Profile: Morten Albek
Detailed pruning. Chinese Cork Bark Elm.
Photo: Morten Albek
Morten performs Bonsai, and Shohin and Mame-bonsai demonstrations and workshops, both nationally in his native Denmark, and internationally. In 2005, his two closest bonsai-friends and he opened a bonsai school to promote bonsai further by workshops in Denmark.
Morten's non-bonsai work is as a camera operator at a regional TV-station in Denmark, which is his full time job.
In 2003, Morten established the Shohin-bonsai Europe website, www.shohin-europe.com
to promote Shohin and Mame-bonsai more to the western world. This site has become a great success.
Morten Albek has written articles which have been published in Bonsai Europe; for the all Japan Mame-Bonsai Association website; the Danish Bonsai Society and other publications. From 2006, articles with focus on Shohin-bonsai will be published in Bonsai Today, too. Later in 2006 the book 'Shohin-bonsai, Less is More', will be released by Stone Lantern.
Morten has also been busy in recent years, winning the Danish New Talent Competition in 2001 and the Keyaki Masters Talent Competition in Denmark in 2003.
A member of the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association (since 2005), the British Shohin Association (since 2006) and the Danish Bonsai Society (since 1993), Morten was also selected as the European representative to the American Shohin Bonsai Society in 2005.
Morten has travelled to Japan to meet the masters of bonsai to learn more about bonsai by discussing aesthetic views of the art and during his latest trip, Morten also produced a TV-programme about bonsai.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Morten Albek:
AoB:[/color] Morten, it is well known that you specialize in Shohin-bonsai; why is this; and do you find the challenges harder with Shohin?
The aesthetics of the display, the seasonal approach, the use of flowering plants, deciduous trees and conifers brought together in the display, and the fun of using colourful pots appeals to me very much. The ability to hold a "big" tree in one hand, turning it and observing every detail, almost breathing in its beauty; these are just some of the reasons why I love this special branch of bonsai.
Aside from the aesthetics, Shohin-bonsai simply gives me greater joy when working on the small material. It is easier to handle and it is easier to find suitable specimens to work at. Easier in the sense that Shohin also has the advantage of being easy to start from scratch and achieve results in a foreseeable time scale. Large bonsai are fascinating to watch, but I simply have a greater feeling for the small trees and the aesthetics related.
I simply love to develop the trees from basic, giving them my own personal touch, and see the development over the years. This is partly easier with smaller material, I find.
Regarding the challenges; I do not find it more difficult to grow Shohin compared with big sized trees. The challenges differ though. It is a challenge and hard to find good Yamadori material for larger bonsai, in my area especially. There are no mountains or wild nature close to my home.
Regarding small bonsai like Shohin, Mame or even Mini-bonsai (Shito), it is much easier to develop from nursery stock in a shorter time scale, and therefore materials are closer at hand with many species available.
Compared to large bonsai, it is harder to keep the shape of Shohin for a long time, as well as keeping the trees healthy growing. On the other hand, it is easier to reshape and handle the trees when styling, or repotting, for example.
When it all comes to an end, the balance of challenges when comparing Shohin to larger bonsai may end up being fairly even? just having different parts of challenges.
Lonicera nitida, Honeysuckle. Height 16 cm. / 6 inches. Pot by John Pitt (UK). Garden plant trained since 1999. Age app. 1930.
Photo: Morten Albek
AoB:[/color] What is the biggest difference between styling a Shohin, and say, a larger sized bonsai?
The simplicity and at the same time demand for detailed work, when styling Shohin, is for me the most significant difference of styling the smallest bonsai compared to larger bonsai.
Simplicity of the overall shape is necessary when dealing with material as small as Shohin or Mame-bonsai. The canopy will by nature have fewer and smaller foliage pads, and the overall design, to a certain degree, has to be simpler, making use of a more implied style than normal. The smaller a tree, the more has to be implied.
The necessity of detailed work shows when it is not done. Even slightly misplaced branches, on the limited material at hand, easily distort the image if not carried out with accuracy.
The balance between a convincing and beautiful image of a tree, and failure, lies in the details of the work done. Unattended faults are exposed much more on a Shohin than on a large bonsai.
AoB:[/color] What is the most important thing to consider when styling Shohin?
The focus is on detailed work. The details in the arrangement and trimming of leaves and needles are of utmost importance. A few misplaced or overgrown branches easily ruin the overall impact of the tree. Keeping a balance between a too detailed, styled, neat tree, and a naturalistic looking Shohin-bonsai is a big challenge, a skill which I seek very much at this period in my ongoing Shohin-bonsai journey.
Also Jin and Shari must be carved with great focus on details, and balance.
Styling a Shohin demands a good sense of balancing the elements and dragging attention to the main points of the tree. When styling a Shohin, one must also have focus on the interaction of more trees together, because a Shohin always are displayed together with at least one more tree.
AoB:[/color] What different considerations are there when displaying Shohin bonsai?
