Feature Article

Feature Article

Back to Back


We are pleased to introduce Back to Back, a new feature here at the Art of Bonsai Project in which two commentators present opposed viewpoints on a controversial subject. For our second installment, Hector Johnson and Vance Wood consider the pros and cons of demonstrations.

Visiting Demonstrators... Professional Killers?
by Hector Johnson, Australia

Walter Pall during demonstration

Walter Pall during demonstration**

Picture the scene: A crowd of awe-filled bonsai enthusiasts, sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs, watching the unthinkable... a venerable pine or juniper being wired, shaped, trimmed, pruned, root-pruned, twisted, transformed into a bonsai that they could only dream of creating themselves.

At the end of the show they all cast lots for the "Emperor's Discarded Clothing"... the new masterpiece in their midst... the result of the transformation they have just witnessed. The club executive raffle off the tree that the visiting demonstrator has just created before their very eyes. They eagerly seek to obtain enough tickets to win it for themselves.

It's a good turnout, so the cost of the raw nursery stock (as that's what is usually used, to heighten the "miraculous" effect of these restylings) is quickly covered. In fact, a substantial profit is realised, as the club has successfully beaten the bushes, to get as many people as possible to come and watch the "laying on of hands" that has taken place.

Finally, the raffle is drawn and some lucky winner gets to take home a tree that will enjoy pride of place on their handmade bonsai bench. It is watered, rotated, admired and loved.

Three weeks later, the needles begin turning yellow, high in the crown of the tree. Gradually, this curious malaise spreads, turning the tips of several more branches yellow, then brown. The masterpiece is dying; The lucky winner begins to feel like a Jonah... they begin to feel responsible for killing this magnificent work of art... they are a murderer, because they've done something wrong, it seems.

The truth is far more prosaic. They have won a tree that was condemned to death, or partial death, on the day of its restyling. The demonstrator went too far. The wire was wrapped too tight; the branches bent too far; the cambium and phloem layers too damaged, as the tree's branches were carefully bent into shapes that would impart the right impression to the credulous crowd. The tiny sieve tubes, that run through the phloem to conduct the necessary sugars and chemicals produced by photosynthesis from the leaves to the rest of the plant, have been too damaged for the tree to repair by itself.

This sad scene is repeated, over and over, around the world, every year. Trees that showed substantial promise are effectively destroyed in the name of expediency. If the process was slowed down, to two or three sessions over a period of several seasons, or even a couple of years, then the demonstration would be far closer to the reality of how the demonstrator / master / teacher managed to develop a collection that everyone envies.

Granted, not all demonstrators make the fatal mistakes that lead to the scenario set out above. In fact, most people have a tale of how "Joe Bloggs" acquired a tree from one of these workshops and it survived and went on to become the centrepiece of his collection. The exception, again, proves the rule.

There is really no need for it to happen. A little humility, a little more education and the public would be better informed about what can be done to create a tree that needs only a little more work, at a later date, to achieve the same effect.

The damage doesn't end with the death of one tree, however. The wide-eyed hopefuls who attended the demonstration go home and assault trees that rely upon them for sustenance and care, based upon what they saw a "Master" do, so they can have instant masterpieces in their collections. They hack off too many roots, bend branches too far, wire too tightly, twist too hard, underpot and do all of the things they saw done, with even less understanding of the consequences.

Bonsai gets a reputation for being difficult. Species get a reputation for being difficult. People give up the hobby, consigning their collection of uninhabited pots to the basement, along with the tennis racquet, guitar and racing bicycle that represent their earlier hobbies and subsequent disappointments.

What we need are teachers, information and education. What we need is a culture of restraint and understanding. What we need is a fundamental change in the way bonsai is presented to the public... a return to the way bonsai was intended to be practised; patiently, calmly and deliberately.

Bonsai is not... Rather, bonsai [i]should not be [/i]about instant gratification. It should not be about the instant miracle. It should be about the considered development of beauty, within the constraints of the capabilities and attributes of the species chosen. It should be about enjoyment, quiet enjoyment and contemplation of trees in which one takes pride and for which one takes responsibility.

The trees you style are living things. They deserve our compassionate care, to allow them to bring their joy and exuberance into our lives.

