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Thursday, February 11, 2010

interview with Bonsai Focus in 2008 - English

Ann Scutcher has asked the questions for Bonsai Focus. The interview was consequently published.

1)Walter, you have visited a vast majority of the European countries, South Africa, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Israel. What have you seen that ties the art of bonsai together, crossing over the usual cultural and geographical boundaries?

It is all these people being infected by the bonsai virus. All people have the archetypus of a tree deeply engrained into themselves. No culture in the world ‘owns’ the image of trees. It is universal. It does not take any knowledge about Asian culture to understand that bonsais about trees.

2)In your opinion, where are the greatest innovations happening now and why there?

I would say still in Japan, but to a lesser degree as used to be. New trends are now coming from several places outside of Japan. I can see an enormous fountain of innovations in Asian countries outside of Japan and I can see major developments coming from there. Also a lot coming from Europe and not so much really from America at the moment. The question about ‘innovations’ is interesting anyway. The overwhelming majority of bonsai practitioners think that they are following a traditional art form. Innovation is absolutely not their goal. Innovation is contradictory to the practice of the art by and large. Innovation is breaking the rules, ignoring the guidelines, not caring abut tradition. This kind of thinking is not popular in Asian cultures. But it is the generally expected way for artists in the West. I mean artists in general, not so much in the art of bonsai. The art of bonsai is one of the most backward looking art forms that I am aware of. Only when it becomes generally accepted that art is about being creative and not repetitive also in bonsai circles major innovations will be accepted.

3)Walter, you are known worldwide for the artistic quality of your bonsai and you have won far too many prestigious awards, some of which are listed above. What would you contribute your unparalleled success to?

Well, ‘unparalleled’ is an enormous exaggeration. There are a lot of people that I know personally who have done similar or more. ‘Success’ I can agree with. Well, I have always worked towards being successful but I never dreamed how far that would carry me. Actually I have this feeling of NOT being successful – yet. I have to work very hard in every respect and get much better. It is this cultural habit of never being satisfied with how good you are that keeps me going. I have the great luck to come from a family background with artists all over the place, lunatics, dreamers, Olympic and World Champions, all people with an enormous drive to excel, but not really fit for an honest sober job. I think it is also the ability to work very organized, be much more productive than most, concentrate better and give up everything around me that does not directly or indirectly help the purpose. Fortunately I seem to have some talents and skills which are very helpful for this bonsai career. Besides the obvious ability to create trees which are liked by many it is of great value to be able to teach well, to entertain the audience and to write well. Photographing skills are also very helpful.

4)You led the way in collecting and using the native species in your country and your exploits in the Alps are legendary. What advice would you give to those who are just starting to collect?

I would tell them to first of all learn how to not kill a nursery tree. It is not a good idea to go out into the wilderness and collect material to only find out that it will not survive afterwards. While I do think that collected trees by and large are much better material it is not for everybody. One skill is to find it, to collect it successfully and to keep it alive over a longer period of time. Most fail here already. But the greater skill is in creating something good out of your collected material, to do justice to the collected trees. This is even more difficult and unfortunately it is not what is being taught in general. One can find enough advice for improving a piece of material that has been prepared to become a bonsai over a long period of time but one finds very little guidance of how to approach very old complicated material. So coming back to the question: I would advice to first learn how to keep a nursery tree alive, then how to style a nursery tree, then how to style collected material. Only after one has mastered this to a certain degree one should be let loose onto the wilderness to collect for himself.

5)You are known to offer help and suggestions to almost anyone and you can often be seen giving your time on many Internet forums, instructing and offering critiques. What have you found to be the most frustrating thing when offering such advice on-line? What is the most rewarding thing?

Let’s start with the most rewarding thing. It is the feeling to really have been helpful, to have made a difference and brought someone onto a better path to practice the art of bonsai. It is the feeling when I come back a couple of years later and someone says things that I have said and it sounds like he thinks he has invented this. It is the feeling to see clear progress and it had to do with me, to see prove that they have understood what I was trying to tell them. The frustrating thing sometimes is to be totally misunderstood, to even find that some hate me for being ‘omnipresent’, some seem to hate me for being successful. Well, that is human nature and to be expected. Sometimes I have slight problems with cultural clashes. There are obvious differences in the way to say things or not to say them between cultures. I have this nature to say what I think. Some tell me it is refreshing, some just don’t get over what they think is rude. Well, in the culture that I come from a man calls a spade a spade; otherwise he is a girlie man. Since ever I am a wonderer between cultures and have developed some sense and understanding for differences. I think I have learned to treat a given audience the way it is expected. On the internet there is an international audience. How do you treat that? Do you use the lowest common denominator? Well, I usually choose to just be myself and I seem to get away with it..

6)Walter, in my bonsai books they describe the standard bonsai “styles”. In reading an article that you wrote, you mention replacing “style” with “form”. What are the differences between the two? Do you feel it is important to the world of bonsai to adopt this way of thinking?