This is a big question, which contains a lot of questions and answers; artistic as well as aesthetic considerations. It is also one of the major enjoyments of Shohin-bonsai; Maybe the very essence of the art of small bonsai.
Of greatest importance is to know that a Shohin display is about showing the changing seasons. Larger bonsai are focused on showing the beauty of each individual tree. Shohin are displayed together, showing the changing seasons, with berries, flowers and leaves each a part of this expression. The overall expression and beauty of the display is the key point, although also each individual tree is to be admired, observed, and judged closely.
The trees used for a Shohin display must interact with each other, all differing in species, style, pot colour, and shape, etc.
Shohin can be displayed two at a time, or even more than four, five, seven, etc., traditionally by using a multileveled rack for larger numbers of trees.
Empty space is a necessity to bring in the wanted peace in the display. Also the use of colourful pots adds creativity and extended expressions, not fitting the aesthetics of larger bonsai.
Finally the balance between each tree, and the overall composition, is of importance.
Morten Albek Shohin-bonsai workshop in Copenhagen.
Photo: Klaus Buddig
AoB:[/color] Do you have a favourite species to work with? If so, what is so good about it? Does it make a good Shohin?
I love to work with different species, both conifers and flowering and deciduous species, and this is another good reason going for Shohin. The use of a variety of species for the display makes it possible to work with many species.
If I have to pick a favourite of mine, it is the Pine. It gives me tremendous pleasure. The bright delicate needles of the White Pine, or the power of the Black Pine, are very pleasing to observe. Both specimens are very good for Shohin, developing a fine ramification and short delicate needle bunches if treated correctly. Maybe my fascination is based on the difficulty of these specimens, making them a challenge to work with, but so much more rewarding when you have succeeded.
At the moment I try out the two needle Scots Pine, (Pinus sylvestris), from Northern Europe, to see if it is suitable for Shohin.
AoB:[/color] What made you choose to deal mostly with Shohin? Was it a consideration of convenience (lack of space, etc) or aesthetic reasons?
I don't lack space for larger trees. I am simply fascinated by the aesthetics of the smaller trees. Later I found the joy of displaying issues, and here Shohin really give the possibilities of playing around with the trees, accompanying plants, and accessories. The seasonal approach is closely committed to Shohin, and this I missed with the larger bonsai. Also, the possibility to use stronger colors for pots, and creativity needed to set up a display of Shohin or Mame-bonsai, is a great part of my love for Shohin. Finally, I always was headed towards Shohin because the material available around here, mostly, is only suitable for Shohin.
Daizo Iwasaki, and Morten Albek studing some of Albeks Shohin and Mame-bonsai.
Photo: Torben Pedersen
AoB:[/color] Have you worked with species that turned out to be horticulturally unsuitable for Shohin? I am not talking about the fact that some tend to have longer internodes that may be hard to reduce. I am referring to species that tend not to survive in a very small pot.
I find it is possible to grow Shohin, and the even smaller Mame-bonsai, very well, using many different specimens if just some precautions are taken. If a tree needs a very shallow and small pot for exhibition purposes, in which it normally does not thrive very well, it has to grow in another and somewhat larger pot on a daily basis.
Before exhibition, the tree is transplanted into the shallow and normally too small container that fits the aesthetics, and the artistic preferences needed for exhibition purpose. When the exhibition is ended, the tree is moved gently back into the slightly larger and deeper container that fit the horticultural needs of the tree, so it stays healthy growing.
I haven't worked with species I found unsuitable for Shohin-bonsai. An important issue when dealing with the art of bonsai is also to secure that the specimens chosen are capable of the treatment we as humans select for the trees. I always keep my focus on this issue, because it is as important as the capability to style the tree well.
AoB:[/color] How do you perceive the attitude of the general population in Denmark toward bonsai? Is bonsai gaining popularity in your country at a significant pace, or is it rather stagnant?
Now bonsai is moving steadily upwards on the popularity scale. More interest is shown by the public, and more members are joining the Danish Bonsai Society.
Also, magazines, television and other media write with interest about bonsai these days. In contradiction to the situation a few years ago, everybody seems to know what bonsai is today.
It was downhill a few years ago, after some fantastic years earlier on. I think we pretty much follow the natural ups and downs in the rest of Europe, and I know it is pretty much the same in Japan. In Denmark, I think bonsai is on the way to stay attuned on the cultural scene, though still regarded as a special and a bit exotic kind of art though. Lately more members have joined the community than usual, so maybe we are succeeding more, now.
Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum. Heigth: 7 cm. / 3. inches. Imported material. Pot by Wallsall Studio Ceramics (UK).
Photo: Morten Albek
AoB:[/color] You have said that in order to succeed Shohin-bonsai demands other aesthetic considerations of design elements, as well as a high degree of detailed work, when compared to larger bonsai, what sort of aesthetic considerations were you referring to?
The aesthetics in bonsai is of utmost importance, and for many of us the appealing of the aesthetics was what got us hooked on bonsai in the first place.
The perception and understanding of aesthetic considerations is very much based on the individual culture, background, and personal taste.
