Bonsai - What does it mean to you?

Rick Moquin

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This past week has been an interesting one to say the least. We have heard opinions from various corners of the world and of varying definition. This in turn was all spurred by a comment Peter Warren mentioned in an interview with A of B.

An extremely heated and thought provoking debate ensued from a few words and allot was learned from the discussion. These type of exchanges undoubtedly cause a great deal of reflection and in doing so promote the future of bonsai in North America.

A little background if you please. Peter's exposure was undeniably conducted in surroundings where trees were world class bonsai, and working with trees that were of the highest quality, regardless of where these trees were acquired from or began their bonsai journey. Through his apprenticeship he was exposed and cultivated for the lack of a better word to world class bonsai, and left Japan with a permanently ingrained impression of what bonsai is about, or is it?

If you want to be practicing bonsai at the highest level...

Undoubtedly these words are thought provoking. We all exchanged our opinions last week end with regards to this. The context of the discussion was in relation to nursery versus collected material, and I do not want to repeat what was previously exchanged amongst us, because I believe that horse has been flogged to death.

The words used was the highest level, what does that mean?

To me it means exactly what it says, engaging in our hobby commensurate with folks like Walter, Kimura, Steven, to name a few... The thread was titled "If you are serious about bonsai" I believe that statement was a tad bit insulting in a way, and probably was the cause of the large debate we had last week end and couldn't seem to find common ground amongst us. Several points were raised during the exchange but, were never truly answered. Dale Cochoy mentioned this in passing a few days ago. Well I would like to discuss this one.

To some engaging in bonsai at the highest level is a commensuration of ones bank account. Peter has only recently begun his bonsai journey and although he salivates about the trees he had the opportunity to work on, may not be able to afford them (entirely speculative here) but is he doing bonsai at the highest level? I believe through his apprenticeship and teachings that he will, read not is.

Walter mentioned that because of is collection and stature gained in the community, he can no longer carry out his craft on sub-par material. This is entirely true, and we would be disappointed if he did. Walter has many trees planted out for future considerations. Therefore a seemingly unlimited supply of material is available to him. But the point to remember here, is that Walter very rarely shows a tree that is not up to his standards, and openly admits that albeit ready to show the first step, this tree is anything but "show ready". Regardless of the amount of material Walter has on hand or its quality, isn't this practicing bonsai at the highest level? Many of these trees that I am discussing here are found planted out or in a private section of his garden and are only privy to folks that visit him, where indeed the merits of the trees are discussed ad infinitum, between learnt enthusiasts.

Walter mentions in all his "tree discussions" you need to make it ugly before it turns into a beautiful swan. Will the practitioner achieve this beautiful swan without time and talent? I don't think so!

Now that we have defined at the highest levels IMO, what is a serious practitioner?

It was also alluded in Peter's interview that unless one has spent copious amounts of money on a tree, he will not ltake the hobby seriously and continue to thread water. As these cheap nursery trees are easily disposable. I have to disagree with this statement, as IMO nothing can be further from the truth if indeed the enthusiast is "serious about bonsai".

In the context of this comment I don't believe that the quality of the material is commensurate with the seriousness of the practitioner in bringing out the best in any given tree. I believe that the "serious" enthusiast will take all aspects into consideration in aspiring to greatness, regardless of what greatness is in his view and isn't that what bonsai is about?

Perhaps the aforementioned enthusiast does not possess the talent to produce world class trees, but perhaps beautiful or even convincing bonsai. Is he less serious than the rest of the community? Because he practices the hobby within the confines of his own comfort level, and who are we as a community to dictate what each and every comfort level is?

Time! we often forget about father time. Yet this word is used in conjunction with bonsai around every corner. Time, what is time? Walter mentions this on several fronts. If time = a growing season, and it will take 10 growing seasons to achieve what you are after, then that equates into 10 years. Ok, so what to do in the mean time.

The hardest part of this hobby to convey to newly introduced enthusiast is patience and time. Why is this? Well in the beginning we all want to aspire to the level which has made us drool in the past. Unfortunately, that level is indeed many years away. If it takes 10-20 years to produce a credible bonsai (sometimes even with great material) what does one do in the mean time?

Acquire a bonsai education! How is this achieved?

In order to reach the end, one needs to build a solid foundation of not only horticultural skills but bonsai fundamentals as well. It is more important for the newly introduced enthusiast to have a collection of trees at various levels of development, in order to bridge the gaps of father time. No amount of quality material will fill that gap perse. The enthusiast should have material in various stages so he can practice our craft in varying degrees, keeping him/her self occupied and interested. Heck nobody enjoys watching paint dry. This is an extremely important step of the bonsai journey. Collected material or quality material in the hands of a newly introduced enthusiast or untalented individual, is wasted material. Although, this is a vast resource in the US, it should not be portrayed as a commodity. This extremely valuable resource has been allured to by both the East and Europeans. Collected material (good/great) in these areas has become a rarity. The availability in short supply etc...

Many long standing enthusiasts have a collection in various stages of development and can indeed allow for time. During this pilgrimage they have increased their artistic vision and hopefully have acquired and raised their artistic skills and talent. This is where the "light has come on" for the lack of a better word. The enthusiast is becoming more selective in his choice of material etc... as his bonsai abilities have increased. He has indeed enough to keep him busy until the "right time" for a given piece of material.

So what is a serious enthusiast again?

Is it someone with a big fat bank account, or is it someone that can practices this hobby and is capable of bringing out the best of any given piece of material?

Is any given practitioner not truly applying himself in all he does not a serious practitioner?

Many were insulted last week with some of my insinuations, for which I apologized both in private and openly here on the forum, by posting such private correspondence.

