Monday, February 22, 2016

Prunus #23






Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hello Arthur, hello Walter

Hello Walter,

Thank you for sharing your impressions of the state of bonsai in the EU. You stressed that what you offered were your opinions only, and I want to assure you I understand them to be such. Much as I admire what you do and what you know I never confuse your opinions with objective fact. I seek your opinion, though, not only because I think it to be well informed but because you make it so abundantly available! It is only half a joke for me to say that - at present you are the only EU-based bonsai professional who regularly participates on the IBC public forum. It used to be that others did, too. In fact, a friend of mine once said, when I asked him why he participated on another bonsai forum and not the IBC, he did not post here because the IBC was too "Eurocentric". At one time he might have been able to make a good case for that, but no longer.

I want to clarify my position as regards the issue of Japanese influence in American and, from what you say, European bonsai. I have no desire to throw away all the valuable information we have learned from our Japanese teachers, starting over from scratch, any more than I mean to disrespect the Japanese when I acknowledge how they have promoted and reinforced the idea of the bonsai concept being a Japanese product. My primary bonsai teacher was Yuji Yoshimura. I spent time studying bonsai in Japan with Susumu Nakamura in an arrangement facilitated by the Nippon Bonsai Association. I am, as previously stated on several occasions, grateful for what was shared with me personally by Japanese teachers, and I am grateful for what the Japanese bonsai industry did in bringing the art of bonsai to the Western world. That should be entirely understood. My perspective, however, is that whatever our beginnings might be we should move on from there, hopefully in a direction that proves to be forward.

Here is a personal statement I have been making for a long time: [b]Bonsai is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end[/b].

I do not do bonsai because I want to own bonsai. As a matter of fact, I do not own bonsai and do not wish to acquire any. Likewise, the primary end I seek through bonsai is not to earn a paycheck, although I am fortunate enough to have that arrangement. If the end I sought was primarily money I would have quit bonsai a long time ago and found some better means toward that end. And at the risk of saying the same thing over and over, or repeating myself, or otherwise being redundant, I do not care enough about any foreign culture to do bonsai as a means to express that appreciation.

My own strongest inclinations are toward creative expression, coupled with an appreciation of the wonder of the natural world. Additionally, as a human being, for reasons completely beyond my control (and frequently enough also beyond my understanding) I have a compelling need to communicate with other human beings, in a way that goes beyond the basic sort of verbalization required of any of us to successfully navigate our way through everyday life. Without my ever having consciously sought it out, bonsai presented itself to me as a vehicle for achieving all three of these personal needs.

Bonsai is a challenging form of creative expression. As a creatively inclined individual I have worked in a number of different mediums, and I find bonsai to be unique for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of it is that the medium is alive and growing, which means constantly changing. It is also growing at a relatively slow rate which brings in the element of time, as in prolonged periods of waiting for developments to occur before the work may progress, which demands a level of patience that is not called for in other creative mediums. Plants do not think, as far as I know, but they behave as if they have minds of their own, and a bonsai grower is therefore obliged to share the creative process with the subject that is being shaped. Most critically, the medium is alive and must be kept alive in order to maintain its integrity, which demands the grower be capable of keeping it alive, perpetually.

In this way bonsai connects directly with the natural world, as it uses a piece of nature as the medium. Beyond that, however, the bonsai medium can be used to reflect an experience of nature as its message. It [i]can[/i] be used that way, but it does not have to be. I prefer it that way because whatever medium I might choose to use as my creative vehicle I mostly want to communicate about my experience of the natural world. This is why I find more personal attraction in Naturalistic style bonsai than any other. Classical bonsai is an expression of nature viewed through the lens of a (for me) foreign culture. Neoclassical bonsai is an interpretation, a second-hand retelling, of an expression of nature viewed through the lens of foreign culture. Modern bonsai style subordinates nature almost entirely to a human impulse toward abstraction and a design theory predicated on precise and total control. Naturalistic bonsai involves a human being observing and otherwise experiencing nature and then creating something that expresses what he or she learned and felt as a result of doing so.

When I wrote the passage you just read I had to struggle to come up with the right words to express myself. When I create a naturalistic bonsai all I have to do is put it in front of another human being:

[url=http://www.servimg.com/view/18135461/973][img]http://i84.servimg.com/u/f84/18/13/54/61/img_8911.jpg[/img][/url]

Bonsai allows me to communicate with other human beings on a level that supersedes speech.

Why am I writing these things to you? Well, of all the other bonsai professionals I have met you are one of the very few who seems to think about bonsai in a way reasonably similar to my own. Even if we do not agree on all points, and I know we do not, I think you well understand where I am coming from. And in much of your work I can discern the spirit of someone who has a sensitivity to the wonder of trees in nature, feels the need to express it, and has the creative wherewithal to do so with artistic flair (I cannot say I see these things in all your bonsai because your modernistic work has little to do with the wonder of trees in nature and everything to do with artistic flair.) You also have the ego that allows (demands) you to project your ideas out into the world and the intellect to express those ideas effectively with words. It helps, too, that you make yourself accessible through the Internet, and who else among the big dogs of bonsai does that?

