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 Post subject: Profile: Peter Warren
PostPosted: Thu Dec 27, 2007 7:12 pm 

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

Kobayashi and Peter Warren on stage at the 2007 GSBF convention. Peter was his assistant during this convention.

Peter Warren became interested in Bonsai in Japan when he was there to watch the World Cup in 2002. He graduated from the University having studied Physics and fancied a bit of a change, but more importantly, he didn't want to get a "nine to five" job.

After going on a Bonsai tour, he immediately fell in love with the beauty, the power, and the grandeur, so he began to study at a weekly class at Shunkaen, the garden of the world famous master Kunio Kobayashi.

Six months and a small world tour later he returned to Japan and became a full time apprentice under Kobayashi where he stayed for a further four and a half years before immigration problems forced him to leave. He is currently in limbo, trying to return to Japan and traveling both Europe and the US in search of students, trees and possibilities for the future. He has few trees of his own which his little brother looks after with great care and success.

Throughout his apprenticeship he worked on some of the greatest bonsai in Japan, doing everything from wiring, styling and re-potting, it sounds blas' but he has a fearless approach to it and he will treat a five hundred year old tree with the same respect as a five year old tree, he sees very little difference between them. His responsibilities as an apprentice were wide ranging, from watering and weeding to display and sales. He enjoyed his time there, learning constantly and it changed him in many ways, setting him along a path which he am happy to walk. He describes himself as an artisan more than an artist, he does not look to create trees in a personal style or push the boundaries of bonsai as an art; he's more interested in the process of working on bonsai, the creation of beauty rather than a statement, truth rather than a forced falsehood.

His philosophy and ideas regarding bonsai may be somewhat contrary to many of the concepts in both the East and West; this is a result of too much time spent thinking on his own and a mix of physics, eastern philosophy and obsession. Peter asks that people do not take everything he says as gospel truth, he expresses his personal opinions which are exactly that, his, neither right nor wrong. Feel free to disagree with him.

You can find more of Peter's work in Bonsai Focus and on my website

The following is an on-line interview with Peter Warren.

Black Pine wired, styled and re-potted for Kokufu by Peter Warren.

AoB: When looking at the various display styles, do you consider the Keido School of display of Ohaku Sudo (sp Uhaku Sudo) superior to other alternatives?

Peter: The area of tokonoma display is one which is of great interest to Western Bonsai enthusiasts and also one of the most misunderstood. Keido is the only official school of display in that it has a structure, rules and a distinct philosophy. Keido was created by bringing together of many different aesthetic ideas and formalized originally by Katayama and then continued by his first student Sudo. My master also studied under Katayama and is a licensed Keido practitioner. Although I have had no formal Keido training in the sense of attending meetings and studying under the headmaster of the school, Sudo, I did create many displays which would be considered to be Keido displays, and also many that would not be acceptable within the boundaries of the Keido school of thought.

There are no formal alternatives to the Keido school and while I would not consider myself to be a formal student of Keido I do subscribe to the basic aesthetic ideas if not the strict display guidelines. The situation I was in did not require a Keido display every day and as such many of the displays I have created have broken some of the guidelines, yet still remained intrinsically beautiful.

In regards to an alternative display method I have no problem with exploration of display techniques as long as they look beautiful and the items relate to each other within the space in terms of position, season, aspect and formality. I am a firm believer that there should be a western 'school' of display which follows the exactly same ideas and principles but uses different trees, accents and items to achieve the same aims.

AoB: What is that you are most interested in, when creating a bonsai display?

Peter: A bonsai display is really the most artistic part of Bonsai and as an artistic statement or a piece of work I think that the objective is to obtain an emotional response from the viewer, to make them see nature in a different way and to think about their life and relationship to the natural world. It should be introspective and provoking but not in a harsh way, a gentle provocation as opposed to something clashing and uncomfortable. It is easy to create an extreme reaction of disgust but it is very difficult to create a subtle feeling of longing within the viewer. Ultimately I am interested in creating something true to itself that I personally find beautiful, and hopefully others will too.


