Profile - Vance Wood
Vance Wood with one of his many Mugho Pines
Vance Wood has been involved with bonsai for almost 50 years, he has won numerous awards, he has given demos and workshops across the U.S., he invented and patented a screen sided training planter for bonsai, and he is considered by many to be an expert in the cultivation of Mugho Pines.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Vance:
Vance, tell us how you became involved in bonsai, what path you took, who was your teacher or teachers, and what you feel you have accomplished in the art.
My older brother started doing bonsai three years before the bug bit me. My first attempt was a Cotton Wood tree dug from the garden in 1957. I remember a day when I was considered the Wonder Child, now I am considered the old veteran, a curmudgeon and an old fart. Never the less in 1958, or there about, the family moved to California. Shortly there after I read an article written by a local bonsai grower named Roy H Wendelkin. Mention was made of the Marin County Bonsai Club, the dates, times and location of their meetings. My parents were aware of my interest in bonsai so they were not hesitant that I should visit the club considering the other things young people could get involved in that were not so constructive.
That's when I met Mr. Wendelkin, we became good friends and he taught me, without reservation, all he knew. Roy has since passed on, a great loss to myself and to bonsai in America. He was years ahead of everyone but the Asians, who at the time were not too willing to share information with Non-Asians.
This all changed when Yuji Yoshimura published his book. That was the real dam breaker for bonsai here in America. Finally, there was a book that carried clear and concise, non-equivocating information on bonsai. Complete with plant guides, cultural information and techniques. As far as books are concerned there are few to this day that surpasses this one. I still use it as a reference guide and must have read it a dozen times.
Then came my experience in Viet Nam. My mother had taken on the task of looking after my trees while I was gone, a task she was ill equipped for and by the time I returned home my original collection was gone, so I had to start over again. During this period my family moved from California to Iowa, my days of collecting material from the Mountains were over and I began collecting from nurseries.
I married in 1969 and by 1971 I had become a resident of Michigan where my wife and I had moved so I could study music, my other passion. During the next few years I was pretty much disconnected from the bonsai community. It was during this time I developed the concepts for my training planter and received the patent for the same. At some point I discovered that there were people doing bonsai in Michigan and I joined the Four Seasons Bonsai Club. Since then I have been involved in numerous shows and conventions and have had the good fortune to win numerous awards both locally and in several states. I have been president of the Four Seasons Bonsai club three times, if that's important to anyone.
As far as the awards are concerned, they range from assorted first places in specific categories to best of shows. I don't now know exactly how many of these I have won, but my wife put together a shadow box, a number of years ago with some of these displayed; mostly first place and best of show awards. They number about ten in the plaque with a box filled with the others. I used to think this was a great thing but now, I do not take awards too seriously. My brother is fond of calling this kind of thing a rubber chicken, and I would agree with him. The best award I can receive today is the knowledge that someone I have taught has won some award. This is the true legacy of the bonsai artist.
Too often the bonsai grower gets old, his trees decline and everything he does, or has done, falls into ignominy. If any of us as bonsaists pass on what we have learned then our contribution become immortal. We have built upon a corner stone and provided the foundation for those who come after us.
Bonsai and photograph by Vance Wood
You are commonly referred to as one of the world's leading authorities on Mugho Pines (Pinus mugo
). What makes this species good for bonsai cultivation? Why?
First of all I don't know if I would call myself a leading authority on Mugo Pines. I grow quite a few of them and have learned a lot about the species over the years. Maybe if you added the caveat of growing nursery Mugos I would agree with that statement to a degree. I have however never had the pleasure of dealing with the kind of material Walter Pall and some of his European colleagues have had the good fortune to find as Yamadori. I certainly would not put myself in the same camp as these gentlemen.
That being said, if you were to select a perfect Pine species for the purpose of growing bonsai, it would have small needles, great bark, good sized trunks, be easy to take care of, be not too particular about having too much water, and it would respond well to pruning, pinching and needle thinning. It would also be easy to re-pot at the worst times of year and back bud like crazy. In the end, it would look like a Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora
) with the way the needles turn up at the ends. This describes the Mugo Pine perfectly. I cannot find too many things negative about this species unless you decide to think of it as a Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii
). Then you will have some difficulties.