Confessions of a Visiting Demonstrator
by Vance Wood, USA

Vance Wood during demonstration

Vance Wood during demonstration**

Over the last several years there has been much debate about the education process in bonsai. Having taught numerous classes, workshops and demonstrations I at least have some sort of view point not often heard on the issue. Rightly or wrongly so, there has been much debate over the validity and results from these kinds of events and their value to those who participate. Almost nothing has been heard from those who on occasion are invited to do the workshops and demonstrations.

In sharing what is to follow I feel like an old soldier relating the facts of some all but forgotten lost battle where all that remains of the event is legend and misconception. Here the soldier is made to feel responsible for the loss that the people concocted and set up out of desires other than that which is at hand. Having been in this position more than once, at least here no blood will be shed, lest unkind words are looked upon as blood shed and raised tempers as tumult. I will attempt to share what I know, what I think and what I feel.

Having started bonsai at an early age, by the time I was sixteen I was looked on as a prodigy. Because of my passion for the art and a young mind’s ability to retain vast quantities of information, some people looked to me as though they thought I knew something. As a result my first public demonstration was in the early Sixties at a home show and garden tour. It was here that I realized that if my talent was not worthy of the task, my love and enthusiasm for the art more than compensated. Being assisted by the general ignorance of the audience, knowing less than I, which at the time is not saying much, the demonstration, went on pretty well. I did everything to this poor tree you could do in order to produce the instant bonsai. The tree lived to my amazement.

Within three years I was inducted into the Army and for two years my bonsai endeavors languished in home care. Shortly after my vacation in the army I was married and started a new bonsai collection having lost everything prior to this time. I grew bonsai privately for ten or fifteen years before I realized there was bonsai club close to home. I joined this club and from there my public bonsai exposure has been spread like a plague to various states across the Mid-West and East Coast upon unsuspecting clubs and bonsai societies.

I have had a lot of fun doing this, made a lot of new friends a little money, visited states I might not have had opportunity to otherwise see and learned, possibly, more than I taught. What I learned is not so much about bonsai but about teaching it and the people you run into in bonsai. Teaching bonsai is a real eye opener. It is amazing to me the diversity of people involved in this art form. And so the prodigy became the visiting master, a term I did not necessarily like, and a career of making instant bonsai was launched, not because this was how I sold myself but because the instant bonsai was what was expected.

At this point anyone who does this kind of thing either for a living or an avocation will find them selves in the vortex of a gathering storm. One side of the argument, the side that hires the artist and pays the fees want, desire, and expect a more or less finished instant bonsai though they will not tell you that in so many words. The other side of the argument fumes over the fact that often doing this to a tree, potting, pruning, and wiring all at the same time, often at the wrong time of year inevitably leads to a dead tree; or trees, if we broaden the discussion to encompass workshops. I know this issue gets clouded and the waters become muddied with all the rhetoric, it is important to understand that there is a clear distinction between the Demonstration and the Workshop.

A demonstration is nothing more than what the word implies, and those who argue against the instant bonsai should keep this in mind. The Demonstration is a display of an artist’s talents. Hopefully the tree will survive the abuse, but it is not necessary for there to be a successful demonstration.

Workshops are however a different kettle of fish. Today many expect instant results but in my mind a workshop is more an educational forum than a magic mystery tour through the makings of an instant bonsai. It is my opinion that those who sell a workshop should understand the differences. Those would be the club and organization leaderships that schedule such things. Those who take the workshop should understand the differences, and those who teach the workshop should not feel forced to produce an instant bonsai if doing so is going to give the participant a dead tree for the effort and cost.

That however, is just one of the issues at hand. If you have never taught or done something like this but you seek to do so, you might want to pay attention to, not only all of the preceding but that which is to follow. People take workshops for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are what you might believe them to be. There are those who take a workshop because the leadership of a club or organization is desperate to fill the docket for this event with bodies.

Whether or not, all or some of, these people know enough to get something out of the workshop is of little importance. As a teacher, it is difficult to deal with this issue when you have one or two students out of ten that don’t know a concave cutter from a ham sandwich. The teacher can approach this on several levels, none of which is optimal. The teacher can ignore the student that will in the end demand more time than the others, or he can spend that time teaching some things that should have been covered before attendance in the workshop at the cost of the other attendees. Usually a workshop is time sensitive and there is only so much time allocated for one of these events. The question is; where does the fault lie and where does the blame fall? Usually it falls on the teacher. It’s easier to deal with that way. After all, if you are in the club leadership you don’t want to admit that you screwed up. Besides; it is always the teacher’s fault, every body knows that.