Of course, I am not writing these things only to you. The obvious intent of this open correspondence is to invite others to eavesdrop on the exchange. I am ostensibly writing to you, but I am really writing to anyone who cares to read it, and you are replying in kind. That is the very nature of an open correspondence. We are doing this on a public forum, as one reader so astutely pointed out, so naturally we have put this exchange out there for others to comment on as they see fit. There has been a little bit of response and some of it has been worth reading, but overall we do not seem to be generating all that much interest. The usual handful of people who are active on the forum have contributed to this discussion and I appreciate their involvement. Part of the problem is that so few people are active anymore. In the old days of the IBC, when the forum was alive with many participants, some of whom were professionals and many others of whom were longtime hobbyists with a lot of experience and very good personal collections, such a correspondence as we are having now might have crashed the site! We would have had so many responses we might not have gotten in another word edgewise, and we would have taken so much abuse from those of the fundamentalist persuasion that we might have backed down in fear of their verbal violence. Well, I might have. I am certain you would have risen to the occasion.


Dear Arthur,

[quote="Arthur Joura"]
My perspective, however, is that whatever our beginnings might be we should move on from there, hopefully in a direction that proves to be forward.[/quote]

Sure, I absolutely agree. The bonsai scene often enough makes me state that this is the most backward looking art scene that I know of. In every other art form they compete in who is the most rebellious, who has invented the most unique thing. In bonsai they argue about who is following rules.


[quote="Arthur Joura"]Here is a personal statement I have been making for a long time: [b]Bonsai is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end[/b].[/quote]

Absolutely!

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Most critically, the medium is alive and must be kept alive in order to maintain its integrity, which demands the grower be capable of keeping it alive, perpetually.[/quote]

You have not touched an aspect that is more and more important to me and probably to many others. One cannot choose to do bonsai whenever you feel like it and leave the trees alone in the meanwhile. Whether you like it or not, you have to watch and care for them every day. It is much like an old fashioned farmer. Whether he likes it or not, he is forced to care for his farm every single day of the year. This keeps him busy and healthy, mentally and physically, much like a bonsai master. Bonsai masters become very old most of the time. They are forced to work physically and mentally every single day. And they have a good reason to see the next spring again.

The other phenomenon is that your trees are getting better the older you are if you know what you are doing. Your skills are getting better by the nature of the beast called bonsai. In most fields in life you are done after a certain age. You are not taken for serious anymore one day - sooner than you like. Not so in bonsai. You can progress much longer than in most fields. One can be VERY old and still be a respected master.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Of course, I am not writing these things only to you. The obvious intent of this open correspondence is to invite others to eavesdrop on the exchange. I am ostensibly writing to you, but I am really writing to anyone who cares to read it, and you are replying in kind. That is the very nature of an open correspondence. We are doing this on a public forum, as one reader so astutely pointed out, so naturally we have put this exchange out there for others to comment on as they see fit. [/quote]

This is the internet way of a podium discussion. A couple of well chosen folks are on stage and discuss stuff. The audience can listen to everything. The audience has an opinion and can voice it. They can discuss this under themselves. But the panel goes on with their discussion as if there were no viewers. But it is, of course, all for these viewers. Why then does the panel not discuss with the audience? Because that would interrupt the flow of thoughts too much. There is a very wide range of know how, intellect, linguistic abilities, opinions etc. If everyone had a say we would end like this other forum – The end of civilization.




Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hello Arthur, hello Walter

Hello Walter,

I was most grateful to see your latest response posted Sunday morning. The conversation on the IBC forum regarding subjects you and I are discussing in this open correspondence had once again become hostile and was spiraling downward into off-topic personal conflict. It was discouraging to see that happen again. On top of that, in the period after I posted my last message to you I felt somewhat disappointed by what I had written, because it pulled me too far in a direction I did not mean to go. I had intended to give just a brief nod in the direction of the whole "Why Bonsai Is Not Inherently Japanese" rabbit hole and the next thing I knew I had jumped head first into it and was hurtling into the abyss. It is not that what I wrote was in any way an inaccurate account of what I think, but rather that by now I should know better than to try to explain my view on that particular topic. The folks who are currently immersed in bonsai and identify it as a Japanese entity, whether they do so consciously or not, do not want to hear about it. And you, of course, do not need to be told of it. I was trying to figure a way to get out of my lamentable situation and back onto the true track when I read your most recent post.

Aside from the fact that your response affirmed much of what I was saying, which is never expected from you but always welcomed, you said something that was a revelation to me. Until you pointed it out, it never occurred to me that the way bonsai established itself and first progressed in the US was not also the way it happened in Europe. I admit it strange that I assumed it should be so, but I did.