AoB: What do you think the most common mistake made is when a display is created?

Peter: The most common mistakes are a lack of appreciation of seasonality, direction, relativity and spatial awareness. This applies to any style of display or bonsai creation. I am bored by most western exhibitions because there are too many conifers. I like to see fruit, flowers and color in bonsai, not just dead wood, wire and nicely created green foliage pads.
There are many other mistakes that are related to the Japanese way of display or cultural references which can be forgiven but only to a certain extent. I have seen calligraphy scrolls displayed upside down and formal materials displayed with informal trees. To the Western eye this may not be a problem but if you are actively trying to recreate a Japanese style of display then it must be studied and considered.

AoB: What is that makes you return to Japan over and over again? Is it the people, the culture, or the quality of bonsai?

Peter: I made a commitment to my master when I entered as an apprentice which as far as I am concerned is a lifelong commitment, so if I am needed then I must go unless the nice men at immigration stop me.
In terms of the bonsai then obviously it is of much higher quality and that is what I am used to, I had no knowledge of Western bonsai before I started so my first introduction to Bonsai was not just Japanese Bonsai but at the highest level. One thing I particularly enjoy is the history of the trees, the fact that they are much older than I am (as a bonsai rather than material) and that many people have touched the trees before I have and many will afterward. I am just one of many who have played a part in the evolution of the tree. This does not really exist in the west to the same degree.
I also have a very beautiful girlfriend in Japan and that is attraction enough to keep me there, although god only knows what she sees in me.

This was work done for an art and fashion magazine in Japan, resulting from trying to appeal to a different audience.

AoB: Do you prefer to teach bonsai to the Westerners the same way as it is done in Japan, or would you rather change the method when teaching in a Western culture?

Peter: The Japanese do not teach Bonsai. I was never formally taught, I was given the opportunity to observe and repeat ad infinitum until I came to a level of understanding with my hands rather than my mind. I was not given knowledge, rather the opportunity to gain experience. That cannot be repeated in a workshop or a demonstration.

My teaching method does not change from East to West; I teach Americans and Europeans the same way that I teach Japanese. I do not agree with the abusive nature of teaching by humiliation that many have imported from the East, I agree whole heartedly that the way for an apprentice to improve is through hardship and suffering but this is a different relationship. Teacher-Student relationship is not the same as Master-Apprentice; "abuse" is only a superficial aspect to it and misunderstood by those who look from the outside in and do not experience the other side. To any students who ask (and let's be honest, pay) me to teach them I explain as much of the process as possible, if I insulted my customers then I would be no better than British Airways. I am not shy about telling people my techniques because I can talk and talk and talk as much as I want, 95% of people forget it instantly anyway. I cannot teach them my experience and my mentality. There are many things, such as how much to water or bend a branch that you must just have a feel for, you feel it when you are doing it but cannot explain it in words easily and it cannot be taught. That is born from experience and that is the secret to bonsai, not learning how to wire without crossing.

AoB: What do you see as the major differences between Japanese students and Western students?

Peter: Westerners in general want to know why and enjoy talking about very complex aesthetic ideas before they have any horticultural knowledge. There is less observation of the actual and more hypothesizing on the possible. In terms of aesthetic design principles, Westerners deconstruct trees into lines, masses and all sorts of easy to classify structures. That would never happen with Japanese students, something is beautiful because it is, not because it conforms to some mathematical framework. There is less of a need to try and understand.

In Japan there are more non-practicing enthusiasts who are less interested in the practical aspects of bonsai and just appreciate the beauty. In terms of practicing amateurs, my experience is that they bow to ability and authority, even if that is a twenty nine year old white boy from Yorkshire. Many in the West allow their ego to alter their perception of ability.

Workshop in Virginia

AoB: How do the Japanese artists you have met think of the American bonsai Scene? The European?

Peter: Japanese artists who go over to American conventions do not see the best of American Bonsai, they see a large gathering of people at a social event. In terms of the European scene there are some people who are looking over their shoulder so to speak. It won't be long before the highest level of European Bonsai is consistently at "Kokufu Class".

