very important, we are seeing young people coming into bonsai, and they are the future.

AoB: When styling raw material, what do you consider as your greatest challenge?

Steve: When I approach a piece of raw material, there are three things that I always consider. Firstly for me, the trunk tells me everything about the material. The branches and foliage must relate to the trunk. Secondly, it is important not to make the tree conform to a given set of rules or formula. I am forever seeing the exact same silhouettes imposed onto different trees by some people. Where can they hang a triangle on this tree or a triangle on that tree? It can be a pine, cotoneaster, yew, juniper or whatever but they look the same. Different tree, same image. You need to release the soul of the tree. Finally, I try not to overwork the tree. A tree should look natural not rendered plastic and stiff by technique. Some trees look so manicured that they are lifeless and have no soul. It is technique for techniques sake. When you style raw material or even restyle an old bonsai, you need to be able to see what is the essence of that tree, and to bring this out and work with it.

AoB: Do you think that knowing the art of displaying bonsai is essential to the art?

Steve: No I don't think it is a necessity. There are many more people doing bonsai who don't exhibit there trees than there are who do. If you exhibit your trees, and at a high level then of course it would be sensible to at least understand basic presentation rules for bonsai. How to exhibit with a tree, scrolls, accents, suiseki etc. The art of display is in itself very complex and you could make a hobby of its study alone. As I have said before, with bonsai you can go into it as much or as little as you wish, and display can be, if you wish, a deep subject.

AoB: Would you encourage people to experiment with new methods of displaying their trees?

Steve: Personally, I am happy following the Japanese principals of display at this time. For me bonsai display is not a priority. For me bonsai is about artistic expression and creativity with my trees. If I never displayed another tree in public, it would not be the end of the world. I am happiest in my studio working on trees. I only think about display if I am exhibiting, it is not a priority for me. But if people want to try new ways of displaying their trees then why not, after all it can be very fulfilling. But the thing to remember is, bonsai is a Japanese art form. And we follow Japanese principals, tree sizes, tree styles etc. Everything is assessed and judged by these "rules". Have far can you go before it is not considered bonsai? We have creative people in Europe who have experimented with display and their efforts were dismissed as more like Ikebana. But don't be put off, because without experimentation and change, there is no progression. After all, what inspired the Japanese?

AoB: Can you mention a few of your favorite artists, and the reason why you like them?

Steve: This is a really difficult one to answer. Firstly I like different artists for different reasons and I would really need to write for hours to explain why I like each one. To omit anything would be to not do them justice. So I will keep it short and to the point instead. In Japan two obvious ones are Kunio Kobayashi and Masahiko Kimura. Their accomplishments speak for themselves. Staying in Japan, Chiharu Imai and Shinji Suzuki for their artistic vision and great sensitivity. They will be recognized as some of the all time greats of bonsai in the future if not already.

In Europe, my friend Marco Invernizzi, great artist and communicator. Marc Noelanders, brilliant artist and teacher. Salvatore Liporace, great artist and teacher. Closer to home Hotsumi Terakawa, a true Master, great artist, great technique, good horticulture. Dan Barton, brilliant teacher, good artist, great bonsai potter, teacher of the teachers, bonsai ambassador.

AoB: On you website you've voiced your frustration with certain aspects of the international bonsai scene. Can you list a few of these negative aspects, and your recommendations to make the bonsai community a better place for the improvement of this art form.

Steve: Apart from the aspects that I have already mentioned, i.e. poor demo material and not enough time allowed for workshops and demos. There is not really much on a global scale that frustrates me, although, I do seem to be leading a one man crusade to do away with 2 hour demos. However in Europe, it is politics and egos that spoil bonsai for me. And this is one of the reasons I keep myself to myself. I have jokingly been called a recluse, when actually I am just at home enjoying my bonsai. While all the infighting and posturing is going on, I am busy working on trees. If you get caught up in all the posturing, like stags rutting, add to this, all the politics, it is very negative. Not what I would call conducive to creative thought. Apart from the 2 hour demo scenario the only other thing that frustrates is the Pseudo expert, but I don't want to waste creative time discussing something so negative. Hopefully these people will mellow with age and realize how much creative time they wasted. After all, bonsai is about trees, not people. And as to how to make the bonsai community a better place, I cannot say I have the answers. Only the people can do that, and it would require everyone's effort.

Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: To you personally, what is the most exciting aspect of bonsai?