In the US the dominating early forces of bonsai appreciation were Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka (and in a lesser way Toshio Saburomaru) and so much of what happened with bonsai here can be traced back to these men. Yoshimura was Japanese born and moved to the US as a middle-aged man, and Naka was American born of Japanese extraction and spent time growing up in Japan. Yoshimura set up shop in New York and spent more than 3 decades traveling all over the US teaching bonsai, while Naka was based in California and also ended up being an influence all across the country. Although each man espoused a vision of bonsai that was larger than any simple expression of Japanese culture, both of them used their Japanese heritage as a foundation for their authority in bonsai. The end result is that in the US the founding fathers of bonsai quite literally have Japanese faces. Even today, long after the original bonsai teachers grew old and passed away, in the US the most respected mark of authenticity in bonsai is some bona fide claim of connection to the Japanese fountainhead. The more direct the connection, the greater the respect. Here in the US the primary association with bonsai remains very strongly the Japanese model, and this is true among the professional class as well as the hobbyist class, and it is perhaps most true among the general public.

Look at the situation with professionals: Currently the best resume piece for any American who wants to make a living in bonsai is to have been apprenticed to a Japanese professional, and there is a clear pecking order among the professionals as to importance, with Masahiko Kimura seeming to be the unquestioned cock-of-the-walk. On one hand this makes complete sense, as Japanese bonsai professionals certainly must be acknowledged as belonging in the front rank of training, experience and commercial credibility, and Kimura is universally recognized for his artistry. There is no doubt that those who undergo the rigors of an apprenticeship in Japan receive bonsai technical training of the highest quality. They also receive, at no extra charge, total indoctrination in the Japanese brand of bonsai. Make no mistake, those who seek out the bonsai apprentice experience in Japan go there already convinced of the superiority of the Japanese product, so they are very willing recipients of the indoctrination. When they return home and set up shop their hard earned technical knowledge is a great asset to their professional aspirations. Of at least equal importance is the fact that the knowledge was hard-earned in Japan and that these former apprentices have been to the very center of the bonsai world, and there they learned secret stuff that is simply unknowable by those who have never been to the holy of holies. Among American bonsai professionals who have not been apprenticed in Japan, many if not most of the older ones have direct lines of connection to either Yoshimura or Naka, or both. Additionally, these people typically have spent periods of time studying in Japan, if not apprenticing, and maintain active contacts with the professional scene there. It seems almost mandatory for any bonsai professional in this country to have some aspect of Japanese bonsai pedigree on which to stake their claim of legitimacy.

Look at the situation with hobbyists: One cannot blame the US bonsai professionals for playing up their Japanese bona fides, because their primary market - the bonsai hobbyists - demands it. Among those people who actively pursue bonsai as a pastime, a great many revel in the exotic nature of bonsai as an expression of the Japanese mystique. It seems to be the very foreign-ness of bonsai when it is "correctly" done that makes it attractive to this audience. It is for this reason we find that many bonsai hobbyists also enjoy creating Japanese gardens in their home landscapes, keeping koi, collecting netsuki and ukiyo-e, and favoring Japanese cuisine. Younger ones may also have a taste for anime. Many middle-aged American bonsai hobbyists will cite "The Karate Kid" movies as the reason they became interested in bonsai. This film series is nothing more or less than a Hollywood fantasy wherein the Japanese mystique is embodied by the character of Mr. Miyagi, a karate expert who dispenses sage advice in the form of cryptic sayings and does bonsai on the side. It is the hobbyists who choose to display their bonsai at shows in a way meant to approximate the effect of a bonsai on display in a traditional Japanese tokonoma. This calls for display tables that are either made in Japan or made by people consciously copying Japanese designs, and the use of scrolls and other accessories that fit the same description. The hobbyists are the ones most inclined to learn and use Japanese terminology to describe things for which they could just as well employ words of their own language. Hobbyists of this stripe want their bonsai information to come from those who are certified as being of the genuine source - Japan. And as most of them will not likely be able to go there to study with one of the big name professionals or be apprentices themselves, they bring Japanese teachers here as guests, or they study with non-Japanese professionals who have been apprenticed in Japan, or at the very least they turn to those who have studied there and learned the secret stuff. I know all this I am saying sounds very judgmental to some people (mostly bonsai hobbyists), but I think it is an accurate description of a strong current that runs through the bonsai community in the US, at least to the extent I have come to know it over the last twenty-something years. Let me also note that many people of this description are friends of mine and some have been strong supporters of my work at the NC Arboretum, so I do not judge them. I merely say out loud the conclusion any objective observer might come to upon surveying the existing paradigm.