In closing if to be serious about bonsai is owning world class trees, then I must of missed a class along the way. In my opinion it is about doing the best you possibly can in achieving greatness, regardless of the level at which one is engage in this hobby. To do anything less, is indeed threading water and is but a passing fad.

As I was wrong in stereotyping last WE, to say that practicing bonsai at any other level than the world stage, and unless doing so, are not serious, well...
 

Dale Cochoy

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Rick,
This was VERY well written and IMO you answered a lot of your own questions throughout the text. I enjoyed it a lot! and, it was much better than any poll that is unanswerable due to the questions it leaves unanswered concerning, income, location, training, travel, experience and on and on and on.....
But, to come up with a FAIRLY SHORT answer to YOUR question: What does bonsai mean to me?

I've been studying bonsai now for 30 years this year. It started innocently enough when my wife said she'd seen some in a magazine and thought she'd like one.....
Well:D that was a long story ago , many miles ago and many dollars ago!

But, I was one of the people who it grabbed ahold of, unrelenting. I knew I wasn't going to get bored and drop it, I knew that tree deaths were stepping stones not hobby-killers. I sought out a renownd teacher and studied actively with him. This was hard work, and time consuming for a man with a young family and meager income ( which hasn't changed BTW) but I KNEW that this couldn't be learned from books, clubs or 'talkgroups'.

Over the years there were friends and a business partner that drove me on. A LOT of traveling, many conventions, tours, trips and shows. I took them all in and learned from everything.

I left a very good paying career to take a chance with opening a full time, full service bonsai business. That was 13 years ago. I have never had the yearly income again that I had when I left my job in 1995! My interest took me to another interest, pottery, and as these things developed, and consumed income, other hobbies dropped by the wayside. Still, the monster fed its self! I built two gardens at two homes, spent MANY thousands on trees, stock, pots, misc. Still it went on. I started a club and was officer in another and still the monster called to me!
Soon I found that 30 years had gone by, more than HALF OF MY LIFE!!

I guess what I'm saying is that bonsai has truely become MY LIFE. I'll never be rich, and by most any measurements I am a poor guy. I can't go where I want, when I want. I can't study where I want when I want. Those that have resources for that are not the norm.
I can't afford bonsai or stock that most masters of the art would consider World Class, actually very few can judging from the true World Class trees I have seen in 30 years! , nor do I live where I can collect them or keep them to their best condition if I could collect them. I have collected many trees in my years in bonsai but I don't feel aNY were WORLD CLASS then or now.

I'm simply not impressed by, or even care what someones opinion of my ,or the USA's ,quality of trees are. In fact, I think it's quite pretentious to do so. There are just too many factors involved to make any fixed statements or judgements regarding this. We are who we are, we have what we have, we afford what we can afford and we live where we live. Some people are able to move out of there "limitations" for one reason or another and some aren't. But, no matter what your station in life if Bonsai means TO YOU something that is ever pulling and always asking you for better and always asking for more attention then it will take over your life as it did mine.

What does it mean to me? well, it defines my life. Hopefully when I'm gone people will say I was a fair bonsaiman and potter, heck maybe even "good". It certainly wasn't for a lack of trying, income or not, and WORLD CLASS trees or not. It has meant a lifetime of fun, sadness, expense, fun,entertainment, provocative thought,fun, money spent/wasted but mainly a goal to be as artistic as I could be for the limitations I had.
I rarely get philosophical about bonsai and I detest many of the fruitless discussions I read. I don't need them to move on and find that most won't help anyone become a better bonsai artist. I don't care if some think it's a craft and some think it's an art. Talking about that doesn't mean a thing. It has to take hold of your life then you'll see that those discussions are mostly meaningless.
When bonsai truly becomes part of your make-up and personality you realize this.

Am I SERIOUS bonsai person?.... well, I don't know how I could be any more serious than I've been!
Do I practice it at the HIGHEST LEVEL?.... I guess NO, I can't afford too!

What has it meant to me?....It's meant my LIFE!

Dale
 
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Rick Moquin

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Thanks for a very good and thought provoking answer Dale. I have seen many of your trees from photograph and would indeed like to them and many others in person. You have a collection of respectable and convincing bonsai, that by your own admission may not be world class but that doesn't matter. They are nonetheless beautiful and convincing, bring you pleasure and at the end of the day that is all that matters.

Pottery, I can see in this aspect where you have grown over the years and are thriving to improve in each and every pot you make. This at times is a lot easier to see than trees perse. I was amazed at the pot you had thrown as the pic did not reflect the size until you held it. That particular one was simple yet elegant.
 

bonsai barry

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I'd have to say the bonsai is the most important of the unimportant things in my life. My family and my faith aren't in the same league.

That being said, I'd hate to compare how much mental engergy I devote to either bonsai, family and faith. Bonsai might sneak ahead in the bar graph.
 
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Serious, you bet.

I devote a lot of time to bonsai, creating and also adding to the community in many ways. Between contests, forums, blogs, writing, editing, critiquing, giving classes, interviewing, laying out galleries, etc most of my free time is spent on my own bonsai or in bonsai related activities.

I recently started giving master gardener accredited introduction to bonsai classes and have taken on a rather large editing project on a book.

Bonsai has become important part of my life, it seems I am always involved in a dozen projects, most bringing new things to the art and compiling the best of the best for others to easily locate and enjoy.

What does it mean to me? It has given me far more than I have given it, I helped to create tools for inspiration and knowledge that didn't exist before, I will leave bonsai slightly better than I found it, and it will leave me quite a bit better than it found me.


Will
 
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