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Thursday, March 17, 2016

American Bonsai Movement

Questionnaire about American Bonsai Movement
answered by Walter Pall
I was asked by the Denver bonsai folks to answer the questions below. So here it is. Don’t call me opinionated if you ask my opinion. Don’t take these as facts, they are just opinions of a European who spent more than tree years in America, spread over more than 60 trips, who has seen 40 states and met thousands of bonsai folks in the USA.
  1. How would you define the American Bonsai Movement and how does it differ from the established Japanese approach to the art form.
American Bonsai movement is not quite here yet. I can see some signs that it is coming. The general bonsai scene is very much into a Japanese mode of doing bonsai. Many actually do want to practice a Japanese art form many don’t care about Japanese art and think they are doing just bonsai. Well, they do bonsai the Japanese way, or rather what they were led to believe is THE Japanese way. John Naka And Yuji Yoshimura were both trained in Japan around the 1950ies to 60ies. They came back to America and influenced the American scene (and also the European one) heavily up to today. In their ground braking books they showed basically what they had learned in Japan. And this was state of the art of the 1960ies. Things have changed in japan since then, but Americans by and large still do what they were taught. And this is a retro. Nothing against retro. Everybody can do what they like. They should know, however, that it is a retro - also called ‘Neoclassical Bonsai Style’. Modern bonsai nowadays  is becoming mainstream in Japan (in Europe it is since 20 years). Only since a few years this is also visible in America. But this is not American Bonsai, it is modern Japanese bonsai in America. Many young folks have grasped quickly that there is something new to jump onto. These young folks will change the scene in the USA dramatically within the next decade, I believe. Why am I so sure. Well, this exact scenario has happened in Europe in the past twenty years - for the same reasons.
Japanese bonsai is about discipline, knowing rules, respecting rules, respecting masters, respecting the old ones, not sticking out your head, not trying to be something special, something different etc.. This has made Japan successful. But in art it is a burden. Japanese bonsai is not treated as an art form. It is a well defined craft. This is changing right now in America.  In the Eastern view a good artist is one who does what he was taught so well that his master could have done it. In the Western view an artist is one who tries very hard and successfully to find something new, to be different, to excel, to be a rebel. This is the contrary of what one should do in Japan. This schizophrenic situation is causing a lot of confusion and constant pain in the bonsai world. Just go to some public bonsai forums and see for yourself. I see a gradual movement to the Western way of looking at art coming into bonsai. And this will open the door to a new world.
  1. Can you list/discuss any horticultural practices, styles, species, exhibiting practices etc., if any that are specific to the American Bonsai Movement.
In Japan by and large the world is divided into gardeners and stylists. The gardeners prepare material, mostly from seed or cutting. The stylists then do the final styling. The finished product is sold to the general public. Almost all broadleaved trees come from this source. And so do most conifers. The trees are well developed according to the existing standards with good nebari, taper, branches in the right position  etc. This leads to a great deal of uniformity though. Collected stuff is almost nonexistent with conifers and is definitely not used for broadleaved trees.
Contrary to this there are some bonsai gardeners in America but they do not produce great numbers nor do they all produce great quality. Americans are gardeners and stylists usually. Very few trees are styled and sold as finished products. Typically the American bonsaiist buys raw material and tries to style it himself. Americans go to a regular nursery and hunt for some potential bonsai material there. In the past ten or so years collected trees, namely conifers play a very important role in America. Many folks are starting to acquire the skills to handle these trees. The skills are very different from those for well established material. Slowly it leaks through that these skills are not really widely available in Japan for the sheer lack of material and one has to look at other sources for learrning. There is some import of Asian trees but they are rare and expensive. So Americans are forced to work with what they can get. Combined with the notion that one should try new ways of styling this is leading and will lead more to bonsai that will look different than Japanese ones.
The horticultural skills of Japanese are great and we have learned a lot so far from them. There is still more though. Many secrets are leaking though. The Japanese gardener wants to sell his stuff and not tell you how to grow it yourself.
Americans are forced to use more and more of their own material and form it in a special way. An American way will evolve. More and more will do modern bonsai. They will think that this is very American. Well it is state of the art modern Japanese bonsai done in America. There are a few old masters who work in a truly American style. I can think of Nick Lenz and Dan Robinson first. They are respected but there is not a great movement to follow their lead - yet. Arthur Joura at the North Carolina Arboretum is successfully propagating a naturalistic way of styling indigenous American material. The naturalistic bonsai movement finds hundreds if not thousands of new adherents in the past years in America as elsewhere. As there is no such thing as THE Japanese bonsai way there will be no one American bonsai way. There will be more ways than at present and the ways will differ from the Japanese more than now. Americans will have to learn that it is not like a religion. You do NOT have to make a permanent choice. You can do bonsai in many different ways in parallel and be happy.
At the moment the American bonsaiists have a tendency to prefer conifers over broadleaved trees. While outstanding conifer raw material is now available in world class quality broadleaved trees are not. There are a couple of folks who are very skilled in collecting the best material in the world - but it is all conifers. There is a need for someone to discover the untapped wealth of broadleaved trees. It cannot be that a country like Croatia which is smaller than New Hampshire has more  collected world class broadleaved bonsai than the whole of America.
Exhibits in America are changing these days. The quality of the trees is getting much better steadily and also the quality of the way of exhibiting. Twenty years ago competition was frowned upon by and large. When awards were given just about everyone got one - if only for daring to enter. This is very American but does not create quality in my eyes while it might create happy folks. This situation is changing at the moment and I can see more and more genuine competition which will create quality.
Money plays a big role in America. It doe not so much in bonsai so far, but it will more and more. The days are over of ‘bonsai for free’. If a bonsai is judged according to impression it is best to start with material that already is very impressive - and expensive. Good trees will cost a lot more than most folks can imagine at the moment.
A great number of bonsai folks in America start their trees from scratch and are proud of it. To purchase an already developed piece of material is frowned upon in many quarters. Folks will find out that the key to have a very good bonsai one day is to start with very good material. There will always be the ones who grow bonsai from seeds and cuttings and go to normal nurseries to buy sticks. But they will become a small minority.
The American bonsai scene by and large is a hobbyists scene. A very strong professional scene will grow. It will be clear soon that hobbyists can hardly compete with this. So there will be a stronger division than at the moment.
  1. Where do you see the American Bonsai Movement trending?
I see it trending towards quality, art, competition, pricey material, pricey bonsai. I see a whole lot of experiments coming which will lead into a few successful novelties. At the moment most would agree that Japan is leading, insiders know that bonsai is more or less dying in Japan. Europe is very strong, still growing, some Asian countries are coming up, China will eventually play an important role as soon as they find back to their roots in bonsai. America is still a bit sleeping. It is about to wake up. I believe that in twenty years America can lead the bonsai world.
  1. Are there any thoughts, opinions or observations, apart from the above that you may have relative to this discussion?
I can see a generational development. Old folks are conservative by nature. Young folks are rebellious, by nature. The scene is still dominated by the old guard. Many of them are fundamentalists and they do not help to further new developments. But they will disappear - by nature.