Steve: I have to say I really enjoy teaching people bonsai and seeing them progress, and a positive for me has been that people like how I teach. But for me it is the creating side that I enjoy the most. At this moment in my life I am not a keeper of trees, I am a creator of bonsai. It is the working on my trees and the realization of an image in my head and seeing the material develop into what I had in mind. Maybe in the future as I myself mature and I have a greater understanding and appreciation of bonsai, I may look at bonsai in a different way as I am still developing myself. I still see myself on the first rung of the ladder of bonsai.

AoB: Is there any exciting projects that you are working on at the moment?

Steve: Yes, I am excited about getting a study group together. This is for people who are really passionate about bonsai, and who want to take their trees and their understanding of bonsai as far as they can. Also I am getting some great material here to work with for myself and my students and other bonsai professionals. I am sourcing really ancient yamadori material from Europe and I have friends sourcing really high quality material in Japan for me. Some of it raw material, but some of it is old established bonsai which have been forgotten and neglected and which need restyling. I am always excited by a new tree. Also I am going to be getting more visiting artists here to teach so that my students get bonsai tuition from different artists. And in 2007 I am going to be traveling to new countries to give demos/workshops and meet new people.

AoB: This space is for the question or questions you wished we would have asked.

Steve: As an artist, bonsai is an all-consuming passion for me, a wonderful and unique art form that has close links with nature. I feel that when we are styling a tree, it is very important to work with the tree and not against it. For me, respect for the tree is the most important thing.

When I work on a tree I am absorbed in what I am doing. It is a chance for self expression, a time to create, a time to relax, a time of peace and a chance to be in harmony with nature, a time to find myself.

As someone who has always had a strong contact with nature from a young age, I find working with trees relaxing, stimulating and satisfying, and for me bonsai is a way of self-expression. It is a unique art form, and I believe should be viewed as such, rather than as an offshoot of gardening or some other extension of horticulture.

Although horticulture is necessary to maintain a tree in good health, in the end what I am aiming for is a living work of art. It is the aesthetic and creative aspects of bonsai which I enjoy more so than the horticulture. Although I am only too aware of how important the horticulture is.

The reason that I call my business Four Dimensional Art relates to bonsai's uniqueness as an art form.

With photography, sketching or painting, you have two dimensional art, length and breadth. With sculpture you are working in three dimensions, length, breadth and depth. However, with bonsai you have a "living" sculpture, and so you not only have length, breadth and depth, but also life, and the element of time. It is the tree's life over time which gives us change, and it is this interplay of life and time and therefore change that gives bonsai that fourth dimension. Unlike any painting or sculpture a bonsai is never truly finished and so as the custodians of our trees we continually have to tend to their needs as living things. We also have the possibility to re-design our work of art should we so wish, which is also unique.

For me, nature is the most beautiful and creative thing. It has always been important for me to have some contact with nature. I love walking in the mountains with my dog. I love breeding my birds, eagles, hawks and falcons, and I have my bonsai. Life is good.

Author:  Peter Evans [ Fri Feb 23, 2007 4:58 pm ]
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Brilliant!. Like you I have been infulenced by Hotsumi,who i first meet in 1991 doing a demo on wireing. I watched him for 2 days and learnt SO much. Also Dan. What an inspiration !. So modest yet so free with advice.
And , yourself. We have only meet a couple of times but they have been to my advantage. Thank you , and welcombe to the site. Peter.

Author:  Shaukat Islam [ Sat Feb 24, 2007 11:32 am ]
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A very thought provoking and matter-of-fact interview. Thoroughly enjoyed reading; every bit of it. His trees are very good too, and for a moment, I was taken aback that someone from West had created such beautiful trees in a span of only 10 years.
His ideas and thinking is something, which I can relate with fully. A true artist in the real sense. Keep it up.
I would be looking forward to read Steve's articles at the AoB, if he can spare time, and here's wishing him all the best.

Author:  Mark Arpag [ Sun Feb 25, 2007 9:24 am ]
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How refreshing, essence over agenda, humility over ego, Art over hype, deepth over gimmick. Too many pearls to list them all. Go discover for your self. He not only gets it, surprise, surprise good trees too. There is hope!
Best Regards,

Author:  Anonymous [ Sat Mar 01, 2008 12:53 pm ]
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what an amazing trees! wow man i am truly astonished. and humbled. mine seem so amateur compared to this. well i guess i have a long way infront of me.
he proves again that the way of thinking an the way of seeing the world has much to do with the art of bonsai.
Rake the Pigeon *takes his hat off*

Author:  Heather HartmanCoste [ Sat Mar 01, 2008 1:34 pm ]
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Hi Rake and welcome to the forums. Glad you've enjoyed the trees!

If you would please read our naming policy here:

And change your user name appropriately, we would appreciate it. You can change your user name in your control panel :)

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