Look at the situation with the general public: This I know for a fact - the average person in the US who does not have any active interest in bonsai, who has at best a severely limited idea of what bonsai is, will almost always begin with the idea that bonsai means “little Japanese tree”. Why should they think otherwise? If they happen to go to a public bonsai show they will almost certainly see bonsai presented as a Japanese artifact. If they talk to a bonsai hobbyist they will very likely hear foreign (Japanese) terms being used, or they may well be told about how "the Japanese do this", or "the Japanese say that". If they find their way to a bonsai nursery they will see a selection of Japanese Maples, Japanese Black Pines and Japanese Azaleas offered for sale as bonsai, they will see pots, tools and other materials from Japan featuring packaging with Japanese characters or a label saying "made in Japan", a calendar on the wall showing great old Japanese bonsai, and likely some other more kitschy Japanese or pseudo-Japanese collectible items. The sign on the business may have lettering that uses a font meant to suggest the look of oriental characters, the same font used on signs for Asian restaurants, which, by the way, was the same font used on the flyer to advertise the bonsai show. Just about everywhere you see bonsai here this Japanese identity is reinforced to the public, blatantly or subtly. The good news is that the very tiny percentage of the population that is attracted by the exoticism of things Japanese will find all this appealing. The bad news is that the much greater percentage of the population, those who feel ambivalent about or disinterested in the Japanese mystique, will look at bonsai presented this way, shrug and say "meh". And then walk away.




Dear Arthur,


[quote="Arthur Joura"]So tell me please, if you are up for it, how is all this different in Europe?
[/quote]

At present the majority of the European bonsai scene sees bonsai as a Japanese art form. The general public very much so, just as in America. Only the strong tendency to worship Japanese education, rules and submission to Japanese culture in respect of bonsai is not very strong. It is helpful to claim to have studied in Japan or under a Japanese master in Europe, but it is not as decisive as in the USA. People much more will look at what the man (it's always a man) is producing than where he learned it from. Many big names did not have 'one master'. They have studied here and there and picked whatever they liked.

Here a few numbers. I warn you, this is very rough and necessarily judgmental (if you want to hear my opinion you should not blame me for being opinionated) but probably an educated guess:
There are a few hundred 'artists' in bonsai in Europe, probably 500 or up to 1,000. Of these around one hundred were trained in Japanese schools in Europe. Only a handful were trained directly in Japan. There are about 50 big names in Europe. My guess is that only ten percent of them were trained directly in Japan. The overwhelming majority of these 50 big names never was in Japan.
In Europe the big thing is Noelanders Trophy, as everybody knows. This year, for the first time in something like 15 years there were Japaneses masters on stage. Up to that point all the judging, preparation etc. took place without ANY Japanese involvement. This is radically different from what did happen and is happening in the USA.

Looking at what kind of bonsai people are actually producing brings another surprise. The big shows which are leading the art contain almost 100 % trees in clearly Japanese style, mainly Modern Bonsai Style. More than 50 % of all trees shown are of Japanese origin. For Europeans it is quite easy to purchase Japanese specimen trees and import them. So they dominate the shows and win the awards. Being myself right in this scene since decades I feel that the big names by and large are not even aware of this. They often do not want to copy Japanese style. They think it is their European style. They think they are doing bonsai 'right' – and are not aware that this is only one way to do it. For them it is THE way. They think that they are at least as good as the rest of the world including Japan anyway.

The big names who go for the awards MUST do Japanese style in Europe. A rebel like me, while tolerated or even respected will not win an award and subsequently cannot earn a living. If you have to make a living with bonsai you better do what the market wants. And the market wants Japanese bonsai in Europe.

Very different is what the general bonsai person does and likes. They like to admire the trees in Modern Bonsai Style at the shows and on the net. But the majority of them does Neoclassical Style Bonsai (this is what Naka and Yoshimura taught – in essence state of the art of 1960) – very much like in the USA.

However, compared to America I see a much stronger will to do your own thing, to find your own style. Young people in general are much more ready to forget about the cultural and historical burdens and do bonsai in a new way. Even when they are directly or indirectly trained Japanese they often have the desire to be different, is my feeling.

I see a whole new generation of bonsai people growing up and questioning the status quo – as they should. They understand much better than the old guard that there are many more ways to do it. And these ways are just as 'right' as the classical one. There are more and more folks who understand that it is NOT like a religion. You do NOT have to make a decision. You can do classical one day, neoclassical the next day, modern and naturalistic on there days. You can invent a new way every day. And be happy and an integer artist.


I can see that in a few years the main shows will be very different with much more variety of ways to do bonsai. The neoclassical masters have disappeared fifteen years ago, The modern masters will disappear in ten years. The postmodern masters are still in the making. I foresee a much wider diversity.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hello Arthur, hello Walter



Hello Walter,

I ended my last letter with a question: If you take out of bonsai all the obviously Japanese stuff, what do you have left?

I realize this question is confusing to a great many bonsai lovers, and offensive to most of the rest. It seems that for virtually all the people I know who practice bonsai, or enjoy viewing it, or are even just aware of it without necessarily thinking much about it one way or the other, the assumption of a direct link between bonsai and Japanese culture is so complete that it is not even recognized how entirely the assumption has insinuated itself into their understanding of the core concept. For many there is no bonsai without the Japanese identity. Take away the Japanese stuff and that which is left cannot rightly be called bonsai, that is how integral the one is to the other.

