Profile: Andy Rutledge
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Author:  Editorial Staff [ Thu Jul 28, 2005 12:58 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Andy Rutledge

Profile - Andy Rutledge
Andy Rutledge has worked with Bonsai Today, published an online magazine for a couple of years, worked 3 spring seasons at New England Bonsai in Massachusetts, conducted about a dozen interviews with artists around the world and translated/edited Robert Steven's book, "Vision of my Soul."

The following is an online interview conducted with Andy:

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?

Andy: I had probably seen bonsai here and there for years, mostly average junky stuff, but it wasn't until I looked at an issue of "Bonsai Europe" back in the late 80's that I saw something that grabbed me. I had no idea that bonsai were so big and that they could look so good as what I saw in that magazine. I really caught the bug then, but it took a few years before I was able to take up the hobby.

AOB: How did you go about learning? Do you consider any particular master as your teacher, or did you study on you own?

Andy: At first, I did what nearly everyone does; I just did what seemed right and what I could learn from cheap books. When I started getting serious and spending real money on bonsai, I joined the local club and was exposed to a host of learning opportunities.

Vito Megna, near Austin, was the first person that really taught me the important basics of growing and shaping bonsai. He let me work around his place from time to time, but it was a 3-hour drive so that didn't happen very often. He was a great guy and I really value what he shared with me. Boon Manakitivipart was the first one to really expose me to solid technique and fundamental bonsai artistry. He was never really my teacher, but I attended workshops and hung out with him as often as I could - still do! And he still shares his knowledge and time. He's a good friend and excellent teacher. It is no surprise that his students are among the best artists in this country.

I eventually met Nick Lenz and Kenji Miyata and consider both of them to be my teachers. It's not entirely proper to have two teachers, but their teachings compliment one another, each admires the work of the other and, most importantly, neither has a problem with my being taught by the other. I consider myself very fortunate to have these excellent artists as my instructors. I work with Nick at least once a year and have spent several extended periods working professionally with Kenji at one nursery or another.

AOB: What would you recommend as the most efficient method of learning?

Andy: That's easy: study one-on-one with a superior bonsai artist on a regular basis over a prolonged period of time. There is no substitute. Few of us can do that, but there's nothing like it. At the heart of this, it means that you are practicing technique and horticulture on a regular basis. Most importantly, it means that you're subjecting your work to the scrutiny of someone who has high expectations. When you're not allowed to make mistakes, you must become very efficient in your learning. ;-)

AOB: What was the most difficult part in your pursuit of bonsai? The most challenging aspect you had to deal with. What about the biggest mistake or failure that happened to you?

ANDY: Initially, the most difficult part was learning to just leave the damn trees alone! Fiddling with them all the time will kill them every time. I did lots of that. Now I think the most challenging aspect is learning to understand what the trees are telling you - what it means when a leaf gets a dry edge, or a yellow center, or when needles change color, or when a shoot refuses to gain vigor or grows too quickly. These sorts of clues are important and learning what each means in the context of the season or other considerations is not always easy.

AOB: Where do you seek your inspiration when designing a tree? Is there any particular environment in nature that inspires you more than any others?

Andy: Mostly I seek inspiration from the individual piece of material. Usually when I first see a piece of material, but not always, I get a quick snapshot impression of what the finished tree should become. A lot of the time, that impression will call up something I've seen in nature before or in a painting. As for inspirational environments, I find all of them inspirational. Not just that, but each of them with a variety of seasons or weather conditions. I'm usually looking for the whole story, not just the tree's general form, when thinking of bonsai design. There are lots of stories to tell in any environment.

AOB: How do you feel about the importance in tradition in bonsai? Do you think that we should follow it, or rather try to be innovative and adopt a liberal view?

Andy: There's two sides to that question, so far as I see it. In the first sense of tradition, the actual tradition - if you're going to enter into one, as in becoming a student of a teacher who continues his/her teacher's tradition, you'd better be committed to the tradition or you're wasting their time. In that sort of arrangement, you're there to carry on the tradition of making excellent bonsai according to specific conventions and continuing the fine tradition laid down by your predecessors. If you're not interested in that sort of thing, don't get into it in the first place.

In the other sense of tradition, as I think you may be meaning it, there is certainly something to following in the footsteps of those who came before you and who are much better than you. Copying their work or their flavor is how you get a grasp of the technique and fundamentals. The fact that your bonsai will look similar or identical to theirs (if you're lucky!), is not a negative thing. It's what you should aim for. Once you're that good, you've probably got the skills and understanding to branch out and become more expressive. Some would say "innovative," but I doubt seriously that there's much room for that in bonsai. I've seldom seen it from anyone. You can count those artists on one hand.

As for the liberal view, I'm not sure how that applies. On either has a grasp of artistry and can produce successful work or one cannot. Having a liberal view or an innovative bent will not affect the quality of the artistry. It will be excellent or it will suck. The fact that it's similar to other fine works or unlike any other is beside the point.

AOB: What do you think about the recent attempts to display bonsai in other than traditional settings?

Andy: I think exploration is wonderful and that bending rules is fun and can be instructive. I think that all of the "non-traditional" efforts at bonsai display I've seen have been very instructive. This kind of thing is seldom successful because artistry is not the basis of the attempt, but it's certainly worth trying. Of course it's best attempted from the standpoint of a cohesive understanding of artistry. The danger lies in our giving too much credit for someone having dared to do something like that. If it's artistically unsound, applaud the daring, but it's silly to applaud the results. That's sort of the opposite of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe like opening your mind - so wide that your brain falls out (while we're throwing around clich's).