One thing is true for both US/EU scenes; the Japanese are incredibly jealous of the yamadori material that is available.

AoB: What is your perception of today's youth in Japan, with regards to their approach to bonsai: does bonsai mean anything to the masses, in general?

Peter: You need three things for Bonsai in Japan, time, space and money. Japanese youth have none of these, working long hours, living in shoe-box apartments. As with many around the world there is more connection to the virtual world than the natural, humanity in general is losing its connection with the rest of nature.

Bonsai has a Granddad image, something for retired men to do. I have often had to explain to Japanese people the concept of Bonsai and they are amazed that I would be interested, both as a foreigner and of non pensionable age.

AoB: Can you provide an explanation as to why is Japanese participation so blatantly lacking on international bonsai forums? Is it the language barrier, or just the fact that they prefer to see live bonsai, as opposed to "virtual bonsai on the Net"? It seems that the Chinese participation is much more active on the bonsai forums.

Peter: Not many elderly Japanese have or care to have access to the Internet or the English ability to participate. Bonsai is something that is done rather than talked about.

AoB: What, in your opinion, is the major differences between the way in which the Japanese view bonsai as compared to westerners?

Peter: History and ownership. The West has virtually no history associated with the trees, many have only had one owner, one design and they may be very young trees. In Japan there is a massive weight of history creating a pressure on the current owner, previous owners have spent sometimes hundreds of years looking after the tree and the present owner is only one of many, he will look after it for some time and then it will have a new owner. In the west people are possessive of 'their' tree, they made it after all. The self is more important than the tree in the West.

Peter's favorite type of display, simple but seasonal (Princess Persimmon)

AoB: Do you think the current trend away from Japonisme is a good or even necessary thing for Western bonsai?

Peter: I think that there is definite scope for other trends and fashions in Bonsai, after all it has to mean something to the viewer and artist particularly in terms of display aesthetics. There are things which hold great importance to an educated Japanese viewer but are meaningless squiggles to a Westerner. There are two options to explore in this case, a strict adherence to the Japanese way, learning the language and many other aspects of the culture or to investigate different ways of displaying using similar Japanese principles (which are not Japanese at all, they are universal principles of space, time and relativity) but with slightly different contexts, different ways of representing the seasons which are appropriate for the artist and audience. Whichever path you take the end result must be same, it must be true to itself and coherent. Most importantly it should be beautiful.

In terms of tree design then there is much scope for new styles, new species with different growth characteristics are being used and they lend themselves to a new aesthetic. Just as a simple example I think it is against the principles of Bonsai to clean the gnarled and textured bark of some collected Rocky Mountain Junipers in the same way that you would a Shimpaku. They are both Junipers but the natural character of the Rocky Mountain Juniper should not be sacrificed to the modern fashion of having an oiled and polished live vein next to brilliant painted white dead wood. There is nothing to be gained by it and everything to be lost.

Many Western bonsai artists want to throw away the alleged Japanese rule book and write their own rules. I think they should look at the early works of Pablo Picasso before they do this, he spent his formative years drawing simple still life pictures. Only once he had mastered light, form, space and perspective did he tear it all up and do something unique. I am confused at the constant referral to the "cookie cutter" approach to Japanese Bonsai, as this is the last thing I took from my experience there. I saw thousands of different trees, different style both formal and informal.

On a commercial level there were many mass produced trees which conformed to a set pattern, but these were designed for the mass market and also for further development. They were merely the first step created by a bonsai farmer, not an artist but a farmer, ready to be sold for somebody to then make decisions and create something.

In the Satsuki azalea world there are many standard triangular shapes but there is amazing scope for difference within that standard that the West fails to see. Details such as the color, hue and shape of the flowers (among different trees of the same variety), the distribution of different colors in a multi-colored variety, the size and scar free nature of the trunk; these are all important to the Japanese eye, but not to the Westerner who sees only the basic "cookie cutter" form and immediately writes it off as worthless because it isn't dynamic enough or some such nonsense and fails to see the beauty in the details. Jumping to ill informed conclusions is endemic in Western Bonsai and Suiseki based on the lack of information available.

