Member Profile: Jerry Meislik
Jerry Meislik has been a major influence in American bonsai since the 1980s. In addition to his international reputation for growing many tropical and native North American species, Jerry is well known as a frequent demonstrator at clubs and conventions. He is also the author of more than fifty magazine articles and his 2004 book Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai.
here at the Art of Bonsai project illustrates a number of his trees.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Jerry Meislik:
Jerry, your work with Ficus
species has earned you renown throughout the bonsai community. Your recent book, "Ficus - The Exotic Bonsai" has been spoken of, highly, and has even been called the "Bible for Ficus". In hindsight, is there anything you wished you had added or left out of the book?
Writing and publishing a book involves many compromises. How much detail to include? How much is elementary and how much is too complicated/advanced? Is your audience beginner or expert? Is the audience large enough to make the book worthwhile? How much will the market be willing to pay for a book of 300 or 400 pages?
I wish I could have included more before and after shots showing trees progressing over time; more information on how to identify figs... a very, very complicated topic. I would also include more varieties of fig that are used for bonsai throughout the world, especially Australia. Perhaps I need to do a second volume, with the new material added?
What was the hardest part of getting a book into print?
The hardest part is realizing that the book will take many hours of writing, re-writing, editing innumerable times and making hard decisions on what to include and what to exclude. This is time away from actually doing bonsai!
Another major problem was finding a publisher. We were turned down everywhere and so we decided to publish the book ourselves. The financial cost and risk of this book became obvious as the bills rolled in while we were patiently waiting for orders, to begin paying back the investment.
Now, after only a year and a half, the book is nearly sold out! That, along with the great comments by readers, made it all worthwhile.
What are the primary considerations that a person must keep in mind when styling Figs, as opposed to other tropical species, and as opposed to temperate species such as Maples and Pines?
Initial styling of Figs can be just as easy as for any bonsai material. The tree can be shaped as a typical conifer or as one would a deciduous specimen or even in a banyan style or epiphytic style.
Given the right conditions Ficus
will grow like mad. Trunks and branches will thicken overnight and wire will scar in the blink of an eye. The quick growth helps get the tree styled quickly but then the growth must be restrained to keep the tree from escaping its styling.
have the attributes of great rootage as well as lower trunk buttressing and marvelous aerial roots. Ficus
also graft and fuse with ease, making manipulation of them extremely easy. No other tree can match even a few of these great features.
Guava (Psidium sp.) bonsai and photograph by Jerry Meislik
Tropicals were looked down upon by the bonsai community for a long time. In fact it has been only recently that they have become accepted as "bonsai." Was this a deterrent to you when you first started with them and do you see tropicals one day holding the same respect as, let's say, pines?
Tropicals and indoor bonsai have long been pooh-poohed and sneered at, in most bonsai circles. If Japan and China were located in the tropics, we would have the situation of loving the classic tropicals and knocking the temperate trees.
Over the last 10 or 15 years I think there has been more and more appreciation for the tropicals and for tropical styles. If the great bonsai teachers of today and tomorrow continue to use tropical species we will see more people trying them and, therefore, more people valuing and appreciating them.
Jerry, the art of bonsai has come a long way in America over the last few years. In what direction would you like to see it head, from here?
From my perspective we have a relatively low level of interest in bonsai in the Western world. This low interest level translates into fewer bonsai vendors, businesses, bonsai materials and teachers. The market simply won't support the depth of bonsai seen in the Eastern world. I do not know what will change that perspective. If we can get more folks interested in bonsai, then more dollars will be spent on bonsai and that will generate more support for the bonsai infrastructure. Perhaps we need another Karate Kid movie to stimulate this interest?
You do many seminars, workshops, and classes across America. What, in your opinion, are the most exciting things you are seeing and what are the most disappointing?
I think that the quality of bonsai being produced by the average bonsai lover across the USA is much higher than ten years ago. There is so much more information available in books, via the internet and, of course, through the greater exposure to the many great teachers coming to clubs across the country. It is very gratifying to walk through bonsai shows across the US and see the great skills and artistry being produced every day by bonsai lovers.
I am disappointed at the low level of penetration of bonsai interest in the country and the lack of commitment, private and public, to the art. I often am surprised by the lack of time, effort and money expended toward advancing the artform. Folks will pay $75 dollars for a "fancy" dinner but are reluctant to spend that on a decent piece of bonsai material that can provide great enjoyment for many years.
Birch (Betula sp.) bonsai and photograph by Jerry Meislik
What is your primary source of inspiration for your tropical bonsai, considering that you lived in Michigan before moving to Montana, both non-tropical climates and how did you get so involved with tropicals, and particularly Ficus
I lived in Florida in the late seventies and was immediately struck by the fabulous tropical trees growing all around me. Great hulking banyans with overwhelming aerial roots and buttressed trunks. Simply incredible examples of trees!