Yet through thoughtful consideration I have found this cultural linkage to be unnecessary. Stripped down to its essential elements - a miniaturized plant, shaped by a human being and cultivated out of the ground - that practice we commonly call by the name "bonsai" has no intrinsic cultural identification by definition. All that is physically necessary in the equation is a plant that can thrive under the required horticultural manipulation and a person who has the ability to manipulate the plant in that manner. Certain plant species will respond well to bonsai growing techniques and certain ones will not, and it does not have much to do with where in the world that particular species of plant naturally occurs. Likewise there are certain people who will be successful in learning the required growing techniques and others who will not, and the particular culture in which they are born will not determine that. When we come upon the right combination of a plant that can thrive under the required manipulation and a human who can master the manipulative techniques, then production of that thing we have come to call bonsai can occur. That is, it is possible for it to occur, but it will not occur without a third, non-physical factor being present: the human being must have some purpose for taking the plant out of its natural place in the earth, miniaturizing it and giving it a particular shape.

Let us consider what this purpose might be. I am sometimes asked by curious visitors to the Arboretum how the practice of bonsai first began. The true answer to this cannot be definitively known because the practice originated before the historical record of it began. We can only surmise how bonsai started, but a likely guess is that a person who frequented a place where naturally dwarfed plants occurred attempted and eventually succeeded in collecting one, taking it home and thereafter cultivating it in a container of some sort. Why did that person do such a thing, and why did the idea catch on with other people? Again, we cannot know for certain because all this took place before anyone bothered to make a record of it. A reasonable surmise would be that the appearance of this naturally dwarfed plant was so compelling to the human mind that it triggered a very familiar human response - the desire for possession. The kinds of environments that naturally produce dwarfed plants tend to be isolated, remote, harsh and not usually convenient for human habitation. So, if a long-ago person came across such a place and found the plants growing in it fascinating and worth contemplating, unless they were satisfied to go through the trouble of returning to that particular place each time they wanted to see those plants, they would be motivated to find some way of taking the plants back to where they lived and keeping them alive there. In this scenario, the impetus for going through all the trouble was the compelling character of the plant that grew in and was shaped by extraordinary circumstances. In short, the purpose driving the activity was an inner need to capture and possess a compelling experience of nature. By extension, if a person was able to do that they could then share their experience with others.

Nothing of what I have above described, neither the physical requirements of growing a miniaturized plant in a container nor the original motivational purpose for a person to do it, are traits exclusive to the culture of Japan. Yes, what I have described as the likely original motivation for bonsai is my conjecture, but it is reasoned and plausible. The same cannot be said of any idea that the original motivation for bonsai was a desire to express appreciation of Japanese culture. For one thing, the history of bonsai is complete enough to tell us without doubt that the practice of producing miniaturized, artistically shaped plants in pots did not originate in Japan. Calling the practice "bonsai" did indeed originate in Japan, as a result of cultural assimilation, but it was a new name for something that previously existed outside of the culture that adopted it. The Japanese did not have to rename it, but chose to do so (perhaps driven in part by the ongoing need to generally differentiate themselves from China, the ever present original source of so much of their culture.) Because it was the Japanese who disseminated bonsai to so much of the rest of the world, their term for the practice is generally used, but there is no requirement whatsoever that those in the rest of the world who learned bonsai from the Japanese must follow their lead in all particulars. The Japanese bonsai professionals would prefer you did that, however. They have expended a great deal of effort in branding bonsai as a Japanese product, just as manufacturers of other kinds of commodities strive to achieve brand name recognition for their products. Even if you do not care to follow the artistic example of the Japanese bonsai professionals, one cannot help but admire the results of their marketing efforts!

Well Walter, I have done it again. I feel like the man who sets out to make a few corrections in a room and ends up building a new house. This installment is long enough but I have not yet reached the point toward which I aim. I will continue another day, but in the meantime I am most curious to know what thoughts all this prompts in your mind. It is entirely likely that nothing I have said here is in any way new to you, but perhaps there are further insights or advice you might like to send my way? If so, please do it.




Hi Arthur

[quote="Arthur Joura"] For many there is no bonsai without the Japanese identity. Take away the Japanese stuff and that which is left cannot rightly be called bonsai, that is how integral the one is to the other.[/quote]

This is true for a majority. Well, it comes from their upbringing, from where they come from. And at present bonsai IS a Japanese art form which exactly now is diverting into many different versions around the world. The more this is progressing the more the new trees look different and the new generation of artists enjoys more freedom. But it is a gradual change most of the time.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Yet through thoughtful consideration I have found this cultural linkage to be unnecessary. [/quote]

Many things in life are unnecessary. The question is whether this enhances or hinders the progression of the art of bonsai in general. There are some hints that it hinders. At least many feel that way. I do sometimes.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Stripped down to its essential elements - a miniaturized plant, shaped by a human being and cultivated out of the ground - that practice we commonly call by the name "bonsai" has no intrinsic cultural identification by definition.[/quote]