I think the philosophy of Japanese Bonsai is something that should never be thrown away, patience over instant gratification is at the core of bonsai. The sooner we stop doing demonstrations in a day the better for everyone (again a Western invention).

Dan Barton's Scots pine wired and styled by Peter Warren in March 2007

AoB: When designing a bonsai, do you aspire to eventually create a personal style of your own, or do you consider this aspect as unimportant at this stage of your journey?

Peter: I very rarely design bonsai for myself so I consider it unimportant at the moment. A personal style is not something I aspire to, I would rather create trees that left no impression of myself and just left an impression of age, natural beauty and harmony.

AoB: Do you see nursery material as the best source of bonsai in the future, or would you rather see more yamadori to be available (this is in reference to bonsai in the Western countries)?

Peter: If you want to be practicing bonsai at the highest level then nursery (garden centre not bonsai nursery) material is all but useless and the sooner that Western bonsai moves away from thin trunked garden junipers in ten gallon pots the better. They were not designed for use as a bonsai so they will make poor bonsai. For a genuine conifer with any character then it must be a collected tree (other than shohin). If you want to create deciduous trees then starting from nursery stock will immediately create problems of no taper, poor root structure, poor branch placement and inappropriate leaf size. You would be better off growing from seed to have full control over root development and subsequent growth. It is possible to grow a maple from seed to the highest quality finished tree in 20 years; all you need to do is look to Bill Valavanis' collection for evidence of this in the West.
Nursery material has the advantage for the beginner in that it is inexpensive and easily available. You can explore many possibilities and designs and also practice techniques such as wiring, grafting etc. However they are just training wheels and should be removed as soon as possible if you are serious about Bonsai. The inexpensive nature of the trees leads to a lasseiz-faire attitude, they are forgotten about and if they die the common response is "well it was cheap anyway". Until people have a vested interest (time or money) then there will be a lack of improvement as there is no pressure to maintain or improve. This is the dividing line between occasional hobbyist and serious amateur.

AoB: What are your thoughts on Internet bonsai contests?

Peter: I have not seen any so I cannot comment, however, and this is not limited to the net, two dimensional images are a poor representation of a three dimensional art form. The camera lens hides many faults. The benefit of internet contest is that it allows enthusiasts who live in remote (either physically or culturally) locations to participate, share their trees and compare. It has its place but it should not be considered the future of a three dimensional art.

AoB: You have said that the pot is as important as the tree in capturing the total feeling of a presentation, could you elaborate on this further?

Peter: If you consider the way in which Bonsai is written in Japanese this should shed some light on the importance. The first of two characters means "pot", to the logical mind 50% of the word means pot, therefore 50% of the image is from the pot. The tree is not in the ground, it is not in a plastic bucket, it is in a pot. The act of containment takes the tree from the natural to the supernatural - or unnatural depending upon your point of view. When you deconstruct what we actually do as a hobby or in my case for a living, it does seem quite ridiculous. We take trees from the wild, from where they belong and we put them in pots and make great efforts to keep them there and restrict their growth.

In aesthetic terms the pot must be in harmony with the tree, sometimes that means it must take a minor supporting role and be very subtle, an unglazed simple pot with a powerful driftwood Juniper. Other times it takes the major role, an elaborate painted pot with a simple accent planting. Either way they must not conflict, unless your objective is to disturb the viewer. Factors affecting the balance between the two run from shape, size, style and colour to patina and heritage. A five hundred year old tree does not belong in a cheap Chinese pot fresh from the kiln. It deserves better than that, if you are going to contain it then the least you can do is put it in something worthy, a pot of equal age, character and history.

A Shohin Juniper bent over double that Peter is working on.

AoB: What is the most common mistake in selecting a pot for a bonsai that you observe? What should a person consider when selecting a pot for a bonsai?