I also happened into a bonsai shop and saw some Ficus salicifolia
bonsai that mirrored many of the attributes of the native banyans and immediately was seized by their allure. From that point I read and absorbed all that I could about tropicals as well as the queen of them all, the Ficus
To pursue that interest I have visited many tropical areas including Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma to become inspired and educated about tropical trees. As with any love, it's often not rational but something deep inside that speaks to you. Ficus
, as well as other tropicals, have spoken to me and I understand them!
What advice would give someone who is considering tropical bonsai?
One, move to the tropics or sub-tropics and make your life easier. Just kidding! Growing tropical trees, or any trees for that matter, indoors is difficult and requires study and dedication. The fortunate ones who live in the tropics can have these awesome trees in their backyards and never worry about moving them to winter quarters.
Because the bonsai world is so slanted to temperate bonsai, it makes growing tropicals easier. You can get away with dazzling, glazed pots and eccentric styles if that is your desire. You can work at your own rhythm and not worry that it's not a classical this or that. Your art can stand or sink on its own merits and not whether it matches the old standards. Kind of a liberating feeling!
Tropical bonsai does not make bad art acceptable but it broadens the scope of what many traditionally considered as artistic bonsai.
Tropicals were styled to look like pines for many years, do you feel the rules (or guidelines) are biased toward non-tropicals and what new rules (or guidelines) should be considered for tropicals?
My feeling is that any plant material can be shaped to whatever style works for the artist. So, it's OK for a tropical to be shaped as a pine. Likewise a pine or juniper could be shaped as a flat-topped acacia. To my way of thinking the material does not dictate the style: it is the artist's job to decide that.
That being said, most bonsai books and teachers have been brought up with the traditional bonsai styles, as they learned them from the classics of Japanese and Chinese bonsai art. Many teachers have little knowledge of tropical shapes and styles. Many years ago one of my bonsai teachers suggested that I remove all the aerial roots from my Ficus
banyan style so that it would look like a bonsai tree! In his many years of experience, he had never traveled to the tropics or seen a real banyan, and this style certainly did not exist in the classic textbooks.
Bonsai art follows the same "rules" as all other art: balance, rhythm, space, flow, line, mass etc. Tropical or non-tropical bonsai need to deal with these basics. Teachers most also learn to widen their repertoire of styles to include tropical tree forms.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) bonsai and photograph by Jerry Meislik
Are there any artistic advantages with tropicals that are not present in non-tropicals?
I don't know of any artistic advantages that come to mind, except for quick growth. On a practical level, my outdoor, native bonsai are growing about 3inches (7-8cm) a year. That is too slow to improve them over a short life-span. My indoor/tropical trees grow a foot (30cm) or more each year, thus facilitating their journey from material to bonsai.
I stress to my students to use the materials that grow well and quickly in their local environment. These will allow them to make great bonsai. Struggling along with any material that just lingers on and never grows is a sure road to bonsai frustration and failure.
Of course, just like everyone else, I continue to frustrate myself growing trees that are finicky and that just will never make great bonsai, yet I keep doing it. So, do as I say and not as I do.
Jerry, what do you think the art of bonsai will be like 50 years from now?
Oh boy, now there's a question. My predictions track record is quite poor. I allow the future to constantly amaze me, but I try never to predict it.
If you could only teach one thing about bonsai, what would that be?
One concept that I try to teach and to practice is that often a bonsai is critiqued as being incorrectly styled. Every person has a different concept of the best style for any given piece of material. I look at all the interpretations and I will give my opinion as to which I like the best. Each of us has expressed an opinion or preference. I believe that none of us is right or wrong.
I love to hear what others see in a bonsai creation, what they like or dislike but I suggest to students that the different bonsai creations are just well, DIFFERENT, but not that one is BETTER than the other. That judgment I leave to each of you.
Apple (Malus sp.) bonsai and photograph by Jerry Meislik
Jerry, we have taken a look at your book. It deals with growing conditions and techniques for Ficus
and other tropical species in temperate and cold areas. Given that most growers in tropical areas don't face any of the conditions about which you write, would you consider doing a second volume, dealing with tropical bonsai grown in tropical conditions, at some point in the future?
No, my expertise is in growing tropicals under indoor conditions. Experienced growers in tropical areas know best how to grow the trees in their backyards. It would be foolish for me to tell them how to grow their native trees. I go to the tropical areas to learn from them. I then try to apply, modify and adapt these concepts to making tropicals easier to grow indoors. I can help growers in the tropics with understanding tropical styles, natural growth forms, artistic interpretation, and application of bonsai and horticultural techniques to improve their trees.
My next book is on indoor bonsai and with luck and a lot of work it may wel be published one of these days.
Jerry Meislik Gallery >>