This is true. But if I take your comment for face value it means that everybody has to start from scratch again. I am sure that this is not a good idea. The findings of others over centuries, the Chinese and the Japanese are of high value. It does not make sense to discard the horticulture and the artistic past. The question is only how we use it. Doe we think that we 'owe a lot to them' or that we 'look back In deep respect', or  even 'we try as hard as we can to accomplish bonsai as they have'. All this sounds nice, reasonable and honorable. But this is exactly what hinders many of us to progress. Well, fact is most do not even think about progress. They like the status quo and want to keep it that way. Folks like you and me are bad because we rock the boat and want to progress while in the eyes of the majority we are destroying what is so good anyway and show no respect to those who taught us. OK, who much respect do you think does the German soccer team pay to the British inventors of the game. And the Williams Sisters sing `God save the Queen' before the start their tennis match.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]n short, the purpose driving the activity was an inner need to capture and possess a compelling experience of nature. By extension, if a person was able to do that they could then share their experience with others.[/quote]

I thoroughly agree to your description of how originally this art form must have started.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Nothing of what I have above described, neither the physical requirements of growing a miniaturized plant in a container nor the original motivational purpose for a person to do it, are traits exclusive to the culture of Japan. Yes, what I have described as the likely original motivation for bonsai is my conjecture, but it is reasoned and plausible. The same cannot be said of any idea that the original motivation for bonsai was a desire to express appreciation of Japanese culture. [/quote]

Well, it clearly was in China anyway where this was started for serious  as you  continue to explain. So why do we not look at China for leadership? It may well be because for almost a century China was not open for us and outright hostile towards it's own heritage. Had China been a positive open world power in the past fifty years we would think we are practicing a Chinese art form.



[quote="Arthur Joura"]Because it was the Japanese who disseminated bonsai to so much of the rest of the world, their term for the practice is generally used, but there is no requirement whatsoever that those in the rest of the world who learned bonsai from the Japanese must follow their lead in all particulars. The Japanese bonsai professionals would prefer you did that, however. They have expended a great deal of effort in branding bonsai as a Japanese product, just as manufacturers of other kinds of commodities strive to achieve brand name recognition for their products. Even if you do not care to follow the artistic example of the Japanese bonsai professionals, one cannot help but admire the results of their marketing efforts!.[/quote]



Sure, I totally agree with your assessment of the situation. Some may even see some criticism or even hostility towards the Japanese in your explanation. I do not. This is matter of fact and most other nations would have done it had they been in that position.



Hello Arthur, hello Walter

Hello Walter,

I was grateful to receive your last message, reassuring me that our open correspondence might continue. I have not taken the opportunity to write back until now because it has proven difficult for me to organize in my mind how to proceed with what I want to say. Although for you this exercise is probably little more than a careless amusement, I have always had a purpose motivating me and now that I have approached the very edge of addressing that purpose I find myself reluctant to finally do it.

In our previous exchanges we have come to agreement about a number of ideas and observations. We took the time to go over the prevailing bonsai styles of our day - Neoclassical, Modern, Naturalistic - defining them with words and pictures. We know not everyone in bonsai is in agreement about all this. Some people still deny the existence of these classifications, preferring to think in terms of "good bonsai and bad bonsai", while others are willing to accept that they might exist but seem to have difficulty distinguishing one from another, and still others simply do not care. The time is now passed for trying to bring along those who drag their feet, either through indifference or rejection of the premise or the inability to understand regardless how many times it might be explained. The time has come to press forward with our discussion, and those who want to follow it may and those who do not should not bother. Up until now I have been mostly asking you questions but now I have statements to make. Of course I am still interested in what you think, but now I am in an almost psychotherapeutic mode, talking out thoughts that have been gathering in my mind for a long time, and hoping the act of fully exposing them will bring some sense of conclusion.

I think you know my background, through conversations we have had and other correspondence over the years. For the sake of laying a foundation, though, I repeat here some of the important details:
  • The bonsai I started with at the NC Arboretum were donated, a private collection that was originally of only modest quality but came to us badly neglected and in a state of critical decline.



  • I knew and cared nothing about bonsai when I was selected to take on the collection. I tried at first to avoid the assignment.



  • Asheville is now a center for bonsai in the Southeastern US, but when I started out it was nothing of the sort. There was a small local bonsai club in town, but there was no bonsai nursery and no "name brand" bonsai experts within 100 miles of this place, and such people rarely even passed through.



  • I was told very early on, by no less an authority than the Executive Director, that there was no place for culturally foreign artifacts at the NC Arboretum. A large part of our institution's mission is to interpret and promote Southern Appalachian flora and culture, and the standard treatment of bonsai as an expression of Japanese culture, however fascinating and venerable, would be out of place. If bonsai was to have a home at the NC Arboretum, it would have to be something other than what most people conceive it to be. (Did I ever tell you about being told this? Maybe not, because I seldom mention it.)