Well, yes, I believe it is very important to get the thinking behind it. What exact words are used is secondary. In general art appreciation the word ‘style’ means a general feeling, an overall philosophy, an overall general way of going about things, a general frame of mind of the artists etc. If you go to a museum you will normally find different rooms for different styles. This can be anything from ‘Early American’ to ‘Impressionist’ to ‘Dutch’ to ‘Roman’, ‘Baroque’ or even more differentiated. The word style speaks about the general feeling. If you look at the objects that are made in a certain style you find an endless number of forms. Speaking of paintings the form can be e.g.: landscape, people in nature, people in rooms, lady standing, lady sitting, almost anything that you can think of. But all these forms can, at least theoretically, be found in all or most styles. The standing lady can well be in the Early American or Baroque or modern or any other style. Coming back to bonsai: styles could be: classical Japanese style as taught in Japan today, classical Japanese style as taught in the West, modern bonsai style, romantic style, naturalistic style, literati style or many others. In all these bonsai styles you would find the known forms: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade etc.
In the bonsai world the word ‘style’ is not used the right way if you consider the usage in the history of arts. I guess it is because bonsai was first taught by gardeners who had no formal artistic training .
So what is this semantics good for? Well, there are a lot of people out there who think there is only one way to do bonsai ‘right’. The right words bring about the right thinking. They show that there is a great variety of ways to approach the art of bonsai. And, yes, it is an art form and the differences in style show exactly this. If it were a craft there would be one ‘right’ way of doing it.
I think we are on the verge to a better understanding of the art form while it is diverging into different directions at an ever increasing pace just in this moment. It is important to be able to discuss these phenomena in an intelligent way. This is why the exact words are important.

7)You are an avid collector of wild stock for bonsai use. Is there any particular species that you think is more suited for this treatment?

We use a lot of mugo pines in Europe. John Naka said that it is the best pine available for bonsai purposes .How could I argue against John? We also have access to wonderful larches, but they are quite difficult and tend to die on you in a bonsai pot. The common juniper is worthless as bonsai, it dies within five years as bonsai. We have very good European black pines by now which are coming. The European spruce is outstanding material. Also a lot of non-conifers are quite usable: European hornbeam, European field elm, some oaks, beeches etc.
In North America I find Rocky Mountain Junipers, Sierra Junipers and Californian Junipers the best. Ponderosa pines are outstanding but difficult for most. I wonder why some small needle pines are not used more often. Lodgepole pines are excellent, so are pitch pines and Jack pines and others. I know that there are extremely good spruce in the wilderness; why they are not used an a wide scale in escapes me. Also some non-conifers are very good in North America. It is being discussed on the net whether America has world class bonsai material. You bet they have! I think America has the best bonsai material in the world. I have seen it!

8)Throughout your travels around the world, has there been a single event that you will never forget? Explain.

My wife normally does not go with me on these bonsai trips. She stays home because someone has to take care of the house and the trees and she is not really interested in bonsai personally. So the bonsai trips would not be entertaining to her and rather be a burden. Up until 2002 she had never experienced me on stage! She had a feeling and an idea, but she has never seen me in public on stage. Well, she did come with me to the African Bonsai Convention in Pretoria, South Africa because she would not want to have missed that. At the day of my performance I was on stage in front of around 400 people and did my usual show for a few hours. I thought it went quite well and it seemed to be quite a success. I had totally forgotten that my wife was in the audience.
People came up to me and congratulated me and I got these hugs and so. After a while my wife showed up and she said nothing for a while and then ‘I am so proud of you’. She had this glitz in her eyes. It lasted 24 hours!

9)Do you have any collecting stories that are particular funny or exciting?

I normally would not advise to go collection in the middle of summer. There are some jumpers in the Alps, Juniperus sabina, which are collectible in June and may be in the beginning of July. I happened to be in my beloved mountains in Tyrol on July 20th which is my birthday. I went up the hill and climbed into the cliffs. This is extremely dangerous. One wrong step and I would fall 200 feet. Although it was definitely not the right kind of season I had my collecting gear with me. But I was basically scouting only. All of a sudden I found it, the best juniper ever seen. It was right there in the cliffs, it was collectible and even on a spot where I could dig it out without risking my life right there. So what did I do? Come back in the right season? No, I did the most stupid thing, I dug it out right there and then. Now I had this huge tree up there in the cliffs and no gear, no rope to bring it safely down. I had to climb back down the cliffs with the tree. At one spot I could not hold onto it an longer and had to make the decision: the tree or my life. I decided for my life and dropped the tree. It tumbled down through the cliffs. When I finally had climbed down to the valley I could see this carcass on the field. The best sabina juniper ever collected, all soil shaken off and almost no roots on it and it was the very wrong time of the season anyway. What a shame! My experience told me to throw the tree into a corner, forget about the incidence and never mention this most embarrassing story. It was going to die 100 %. Well, I thought that it may have a chance of 0.01 % and the trunk could be used for a wonderful Tanuki and it was a shame to leave this wonderful jumper on the mountain, it deserved a noble ‘grave’, and it was my birthday. At home I put it into this huge plastic tub and added 100% pumice. And then: it would not die! It stayed green until fall and in the next spring it was still green. It even started to get new growth in summer! Five years later this tree is now finally ready for a first serious styling session. I will do it this summer. It was meant to happen like this. Despite all the odds against it.