Peter: Size is the most common mistake at all stages of development. People are afraid to put trees in small pots thinking that they will be difficult to water. This is true if you are busy and have little time to look after your trees, if so I suggest a different hobby. A common mistake which has been perpetuated by many teachers of bonsai is to put small trees in big pots under the misconception that 'they will have space to grow'. Any commercial grower of any kind will keep potting up when the plant has filled its current pot, leading to rapid growth and thickening of the trunk. Roots need not only water but oxygen. If the soil is constantly wet then there is no space for oxygen in the soil. You need to have soil which dries out on a regular basis, not enough to damage the roots but enough to allow gaseous exchange. You get this from using a smaller pot.

Aesthetically and philosophically the smaller the pot the more extreme the image, the act of confinement is more obvious and it creates a much more Bonsai like image as opposed to a tree in a pot.

AoB: What do you think needs to be accomplished in order for the artistic aspects of bonsai to become more recognized by the art community?

Peter: Why do we need recognition from the art community? If the art community does not recognize truth and beauty when they see it then more fool them. The bonsai world should drop the obsession with recognition and just get on with life.

I do not see Bonsai as an art, it is much more than art. It lives in between the worlds of horticulture, art, craft, science, philosophy, hobby and commerce. A point of note is that the West invented the term "Bonsai Artist", not Japan, there they are known simply as a "Bonsai-er" and would not be recognized as one of the fine arts. In Japan the line between art and craft is less definite and beauty is not confined to galleries or pictures in frames.
A great tree designer/artist who has no idea about how to shorten internode length or when to repot cannot create his ideal vision. Damien Hirst needed to understand the chemistry behind formaldehyde and the techniques of butchery before he could saw a cow in two and preserve it for all to see, and a Bonsai artist must be an accomplished horticulturalist before his beautifully sketched picture becomes reality.

I do not consider myself to be an artist; I am an artisan.

AoB: Do you think the Internet is a valid tool for those seeking knowledge of bonsai?

Peter: Only in a very limited capacity. Internet Bonsai suffers from the same problem that the anything on the internet suffers from, quantity over quality. You can find ten pages telling you ten different things and to the beginner that is confusing. There is also a lack of editorial power over the content and many ridiculous and frankly untrue statements are treated as gospel.

The power of the internet is that it brings people from all over the world together and allows a sharing of ideas and techniques. There are some genuine gems of information and fantastic collaborations happening because of the internet but you have to wade through pages and pages to find it, time that could be better spent working on trees.

That said I do have a website of my own which I need to update more regularly?

AoB: Who do you think are actively influencing the art of bonsai today?

Peter: Influence can have a very dark side to it, there are many in the Bonsai world that I wish had no influence because I disagree with their ideas and I am a very intolerant person. I think inspiring is a better way to look at it and the people that inspire me are generally people that I have made a personal connection with.

In Japan there are few who inspire the art of bonsai any more, there are some inspirational technicians who I admire but there is nobody who is making new trees that make you say "wow!". There are two exceptions, Yamada Kaori, of Seikou-en who has developed her own style of kusamono bonsai, creating some very beautiful and contemporary bonsai and Ryan Neil, the fourth year American apprentice at Kimura's. Seeing his work and mental fortitude inspires me to try harder.

In terms of the West I can only speak from personal experience and the people who should be influencing Bonsai are Sandro Segneri, Lorenzo Agnelotti, Kevin Wilson and David De Groot. These people have created trees that have stopped me in my tracks and drawn a positive emotional response from me. Artistically they have a profound understanding of what is important in a bonsai and their trees do not have their individual personality stamped on them. All have developed as artists or technicians and by comparing their work five years ago and now you can see the improvement. Kevin Wilson, a man with a coarse mouth but incredibly deep mind, has gone through a very interesting path in his work and I cannot wait to see his future trees. Many might be surprised to see Lorenzo's name there but his horticulture and understanding of the meaning and philosophy of bonsai is outstanding, his attention to detail is second to none. Sandro is constantly improving and is capable of a wide range of styles, imitation of Japanese and also European, letting the material dictate the style.
David De Groot brings intelligence, humility and a quiet yet burning passion to Bonsai. His theories are very sound and he practices what he preaches. I think that he has one of the best appreciations for line and form in the Western Bonsai world.