AOB: What are your favorite species to work with? Do you encourage people to work with trees that are rarely or never used as bonsai?

Andy: My favorites are Chinese elm and Japanese black pine. The reason is twofold: I can easily find material of those species and they're both tough as nails. Our climate here in Texas is rather harsh. Strong species are advised.

As for rarely used species, I enjoy seeing something surprising. Bonsai is filled with lots of similar looking efforts and species and it is fun to come across something that, even if it has a familiar shape, is not clothed in the usual bark or leaves or flowers.

AOB: What is your preferred choice of the size of a bonsai? Why?

Andy: I actually prefer larger bonsai: 2.5' to 4' tall. I enjoy having lots of real estate to work with and there's just something about larger material that hits me in the pit of my stomach. I'm really not sure why, but it may be something like owning a really powerful car or having a super loud stereo (I own neither). Testosterone on parade.

AOB: Do you think people should study art in their pursuit of bonsai?

Andy: I think that those who want to make bonsai to please others certainly should, otherwise their setting themselves up for defeat. Bonsai can be many things to many people, but if you're going to show bonsai off it is best that you understand where humans find beauty, how they understand complex shapes and why certain formation are appealing or not so appealing to people.

AOB: How do you feel about the different styles of bonsai around the world? Do you have any favorite? When judging a tree, do you think that we should consider the style or the culture, which they belong to?

Andy: I have no grasp of there being different styles of bonsai around the world. There are all sorts of different species around the world with particular or peculiar shapes, but bonsai is about suggesting the world around us. That's not necessarily different "bonsai styles."

For instance, there is no such thing as Japanese style or American style or Italian style bonsai. They're either beautiful or not, artistically successful or not, displayed effectively or not. Trees are trees and artistic reference to treeness is all fairly natural and consistent.

When judging a bonsai, I don't think that anything other than effective communication is relevant. Well, except for perhaps the fact that a particular species or specimen may be very difficult to cultivate or train or achieve a high degree of development - and an fine example of a bonsai with such material has to be regarded as impressive craft. There is such a thing as superb efforts with difficult material that we can't ignore.

AOB: How do you feel about the often heard remarks from certain people that it is pointless to talk about art in bonsai and all that matters is just to enjoy it?

Andy: I sort of have to laugh. The fact is, yes, all that matters is just to enjoy it. But the fact remains that enjoyment is facilitated by or interfered with by the level of successful artistry in bonsai. I mean, would you say that all that matters about houses is to enjoy them? No, we enjoy beautiful houses, not crappy, poorly built houses. Do we enjoy crappy, poorly crafted movies? No, we enjoy movies that are excellent, ones that communicate with us well and/or have a high degree of appeal (from their craft/artistry).

Arguments like what you cite above are myopic and inherently passive-aggressive. ;-)

AOB: Do you have a message to those who grow bonsai in their backyard but never intend to show it to anybody?

Andy: Yes, have fun! That's pretty much what I do now. I love it. Yes, I believe that we should show off our bonsai, but only if there is some point to it - if we've purposefully imbued our work with qualities that are meant to please others or communicate with others - and if we have the money and materials to do it right. Otherwise, bonsai is a great hobby to pursue in the peaceful seclusion of our backyard.

AOB: We often encounter people who start their hobby in bonsai by acquiring young material or seedlings. Do you advice them to grow their own material from scratch, or rather to buy something in advanced stage of development as their first tree?

Andy: I always suggest that a beginner start with an already mature, modest quality bonsai in a bonsai pot. Otherwise, there's no opportunity to practice actual bonsai maintenance technique. There is certainly great satisfaction to be found in taking seedlings or raw nursery stock and converting it into a bonsai specimen, but that takes years. It is hard to maintain a beginner's enthusiasm when there's nothing to do but wait and grow.

AOB: In your collection, name a few of your favorite trees. What is it that makes them favorites?

Andy: I've got a couple of Chinese elms that are probably my favorites. The windy elm, that many are familiar with and a larger informal upright are favorites also. Unfortunately, I've had to sell off several of my favorite pines, but more are on the way.

AOB: Any exciting projects that you are working on now or in the near future?

Andy: I've got a stumpy Chinese elm that was grown in my yard that will one day be a cool specimen - oak style broom with a full-radial nebari. I also have a fat black pine that will be a nice cascade in a few years. Long time to wait on that one, but the rough material is nice. I've also got probably the two best pieces of cedar elm material in the world. They'll take time to get developed, but it sure is fun to imagine their final forms. I hope I can do them justice. Time. Always lots of time.

Author:  Hector Johnson [ Mon Jan 23, 2006 4:02 am ]
Post subject:  Question From The Audience

Andy, you sometimes seem to be critical of a number of innovations in the art of bonsai. Would you say this is because of your close association with the bonsai publishing industry, in the past? Or would you put it down to some other influence?

Author:  Andy Rutledge [ Thu Jan 26, 2006 12:24 pm ]
Post subject: 

Hi Hector,
I'm never critical of innovation. I am always critical of harmful ideas and destructive efforts - especially when they're supported and perpetuated by others in the community.
There's nothing wrong with new and different. There's plenty wrong with inept and vacuous work held up as "the new cool thing." Quality above all else. Anything less deserves its well-earned criticism.
My association with publishing has absolutely nonthing to do with anything I do in bonsai. Just to clarify.
Kind regards,

Author:  Will Heath [ Wed Aug 15, 2007 12:31 am ]
Post subject: 

Still a classic interview, I miss seeing Andy around, his recent silence leaves a void in the on-line community.


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