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 Post subject: In Support of Workshops
PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2008 9:15 am 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
In Support of Workshops
by Russell Marchant

The following is an observation I have made after having been a member of a bonsai club for about ten years: there are club members you attend bonsai workshops and there are also members who do not. While this may, at first, seem overly simplistic I would ask you to ponder it a bit. I think there is an interesting question here. Why is their division among otherwise like thinking individuals (all enjoy bonsai and all are active members in an organization dedicated to the enjoyment and study of bonsai) regarding their participation in outside bonsai educational activities – workshops? The primary reasons I came up with are; some workshops cost too much, limited time to attend (scheduling difficulty), some individuals (particularly those new to bonsai) may feel intimidated, and (having attended a bad workshop) there is a strong desire to not repeat a bad experience.

Some workshops cost too much

I think the operative word here is "some". Some bonsai workshops are well out of my price range, just like a Bentley or a Ferrari are out of my price range when I go car shopping. As a long-standing member of the School of Frugal Bonsai I prefer workshops in the $100-150 and under range. Most workshops in this range involve smaller trees or require participants (my personal favorite) to "bring your own tree". Participants benefit from an experienced teacher who, hopefully, is able to show you how to release a beautiful bonsai from a tree you may have been staring at for a long time. And besides, the main goal is to develop knowledge and experience, not create a show quality masterpiece. The point: there are many workshops available that offer quality instruction at a reasonable price.

Limited time to attend

I'm sorry, but for bonsai folks living near large metropolitan areas, or for individuals who are members of bonsai clubs or societies, I don't think this is a valid excuse. In my area of the Midwest (St. Louis, Missouri) we are very fortunate. We can choose from workshops held at nearby Cass Bonsai (a local bonsai nursery) and our club also provides a variety of workshop and club-sponsored activities throughout the year. In addition, our central location provides exposure to workshops held in nearby locations like Chicago and Springfield, IL; Evansville, IN; Memphis and Nashville, TN; etc. I am sure this situation only improves when you consider areas like the east or west coasts with their more concentrated population centers.

I feel intimidated because I'm new

This to me is a bit of a, "Catch-22". Of course you feel a little intimidated if you're new and inexperienced. If you are trying bonsai, or anything else for that matter, for the first time I'm not sure how many other ways you can feel except a little intimidated. It is very normal to feel a little uncomfortable or uncertain when you are trying something new. But that is the very reason you should be attending the workshop - to gain experience and build knowledge.

I remember my first workshop, it was held in the spring. I only knew a few people so I did a lot of listening that day. What surprised me most were the conversations of experienced bonsai folks. Many spoke of trees they diligently cared for and maintained for years, but for some unknown reason were lost to the snows of winter or the springtime wind. Rest assured; if you attend a workshop you will be surrounded by many others who, in their quest for bonsai knowledge, have left a trail of broken branches, wire-scarred trunks, and dead bonsai.

The desire to not repeat a bad experience

Having been engaged in many conversations regarding workshops I have determined the difference between a good session and a bad one is usually determined by two things, the bonsai master conducting the session and the species or quality of tree to be worked on. These two items seem to resurface each time I ask someone what they thought about a particular workshop.

In my opinion, researching the bonsai artist who will be conducting the workshop is an important step in the selection process. After all, you are counting on this person to further your understanding of bonsai and you certainly want a quality learning experience. I frequently ask fellow club members their opinion on the individual conducting a workshop I'm considering. When my local club hosted the BCI convention a few years ago there were many workshop options offered. After I determined which were in my price range I started asking questions. Who is a good teacher? Which workshop provides the best match of instructor to material? Who takes time to answer questions and explain? These are the types of questions I ask prior to selecting a session.

Determining the species of tree you would like to work on is easy. If you want to work on a Black Pine, Juniper, or Maple forest you simply sign up for that variety of workshop when it's available. The difficulty normally occurs after you show up and actually see the workshop trees for the first time. Numerous articles have been written on selecting the proper stock for bonsai so we are not going to go there. However, it is safe to say everyone doesn't always get his or her first-choice when attending a workshop. Workshop trees are usually assigned based on the order the attendees signed up. If your name was first on list of paying participants you get first pick. There isn't a whole lot you can do here regarding the order of selection (particularly if you are the last paying customer). But you can try to make your most well informed decision and provide yourself alternate selections. I always try to view all the workshop trees as soon as possible. I show up early and start sorting through the material looking for that one specimen that shows the most potential. (Unfortunately, everyone else attending the workshop is doing the same thing.) The key here is not to select the single tree you want, but to widen your choices by selecting the five or six trees you might like to work on. Widening your choices increases the probability that you will get a "good tree" and lessens the possibility for disappointment.


I certainly don't hold the club record for "Most Workshops Attended" but I have attended a few and I will continue to attend a few more. I have been fortunate in that I can't remember a workshop where I felt I did not benefit from the instructor, instruction, or camaraderie of my fellow bonsai enthusiasts. I realize everyone is different and we all determine how best to spend our money or any free time we get, but I urge everyone to attend at least one bonsai workshop. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Bob King scored: 7
"A positive article that outlined the reasons for attendance but not necessarily about something that I did not know – I would say that the author put to paper a commonly held opinion. "

Pat Luck Morris scored: 9.5
"Excellent piece! Valuable topic, well presented."

Walter Pall scored: 7
"Images could have helped. Well written. The aspects may be new to frank beginners, but not to anyone beyond that stage."

Average score of all judges: 7.83

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