In America the problem is that the country is too large and people are influential in their own areas but not over the country as a whole. I have recently spent a couple of months there and the one thing I have noticed is that Boon's students all have very good trees, they are healthy, well designed and potted in correct Bonsai soil. As a result of the soil alone the trees are growing well and subsequently are able to be designed and created on a much quicker timescale. You cannot argue with results in Bonsai, the trees do not lie and Boon's students have good trees.

One thing I was impressed with in America is the quality of deciduous trees, which in many ways are harder that conifers. Bill Valavanis and Suthin Sukosolvisit have some impressive self grown deciduous trees with great ramification and attention to detail. Matt Ouwinga is probably the most knowledgeable and capable Trident Maple grower in the West. All of their trees are very well maintained which shows devotion, patience and ability.

AoB: What single piece of knowledge do you think is the most important to pass on to students?

Peter: Clean up after yourself. If you cannot clean properly, you can't do anything properly. This is particularly important with tools. If you keep your scissors clean and sharp then you keep your mind clean and sharp. You can tell everything about a man from his tools and the way in which he cleans.

AoB: You write often of displays in Tokonoma and show some excellent examples on your web page at do you think an alternative to the Tokonoma will come into play as other countries define their own cultures in bonsai?

Peter: No. Space is the key element to a tokonoma, again deconstructing the word into its constituent parts will help understanding here. In order to display bonsai to its best in a aesthetically pleasing way you need to create a place where there are no distractions, a self contained frame that focuses the viewer and allows the mind to detach itself from the surroundings. If you create such a space in the west it need not conform to the Japanese interpretation of a tokonoma (lit. place of space) but you are still creating a place of space, therefore by my Western logic and liberal interpretation of the etymology of tokonoma, an acceptable alternative cannot be found.

New ways of displaying bonsai should be explored but the best will always come back to the same ideas of relative space. The surroundings are very important. I think it somewhat perverse to have a Bonsai exhibition in a badly lit hotel conference room; exhibitions should be naturally lit, spacious and devoid of a strong personality. Too much clutter will not allow the viewer any scope for imagination, the beauty of a tokonoma and the Japanese display aesthetic is that the simplicity allows the viewer a tremendous amount of freedom, to wander around the empty space. If the display becomes too obvious or cluttered then the freedom is taken away from the viewer and discomfort is introduced. Any other display method will take the focus away from the Bonsai and make it secondary to something else, and frankly, what is the point of that?

Shimpaku Peter wired and styled, before.

Shimpaku Peter wired and styled, after.

Shimpaku Peter wired and styled, 6 months after.

 Post subject: Beautiful
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2007 4:26 pm 

Joined: Fri Mar 04, 2005 6:16 am
Posts: 89
Thanks for a good presentation of Peter Warren.
True and beautiful classical bonsai work. I love it!
Morten Albek

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Dec 30, 2007 1:30 pm 

Joined: Fri Sep 16, 2005 10:09 am
Posts: 47
Location: Nova Scotia 5a/b
I enjoyed this review tremendously. What I really enjoyed is Peter's candor wrt the differences between Eastern and Western concepts. A lot can and should be learnt from this young man.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2008 4:26 pm 

Joined: Thu Jan 03, 2008 4:12 pm
Posts: 1
Location: Manchester England
A refreshing article. I feel he has a very pure relationship with his craft.
No sense of ego came across with his words.

 Post subject: Interview
PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2008 11:57 pm 

Joined: Mon May 08, 2006 9:35 am
Posts: 731
Location: Southwest Florida,US
An excellent in depth interview with Peter Warren. He gives a very good insight into Japanese bonsai culture and reveals some interesting tidbits about truth and fake in Western land.

I would have liked to hear some more suggestions from Peter how to view and handle bonsai related education and growth in the Western world in particular regarding conventions and bigger events,especially in the US.
Nice interview.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Jan 05, 2008 9:34 am 

Joined: Sun Apr 03, 2005 7:18 pm
Posts: 56
Location: Upstate New York
As the sun pierced the mist, a fresh breeze began through out the land...

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