In almost 50 years of experience with bonsai you must have seen some substantial changes. What would you say was the most influential change or innovation you have witnessed?
When I first started doing bonsai, the few books on the subject that were available had two types of trees pictured in them. The first type was the masterpiece centurion trees in training for one hundred years, eighty years, two hundred years, or more and the second type were sticks in pots in training for twelve hours. The impression given was that the Masterpiece Bonsai was obtained from and by growing, for hundreds of years, the stick in a pot. We were left with the erroneous assumption that a tree had to have been in training for at least fifty years before it even began to look like a bonsai. You ask for the most significant change: communication between artists and the debunking of the great age myth of bonsai would be the greatest change I have seen.
These changes manifested in the publication of a couple of good books, and magazines, that have debunked the above concept. To some degree the rise of the Internet also helped. Because of this, more growers are beginning to understand that a good bonsai is not grown up into a bonsai but cut down into a bonsai... in a word, Cultivation.
We can lump the written word and the electronic word both, into the
broader category of communication. Over the last twenty years or so the
average Joe Schmoe, like myself, can access quality knowledge from all over the World, from a host of successful bonsai growers that would otherwise remain hidden in the minds of those who created it.
We have gone from from trying to develop really young material into bonsai to cultivating older and larger material that will be sized down into bonsai. In essence, it is a case of understanding how to manipulate an otherwise useless tree or shrub into something artistically pleasing, defined within the parameters of bonsai sensibilities. When one understands that the really great bonsai have been developed from collected material known as Yamadori trees, the useless shrub or tree becomes the urban equivalent.
Vance, you recommend re-potting Mugos and many other pines and conifers in mid-summer and not early spring as has been taught for years, why is this?
The first time I did a demonstration was in 1962. It was held during a garden and house tour, in Marin County California. I took a garden variety Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis sp
), pruned it, wired it, and potted it... all at the same time. This was around the fourth of July. I fully expected the tree to die. It did not; it prospered and I had the tree for many years afterward until I was inducted into the service in 1965, but that's another story.
Since then I have done many such demonstrations using mostly Mugo and Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris
). I think, as most people will realize the majority of these types of events happen during the summer most demos, expeditions, and workshops also happen during the summer.
I have always been a critic of the traveling minstrel show where a "bonsai expert" comes into a club or show and designs a tree, usually the property of a local member, knowing that when he or she is done with the thing it will most likely die. Couple that nasty little fact with the other nasty little fact that the above tree is most likely going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. It kind of made me feel guilty to know I was going to be responsible for passing on a doomed tree. So I have used my own trees for years realizing if I am going to have a dead tree I am the one who is going to have to bury it, so to speak. I wanted no one else to fork out a bunch of money for something I thought might die. After years of doing this with both Mugo and Scots Pines I discovered an interesting thing. These trees prospered and took off, forming new buds and roots within a week or two. I have lost Scots Pines when I did them in the early spring by the book. I have set back Mugos so severely by doing them in the spring that I thought I might lose them.
One well-known book I have on my shelf says that Scots Pines are difficult to re-pot. The same book says to re-pot them in spring. I have re-potted them, wired them, washed the roots, and pruned them all at the same time in the middle of July. They have not dropped a needle or turned yellow. They green up and make buds. The same can be said of Mugo Pines; difficult to re-pot if done in the early spring, easy if done in the summer. In short the books are not always right. The authors of these books tend to think that every two-needle pine is a Japanese Black Pine therefore every two-needle pine must be treated like a Black Pine.
Living in Michigan, what some call the great white north, certainly poses many challenges including a shorter growing season are there advantages also?
