Sunday, February 14, 2016

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.

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