Especially dealing with Shohin-bonsai, there is a western risk of adding too much dolls' house sentiment to the display, forgetting the basic principles of the art.
It is important to keep focus on the aesthetics of simple expressions, and not overdo effort of showing the season through an exaggerated amount of flowers or berries i.e., or adding artificial elements to the display.
The difference in aesthetics when comparing the larger bonsai with the small Shohin-bonsai is the suggestive manner in which Shohin-bonsai shows great age, depicting the large tree in nature. The larger bonsai comes closer to this image by the use of more branches and a higher amount of leaves available. The small Shohin have to imply this by only a few branches and thus demands more imagination from the viewer.
A major difference when dealing with the aesthetic considerations is the way of exhibiting bonsai and Shohin-bonsai.
A large bonsai must show all qualities by itself. Shohin are set up together in groups, and the interaction between the trees makes the impact as a whole. Each Shohin may not be extraordinary in itself, but put together they show the beauty of the season.
In addition, the more colourful pots that are possible to use for the small bonsai are different to those used for larger bonsai. Smaller pots can bear bright colours, which is not possible with larger bonsai pots, because the coloured area will be too large and boisterous.
Cherry, Prunus ssp., height: 19 cm. / 7,5 inches. Pot Japanese. Nursery stock in training since 2001. Age app. 1990.
Photo: Morten Albek
AoB:[/color] Considering that you make a career out of photography, what can you tell us about photographing bonsai, especially Shohin and Mame sized bonsai?
Light is what makes the picture. Therefore, good light sources must be available when photographing bonsai. Use soft artificial light sources, or the sun bounced on a white sheet using the reflecting light as main source, and the natural light as backlight.
When using artificial light sources, two floodlights are needed. The first floodlight is for the key light, and the second one is used to put up a backlighting as well, because this adds depth to the image. Without a backlight, the image will seem very flat.
The soft light on a cloudy day is also excellent for photographing bonsai. Avoid hard sun, making contrasts too harsh.
A clean background is essential in order to see the details of the tree, keeping disturbing elements out of frame.
Use a small aperture on the camera (f stop 2,8 - 4 app.), to blur the background when photographing trees without a clean background. Use a portrait setting or zoom in (avoid any wide-angle settings, which distort the lines in the picture and adds too much depth of focus to the image).
Using a tripod ensures a non-shaken and thereby focused image.
AoB:[/color] What different pot considerations are there with smaller sized bonsai and do you find the availability is scarcer than with larger sized pots?
Today it is much easier to find good potters with a fine range of pots available for Shohin-bonsai than a few years ago. The fast increase of interest in Shohin-bonsai also has made a demand for quality pots, and the western potters are now making very fine Shohin pots. Still, the Mame and Mini-bonsai pots are slightly more difficult to find, but this will change soon, I believe.
I buy pots from both Europe and Japan. The different aesthetics is just giving more to play with.
AoB:[/color] Keeping Shohin and Mame sized trees is much more difficult in areas with hot, dry climates. This is largely to do with the small quantity of soil in those tiny pots. Would you recommend any particular soil amendments, such as adjuvant (wetting agents) and water-holding chemicals, to growers trying to grow smaller trees in areas where climate is an issue?
I will not recommend any chemical solutions like the ones mentioned in the question. There are several ways to deal with this problem. Bringing the trees into part shade is one. A very important solution is to use trees that cope with the environmental influences. Using a soil that is holding water well is also a way to secure the health of the smallest trees. And a last advice, is to keep the trees in pots that are slightly too large in the periods where the trees are not exhibited, especially in hotter climates.
Finally, one maybe has to deal with the fact that it might not be horticulturally possible to grow Shohin in the very hot or very cold areas.
Working on a Chinese Cork Bark Elm.
Photo: Morten Albek
AoB:[/color] What does Shohin-bonsai and bonsai in general mean to your life.
Bonsai gives me peace and satisfaction every day of my life. The daily care gives me peace of mind, and this is well in place because I have a job that can be very stressful.
Shohin-bonsai is a joy I wouldn't miss for anything. The joy of sitting with a small tree in my hands, and letting the mind flow into the tree when observing bark details, branch structure, or the beauty of flowers in summer, are part of this joy. The styling, discussion of artistic issues, aesthetics, etc. with friends is another great pleasure of bonsai.
Bonsai has brought me close friendships and good relations all over the world; not only in Europe but in the States, as well as friendships with great people in Japan too.
The ongoing care and development of bonsai brings knowledge and a never-ending exploration of artistic and aesthetic issues. I am fortunate that I can pass on my gained knowledge to other enthusiasts through articles, demonstrations, and workshops. Not only is it a joy to share a common interest with people, it also very educational for me to be part of this.
Especially, I find that Shohin-bonsai has given a more joyful approach to bonsai. The community of Shohin lovers seems to have a very relaxed, sharing, and very playful approach to bonsai, which I appreciate very much.
I hope this will shine through in my book about Shohin-bonsai, which is expected to be released by Stone Lantern Discoveries, in the fall of 2006.