Other than having access to some of the best native trees for bonsai, natives have a better chance of surviving in this latitude than they would in Southern California. Other than that, Michigan is a pain in the backside. It is easier to provide protection for trees with more sensitive winter tolerances than it is to try to accommodate trees that need the cold climate. I know a bonsai grower that collects a lot of Eastern Larch (Larix Laricina
). It is his claim that this variety of Larch will not survive in latitudes south of Toledo, Ohio. I don't know the accuracy of this statement but I do know that the Eastern Larch is a superior tree to the other forms of Larch I have seen.
Michigan is full of a wide diversity of native species such as Larch, Pines, Maples, Hawthorns, Oaks, etc. Do you feel that the native species have been underrated and by-passed for imported species... should an artist look at natives for inspiration?
Not so much for inspiration as for available material. Larch, Eastern Red and White Cedar, White Spruce, Black Spruce, Balsam Fir, and several varieties of Juniper including Common Juniper. These trees all make good bonsai though there is not a great deal of information on them. Because they are not widely available in the nursery trade, except where they occur in nature, cultivation techniques are not as readily known as those of some of the more exotic trees and shrubs.
I understand that you are currently writing a book in order to share the knowledge you have gained over the years, could you give us a brief summary of what to look forward to?
I am still struggling with the complete format of the book, which I have been working on since before the Earth cooled, and hope to at least get in print before I cool as well.
It seems to me that modern bonsai books are 90% redundant fluff and 10% information you might be able to sink your teeth into. Not being critical, just realistic. Most books have their obligatory section on history, their obligatory section on wiring, and pruning, and styling and displaying. This, I guess is not bad, I could follow suit. But do we need to have another page-turner of the same old stuff? I think a lot of authors get lost in the battle to come up with enough material to justify the little bit they may have to offer that is fresh and informative. Not to forget the desires of a publisher, many who think such books should have this oft-quoted material included. I also think that a lot of books get lost in delivering the same old material in a different way, more of a book report than an original concept. If I can't come up with something better than that, I won't even bother to publish.
You have invented and patented a screen sided training pot that has been shown to greatly increase fine root development and dramatically shorten the time needed to bring a plant from the ground or nursery container to a bonsai pot. What led to this development?
When my older brother started doing bonsai in or about 1955, his idea was to start from seed. He used half a Grapefruit as a training pot and pruned the roots as they grew threw the skins of the Grapefruit. Oddly, he grew a couple of really nice Pomegranates in this manner.
That was the seed that was planted in my pointy little head, which did not really take root until after I got out of the Army. As I started growing my own trees successfully I noticed that the roots always grew out of the bottom drain holes. This made me wonder if I could accomplish the same thing as with the grapefruit skin using screens. I thought this would be a good way to develop roots and not have to be constantly digging into the soil ball. Eventually I tried the screens all around the soil mass and not just the bottom and it worked. The final design came up about twenty-five years ago. I got a patent on the design and have been using and marketing them ever since.
Although you have spoken often on the development of bonsai, your artistic skills can not be ignored as they show in your work. What would you say is one of the most important considerations when one is first styling a tree?
The trunk and the Nebari. Those are the two most difficult elements in a bonsai to fake, develop or otherwise create in a bonsai. Most of what I style is from nursery material and because of that I spend most of my time going through nursery stock, seeing with my hands and not my eyes. What I mean is that I dig around the base of the tree to see what the base of the tree feels like. I can tell if it is a skinny little stick that gets smaller and skinnier the deeper it goes into the nursery container, or if it is a fat gnarly thing I might be able to use as a bonsai. For the most part, that is where I start.
It is my theory that it is far easier to grow the branches you need either through induced back budding or, if necessary, grafting. It is easier to do this than to think you are somehow, some time in the future, going to be able to fatten up the trunk to complement the branches you like so much. Growing something in the ground to fatten the trunk is one thing, finding something with a fat trunk is another, more like the Urban Yamadori I mentioned earlier. One plant is a scratch project; you put it in the ground and see how it develops. But if you find a beautiful trunk you should already know what branches are going to go with the trunk. You therefore have a direction to begin with, just like the collector of a natural dwarf. It is more of a horticultural fill-in-the-blanks project this way.
Bonsai and Photograph by Vance Wood
Where do you see the art of bonsai in America at in the next 50 years?