  • Bonsai is not my hobby. Have you heard that one before? I wish I was the one who first said that, but it is a quote of yours. You started out as a bonsai hobbyist but eventually became a world-recognized professional, and I think it is true for perhaps all other bonsai professionals, regardless of their stature, that they started out being hobbyists. I have never done bonsai as a hobby. I only became interested in it because it was given to me as a job to do at the NC Arboretum. I still do not personally own any bonsai, and have no plans of ever having any in the future.



  • I have no professional interest in bonsai beyond my job as curator of the NC Arboretum bonsai collection. I often teach and do work on other people's trees, but only in my capacity as an Arboretum employee. I have no private clients, and no "students" in the way that term is typically used in reference to a bonsai professional. In short, I have no goods or services to sell. I find this to be most liberating and would not have it any other way.



Looking objectively at how the Arboretum and I started out in bonsai, there would be little reason to think it would go well. We began with a rag-tag assortment of dilapidated plants, put in the care of someone who did not know what he was doing, situated in a place where there were virtually no supporting resources. But as you know because you have been here three times now, we have been incredibly successful. Bonsai has flourished here. Our collection is in excellent condition, the garden in which it is presented is unique, a community of avid supporters has coalesced around our efforts and the general public lets us know on a regular basis that they think bonsai is one of the very best things the NC Arboretum has to offer.

How on earth did this happen?

In my opinion it happened because of, not in spite of, all the aspects of the situation that would appear at first glance to have been detrimental. The poor specimens we started with allowed us the freedom to take calculated risks with them. A prized and valuable old bonsai is not a thing to be trifled with, the objective generally being to maintain it, hopefully refine it, but heaven forbid you do anything to mess it up! My own lack of experience in bonsai, the fact that I was not a hobbyist beforehand, meant I came to the task with few preconceived notions. The fact that the Arboretum was out of the bonsai mainstream, beyond the immediate influence of established authorities, meant we had no one looking over our shoulder and telling us what we were doing wrong. The lack of an already established audience in our region meant we could build our own and make it more inclusive. And what about the mandate from the Executive Director, that our bonsai would have to be something other than the stereotypical image of an "ancient Japanese art"? That was the key ingredient in the whole enterprise.

I must confess I needed little encouragement to disengage with all the Japanese baggage that usually accompanies bonsai. I have absolutely nothing against Japanese people or Japanese culture (despite slanderous statements to the contrary made in public by an international bonsai artist), but I have no special attraction to them, either. I try to get along with everyone and respect all cultures, but Japanese culture is no more specially appealing to me than French or Australian or Mexican culture. I do not relate to it because it is foreign to me, and I have my own culture that I like very much and feel most comfortable with. You can keep the sushi, but please pass me that North Carolina barbecue! The close Japanese-identification of bonsai is likely why it never occurred to me to be a bonsai hobbyist. I had a vague awareness of bonsai before being asked to take on the Arboretum's collection, but I could see nothing of interest in it because it was so obviously foreign in its outlook. When the boss told me that our bonsai would have to be something different I shrugged. That sounded fine with me. The question was, if bonsai is not to be about Japanese culture, what is it to be about? Put another way the question comes out like this: If you take out of bonsai all the obviously Japanese stuff, what do you have left?

Well, if this is indeed some sort of psychotherapy session, right now would be when the doctor glances at the clock and says, "Sorry, but it looks like we're out of time for today! I think we've made some real progress, though, and I think it's important that we get back to this again as soon as possible... "

I have other things to do today and it is probably time for your nap. I will write again in the next day or so.


Hello Arthur,

[quote="Arthur Joura"]
In our previous exchanges we have come to agreement about a number of ideas and observations. We took the time to go over the prevailing bonsai styles of our day - Neoclassical, Modern, Naturalistic - defining them with words and pictures. We know not everyone in bonsai is in agreement about all this. Some people still deny the existence of these classifications, preferring to think in terms of "good bonsai and bad bonsai", while others are willing to accept that they might exist but seem to have difficulty distinguishing one from another, and still others simply do not care. The time is now passed for trying to bring along those who drag their feet, either through indifference or rejection of the premise or the inability to understand regardless how many times it might be explained. The time has come to press forward with our discussion, and those who want to follow it may and those who do not should not bother. Up until now I have been mostly asking you questions but now I have statements to make. Of course I am still interested in what you think, but now I am in an almost psychotherapeutic mode, talking out thoughts that have been gathering in my mind for a long time, and hoping the act of fully exposing them will bring some sense of conclusion.[/quote]

Indeed, the time has come to not even ignore the doubters anymore. As you know I have been in this missionary phase since around twenty years. The immense rejection in the beginning is gone. It is still there, but seems to become a minority opinion. In a seminar some months ago I had this epiphany: I went through  all these styles and explained this and that and what exactly 'Naturalistic' means anyway. At one point a serious looking young man said 'Why are you so aggressive and apologetic about this Naturalistic Style? It is mainstream bonsai anyway and you cannot change this.' Really!!! Mainstream?? Wow, it is time to invent a new style, I think.