10. Walter, there is a movement that is starting to attain a following in Europe... that of the "Naturalistic" form. You are a major proponent of the style.
a) What do you see as the major impediment to the adoption of the style.
b) Do you see that style as being reminiscent of the styles popular in Japan prior to WWII, when the use of wire became more popular?

The movement is having a following all around the world really. Yes, I am, a proponent, but I have not really invented it. I have only made the observation that too many bonsai looked like bonsai and not like trees would really look like. I had seen that the trend in styling is towards more and more refinement which often takes away all naturalness. I found that too many of these bonsai looked like they were made of plastic and not for real.
a)John Naka said something along the line ‘Do not try to make your little tree look like a bonsai, try to make your bonsai look like a little tree’. That’s it. Not more, not less. So how do you know what a tree looks like vs. a bonsai? Well, give up looking at bonsai for your images and look a t real trees. It is that simple. Does it take a genius to find that out? Well, one would think that everybody understands this immediately. They don’t! There are more misunderstandings than you ever can imagine. You are asking for the major impediment. I think it is the way bonsai was and is taught. It is taught to make a BONSAI. The naturalistic style is the antithesis and thus must be wrong.
b)This is one of the big misunderstandings. It is called ‘naturalistic’ because it is NOT ‘natural’. It is not about the method, It is all about the end result, the final bonsai giving you a very natural feeling. The bonsai should be as good as possible without seeing any trace of human hands. It should not looks ‘artistic’, ‘artificial’, ‘contrived’, ‘made’, ‘constructed’, ‘licked’. It should look as if nature had done it. This does NOT mean that you let nature do it. A naturalistic bonsai can well be made with all sorts of artificial means. I wire all my bonsai heavily in the first styling phases. I wire every single branch and branchlet usually – 100%. After a few years this must not be noticeable. The tree must look like it was never touched by human hands. It is hard work to get to this sage. Naturalistic styling is not for lazy people. I know there are lots of folks who think they just let nature do the job and they will get this naturalistic piece of art eventually. They will never get it. All they are doing is creating and maintaining material. They have to style it for serious eventually. ‘Naturalistic’ is not an excuse for lazy people, it is not about untidy looking trees, it is not a shortcut. It is more difficult and takes longer than traditional styling.

11. Having spent quite some time in both places, would you agree with the prevalent view that bonsai in Europe has made marked improvements in the last 15 years, whilst the American scene appears to have remained largely static, or even fallen behind? If so, have you any comment on this phenomenon?

I would agree that the bonsai scene in Europe has exploded artistically in many quarters in the past 15 years. But there is also a lot of stand-still in Europe. While there are a few hundred serious artists the broad bonsai public is just as parochial as everywhere else. I can not see this dynamic development in the American scene. By and large I see almost the same state of the art in America as I have seen 15 years ago. There are some developments however. In the Bay Area and on some other spots more and more people are starting to practice traditional styling as is state of the art in Japan today. This is quite different than what is being taught in the West by and large as traditional Japanese style. I also see growing interest in what I call ‘modern’ bonsai. This is what is mainly connected to Kimura. Many call it ‘contemporary’ bonsai, which is not a well chosen term for it. Lots of folks in America are about to jump onto this way of styling. In Europe together with state of the art Japanese traditional styling this is mainstream among top artists, in America is seen as a revolution still. I can see that the same dynamics are starting to wake up the American bonsai scene as in Europe. I can sense many people are not being happy with duplicating the same forms of trees over and over again, with creating one cookie cutter bonsai after the other. I can see more and more folks in America understanding that this is not a craft but rather an art. I can also see that this will be quite chaotic and that a lot of nonsense will be produced in the name of art. Why should it be different than in other art forms?

12. You have done of lot of demos and workshops in front of audiences of all sizes. When you are handed a raw stock, what are the most important factors that influence your decision as to which way to style the stock. What is the first thing you look at?

I put the tree up to eye level and turn it around. Then something should catch my eye. There must be something that I like. It can be the movement of the trunk, the power of the trunk, the form of the branches, the nebari, a big hole, fancy deadwood or anything. Something must move me quickly, otherwise it is probably not good - for me. Well, in workshop or demo situations I have to do something, even if the tree was not sexy right in the beginning.
When I have decided the most appealing feature, which is often after a few seconds, I then go about enhancing this. That’s it.
I do not look at the crown in the beginning! Most people would make this mistake. The crown is something that I will make according to the trunk. It does not work the other way!
I do not have a firm idea of what a tree should look like. I wait until the piece of material in front of me tells me what it would have wanted to look like if it had the chance. Then I try as hard as possible to get exactly this look. Quite often it is not what one would call naturalistic. I do not work in a single style. I let the tree tell me what style it likes. I also let the person taking the workshop decide about the style and the form. It is not my tree.

13. Walter, if you had one wish free for the bonsai world, what would it be?

I think what we need is more tolerance. More understanding that there just is not one truth and one book that says it all. There are so many ways to practice the art of bonsai. They all have their merits. It is the acceptance finally by the broad bonsai scene that bonsai is an art form and not a craft.

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