Probably from a worm's point of view.
Seriously, it depends on a lot of things. Right now there are a lot of people trying to re-invent the wheel. There is such an obsession with creating the "American Bonsai Style" and such a paucity of the kind of effort and study it is going to take to achieve that goal I sometimes wonder whether or not this will really happen. This debate has been going on for more than twenty years. I have seen people come up with the most butt ugly trees and try to justify them as an "American style bonsai". At best, it is a nightmare disguised by a title.
I have received a lot of flack for suggesting that it is important to understand the fundamentals of art in general and Bonsai in particular. There are those that claim you don't need either one, you do the Mr. Miyagi thing, "Think tree, Daniel San." The problem is, a lot of people can't decide what a tree is supposed to look like. I asked someone on the Internet the other day to show me a great artist from Rembrandt to Picasso that did not take time to study the fundamentals of art and/or study with a master at some time in their career. If an aspiring bonsai artist does not understand where the art has been, they are in fact re-inventing the wheel and trying to create something without some sort of background to inspire them. It amazes me that people will take the time to learn techniques of wiring, pruning and potting but will curse the idea of design. Simply looking at pictures of good bonsai is not enough.
So where do we go from here? We have to get beyond this excuse that art is esoteric. Unless you think you can produce a bonsai in a Picasso-esque style and have it accepted, considering that this has been done in Japan more than a hundred years ago and rejected, you are deluding yourself. It takes time to learn style and get a feel for the art and to get an eye for it. I have told people time and again that you don't have to follow the rules if what you produce is beautiful.
If what you do is ugly maybe you should look at the rules or fundamentals and see where you are missing the boat. Just don't use the ubiquitous "It's an American Bonsai Style" when it is really the "ugly as a mud fence style". Look at Walter Pall's trees for example, most of the time they do not follow the rules of bonsai in totality, but they are beautiful and one has to examine the tree in depth to see where the rules were not followed. Why? Beauty trumps rules, every time.
What is really happening here is a clash between traditionalism and a
so-called new wave movement. The new wave cannot define themselves except by denying the fundamentals and it seems in many cases, they set this out as their major sacrament, ignoring the fundamentals. That is going to get bonsai in America nowhere. It is going to take someone or some group of people to start producing bonsai on the level of the Europeans.
As mentioned earlier the Internet is now and will in the future produce a great influence on bonsai, all aspects of bonsai. It is also a two edged sword that cuts both ways, good and bad. I am reminded of a post I recently contributed to on another site where a beginner posted a picture of a Juniper that they acquired; asking for suggestions. This individual, according to his profile, has not been doing bonsai for a year as yet. One of the major responders, whose experience in bonsai is not known, has made the following observations' "But you must see that Art is an expression with no fundamentals. It is also a talent and not a skill. An art form is not a replication of another subject or a manufactured product. You know it when you created one, as you will be in so much doubt, and yet you will feel confident."
The future of bonsai is bound to the continued involvement of new and
interested individuals getting into bonsai for the first time. The Internet
has made this possible on a greater scale than ever before but the
dissemination of misinformation and information that verges on the esoteric, as I pointed out earlier, serves to keep the development of bonsai waxing and waning back and forth between reality and fantasy.
My point is this. When faced with a rank beginner, someone that it must be assumed knows little or is filled with a lot of preconceived and wrong ideas about bonsai, why do some offer advanced concepts of Art etc, as a starting point for this beginner? It seems to me that to some degree we are starting to see beginners teaching beginners. That's the real problem with the Internet. Allow me to play with words; here we see the Pedantic teaching the Romantic. The pedantic, he who wants to show off what he knows or thinks he knows, and the romantic being one who desires to hear what he wants to hear that is magical and mysterious. So the issue of communications is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Because of this we seem to heading down a road where we spend more time talking about bonsai that doing bonsai.
Back to your original question, "Where will bonsai be in fifty years?"
Because of the above I believe we are standing at a crossroad. The direction bonsai in America will decide to take is still an open question. In
short----I don't know.