[quote="Arthur Joura"I was told very early on, by no less an authority than the Executive Director, that there was no place for culturally foreign artifacts at the NC Arboretum. A large part of our institution's mission is to interpret and promote Southern Appalachian flora and culture, and the standard treatment of bonsai as an expression of Japanese culture, however fascinating and venerable, would be out of place. If bonsai was to have a home at the NC Arboretum, it would have to be something other than what most people conceive it to be. (Did I ever tell you about being told this? Maybe not, because I seldom mention it.)[/quote]

No, you never told me in all the long conversations that we had. Very interesting!



[[quote="Arthur Joura"]I have no professional interest in bonsai beyond my job as curator of the NC Arboretum bonsai collection. I often teach and do work on other people's trees, but only in my capacity as an Arboretum employee. I have no private clients, and no "students" in the way that term is typically used in reference to a bonsai professional. In short, I have no goods or services to sell. I find this to be most liberating and would not have it any other way.[quote="Arthur Joura"]

This is VERY interesting again and revealing. With this frame of mind you are indeed free. A couple hundred to one thousand  artists and teachers in the world have maybe one hundred thousand potential customers. And what do you do if you have customers? You do what they like and what they pay for. The overwhelming majority of bonsai artists is  not free - they have to earn a living. I know a lot who do one thing for the public and another one for themselves. You, Arthur, and I have the enormous luck of not needing to bend ourselves towards some market. We can do what we like and say what we think. This definitely does not make you popular per se - quite the contrary. Burt free it makes you.


[[quote="Arthur Joura"]My own lack of experience in bonsai, the fact that I was not a hobbyist beforehand, meant I came to the task with few preconceived notions. The fact that the Arboretum was out of the bonsai mainstream, beyond the immediate influence of established authorities, meant we had no one looking over our shoulder and telling us what we were doing wrong. The lack of an already established audience in our region meant we could build our own and make it more inclusive. And what about the mandate from the Executive Director, that our bonsai would have to be something other than the stereotypical image of an "ancient Japanese art"? [i]That[/i] was the key ingredient in the whole enterprise.[/quote]

You are pointing this out because in America it is unusual. As I see it there was very strong Japanese influence in America right from the beginning. People did have somehow who looked over their shoulders and who clapped their fingers if they did wrong. In Europe the situation, at least for me, was very much as you describe your own. We had no one to clap our fingers. so we were free right from the outset. We did an awful lot of nonsense, but we did a few things right. The outcome is a flourishing European bonsai scene which is rapidly moving away ftom the Japanese model.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]I must confess I needed little encouragement to disengage with all the Japanese baggage that usually accompanies bonsai. I have absolutely nothing against Japanese people or Japanese culture (despite slanderous statements to the contrary made in public by an international bonsai artist), but I have no special attraction to them, either. I try to get along with everyone and respect all cultures, but Japanese culture is no more specially appealing to me than French or Australian or Mexican culture.
[/quote]

This is very important to mention. Too often we find this notion that we 'hate' Japanese in what we do and say. NO, we don't we just are indifferent.
When playing classical music, do you necessarily HAVE to love Austrian or German culture? Do you have to be very interested in it? No, it is not necessary to know much about Salzburg to enjoy Mozart's music.

'A person who is not totally immersed in Salzburg culture cannot really understand Mozart's music.' What a statement!! 'A person who is not totally immersed in Japanese culture cannot rally understand bonsai.' This is a statement that one hears directly from Westerners or indirectly  from Japanese. We got used to it but it is just as atrocious a statement as the one about music.

For many bonsai is indeed very much connected to the Japanese culture and they love it. We must understand  this and take no offense of it. This is their way of looking at it. This only becomes a problem when they make it clear that their view is the only right one. Reminds me much of politics these days.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]The question was, if bonsai is not to be about Japanese culture, what is it to be about? Put another way the question comes out like this: If you take out of bonsai all the obviously Japanese stuff, what do you have left?[/quote]

Good question! We have left the love of nature, specifically the love for forests and trees.  The desire to use small living trees to mimic what we enjoy so much in large trees. The will to learn about the immense wealth of gardening know how of growing little trees in containers. The strong will to work so long with an ugly stick and smile at it until it one day smiles back at you. Only you see it as the mother sees the first smile of the baby. One day other people see it too. And after a long period of success and drawbacks the whole thing shines and everybody can see it. If you have done it once you want to do it again, and again and again. You want to give up an honest job and only do this . And you actually give up your honest job. And then you are happy. Until you start to teach. Then you will go through a period of decades when you feel all the hatred that someone gets who rocks the boat, who prays to the wrong gods, who pulls out the carpet underneath the feet of the establishment. And when you survive these decades all of a sudden you are a walking legend and people like you and even listen to you.

If this all that's left if you take out the obviously Japanese stuff it is enough for me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Oriental Hornbeam #65

This one seems promising. In 12 months it will be fully wired for the first time.







Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chinese elm #1







Saturday, February 6, 2016

Japanese maple #15

Wire taken off. The lower limbs have to gain in girth considerably. Well, ten more years to go, I guess. Gives one a reason to grow old.