Another individual you might run into is the Read a Lot Done Nothing student. This kind of person often has problems getting beyond his or her world of bonsai books to understand that sometimes the books are wrong. This can be difficult because they continue to do things the way they are so certain they should, not realizing that there may be better, and quicker methods. As a teacher you may have a specific pattern you want the attendees of a workshop to follow. As it happens when you come around to this one individual you find they have already gone beyond that which you have intended to a point that it is near impossible to continue with out killing the tree for certain. Book learning often leads to one-dimensional thinking.

Once this student has continued in this mode for a number of years and taken some workshops, possibly from some notable persons, they advance to the next level, that of the Pompous Pedantic Secret Bonsai Master. This kind of individual usually falls into my definition of those who are legends in their own minds. Thinking that they know everything that is knowable about bonsai they don’t have a clue how to do bonsai unless by the books. But watch out, they will quote this author, and that author, and sometimes; if they have taken a workshop or two from some notable whom they will candidly call by first name as if speaking of a good friend, will challenge you. At every turn quoting this rule, that author, and those books, and making sure not to leave out those first names they have known, they will attempt to make you feel like a pair of brown shoes in a world full of Tuxedos.

These people only take a workshop just to prove that they know more about bonsai than someone their club has hired, and paid a fee to teach about bonsai. Of course this begs the question; if they know so much, and are so accomplished, why are they not teaching the workshop? Maybe it is because the club knows the difference between wind and rain? It is the age-old issue of the mouth boasting things the hands have not accomplished for the most part.

Whatever the reason these people will make life miserable for you if you are not able to control the issue. I usually try to humor them by showing them that such and such a tree may follow the rules, but because it follows the rules in this one area, it follows the rules into the land of Ugly. It is hard to argue points of art when they are not understood and it usually slows them down in an effort to understand what you just said so as to give you time to work with the more serious and open minded student. Who knows, you might get them to take a fork in the road not traveled by them before and they may be quoting you to their next victim expert.

It is relatively easy to identify a problem, or a set of related problems, it is not so easy to suggest or even recognize solutions. As I have pointed out previously in this article there is a clear and distinct difference between demonstrations and workshops though on the complaint side of the issue lies the problem of killing trees. The best I can do is to make some observations from my own experiences. Early on I became aware of a real problem when invited to do a demonstration with an unseen tree.

It goes like this, Club A has invited a guest speaker, to come and give them a talk, demonstration or workshop, which really means giving their trees a whack. Club A has somehow gotten hold of a tree of sorts that is as good as they think it should be and as expensive as they think they can handle, or as cheap as they think they can get away with. The guest speaker shows up for the event and looks at the tree provided for him/her and equates the possibilities of making a good bonsai out of the pitiful thing comparable to raising the dead. After having this happen to me a number of times I usually prefer one of two options. A tree is to be obtained early enough I can examine some photos of it, or I bring my own tree. In the case of my own tree, which I prefer incidentally, I don’t worry about killing it. I usually take the tree home and care for it myself. The supplied tree on the other hand is a different issue. For better or worse a demonstration tree that does not go with the artist will fall into the hands of a beginner at an auction. It may be left in the care of someone within a club or organization that may not be any more adept at caring for a tree than a beginner. Either way it is in danger of demise. Of course as pointed out, this will be the fault of the guest master, expert, novice or just plain good ol’ boy who does trees. There does not seem to be any realistic way of resolving this problem.

It is conveniently easy to blame the guest teacher for all of this as if it is they that have set up this kind of system of instant gratification. Whose fault is it when some one is sent to a workshop that they are not ready for? Whose fault is it when materials for workshops or demonstrations are not ready to be worked on or appropriate for the time of year, or capable of standing up to the treatment that will be imposed on them? Many of the aspects of these programs fall into the purview of the clubs and organizations that set them up and not the teachers that carry them out.

If this is going to be resolved it has to start with the clubs and organizations. They must realize that there is a problem and be willing to address it at their level. Only then will it change. If it does not start there any of the teachers that take a stand will no doubt stand-alone. The clubs and organizations will contract those teachers that will do it the way they want it done. The teachers that say I can’t do this or I can’t do that will find indeed they are correct, they can’t do this and they can’t do that, but someone else will. It is plausible for the teachers to influence this issue if, on a world wide basis, they got together and refused to do the things they know are going to kill a bunch of trees. Realistically this is not likely to happen.

**Photographs used with permission of Walter Pall and Vance Wood

Discuss this article >>