Profile: Michael HagedornMichael HagedornMichael Hagedorn was a potter before apprenticing in Japan under bonsai master Shinji Suzuki. His work appeared in the prestigious Kokufu show in Tokyo in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and Mr. Suzuki honored him with the opportunity to wire two trees that went on to win a Kokufu Prize and a Prime Minister Award. He lives near Portland, Oregon.
The following is an on-line interview with Michael Hagedorn.AoB:
You studied for three years under Boon Manakitivipart in his Intensive Program before going to Japan, did this advanced training provide the foundation needed in Japan and would you recommend such to others who are planning on learning in Japan as well? Michael:
Absolutely. Boon’s preparation was the best I could have had. He was serious, honest about what to expect, and hard enough on me that I was under no illusions about what was ahead. I’d recommend his program to anyone. If anyone has the chance to go (which is admittedly difficult and rare) or are planning to go, definitely take the opportunity to learn from someone who has gone through it already.AoB:
What were the deciding factors for selecting Shinji Suzuki for your apprenticeship, over other Japanese masters? Michael:
Interesting question. When we think of bonsai masters in Japan, the ones we know are all impressive: the dynamic conifer master of the last generation, Kimura; the quiet second-generation deciduous master, Takeyama. And then some of the new names of the next generation: Imai, Shinji Suzuki, the controversial Ebihara. I came to bonsai through the unusual route of ceramics, dabbling for many years in bonsai and having time to think about my own path. Earthy ceramics fired in the willful environment of the wood kiln was a strong influence. The potter is only a collaborator there, and I began to think in those terms with regards to bonsai too.
I was exposed to ‘modern’ bonsai styling with Boon, and from there I wanted to learn more about that. But also my heart was drawn to less manipulated trees, like these wood-fired pots I was intrigued by. So I was torn, in a sense. Shinji Suzuki proved to be the perfect match for my instincts. He did modern work, but also made work that echoed Murata and Hamano.
And like my teacher, I study modern work, but am trying to find my own path in separate work. I was lucky that Suzuki took me on, since most masters don’t want to bother with the difficulties of foreign apprentices. We first asked Boon’s teacher, Kamiya, if he would take me, but he was finished taking on students. Following that bow to tradition---asking your teacher’s teacher---Suzuki was my first choice, the master whose work suggested a depth and range I did not see elsewhere. Nobody knew much about him, and although he had come to teach in the States, we did not know what kind of master he would be. But I was lucky to find that his work was a good representation of Suzuki himself as a teacher: eclectic, deep, playful, serious---all I could have hoped for.AoB:
You have mentioned before that there were many humorous situations that you found yourself in while in Japan, could you share one with us? Michael:
There was one story that is not in the book.
Tachi was the young man that was Suzuki’s first apprentice, I was his second, so we worked together. One day a client came, and while he was poking around in the greenhouses Suzuki called up Tachi on his cell phone, and Tachi immediately got a bit nervous and frisky, and darted out into the greenhouses. The client had moved into the second greenhouse, and Tachi nabbed a tree in the back of the nearest, and bolted with it back to the studio. He set it down in the vestibule of the studio, and standing there, still seemed nervous. ‘No, no, that won’t do’ he muttered. Picked the pine up again and scampered across the road, where he stashed it in the stairwell of the museum.
When he got back I asked him what was up, and he said breathlessly that Suzuki had told him to hide the client’s white pine, which was ailing from some undetermined disease, and he did not want the client seeing it. We looked at each other and laughed a long time about that. Somehow the client either forgot about this tree, or failed out of courtesy to mention it. Reminds one of the name of that British sitcom, ‘Keeping up Appearances.’ Japan was one story after another of just that.AoB:
Your new book, "Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk" is one of the first to sway from the dead serious narrative common in most books, yet there is lessons to be learn throughout the pages. Can you tell us more about the book and where it can be purchased? Michael:
Well, this book has been probably my main work for the last 2 years, and is 216 pages of anecdote and essay about the experience of being an apprentice in Japan. Much of it is directly from my journal that I kept as an apprentice. I had never kept a journal before. It was my sounding board for an experience that is hard even for Japanese apprentices. I would record these crazy stories of things that happened during the day, and I think it really kept me alive and upbeat about the whole thing. But it took me a long time to tease out the threads of what it all meant to me, and that is the rest of the book, the essays in Part II, and most of that was written back home in the States. For more information about it, see my website, http://www.crataegus.comAoB:
What are your views on the 'differences' in thinking of Japanese bonsai artists vis-a-vis Western artists? Michael:
It is hard to separate or distinguish professionals from ‘artists’ in Japan. Those who are in the business of bonsai tend to see bonsai as commodities, in the US and Japan, and there I see more similarity than difference. For the most part commerce kills the artist. Anyhow, I think there are differences in how artists see themselves their relationship to the work.
I was lucky to study with Suzuki, who seemed to have a greater emotional relationship with the trees and his work than many I came in contact with in the Japanese professional group. Western artists display haphazard involvements with their trees, it’s very individual. The Japanese bonsai community tends to a more ensemble feeling, and shows a commitment to bonsai as a community rather than as a product of a particular artist, with a few flamboyant exceptions. In the west, it seems to be all about one person. So and so ‘made’ this tree. This is in part because there is no history there yet; few trees are passed on. But it is also a different orientation.
We see this issue well exposed in bonsai display, where the mark of an artist is either vividly apparent or invisible. I would say in Japan the artist is generally more invisible, in the west the artist is occasionally more apparent. You often have to have very keen eyes to sense whose work a bonsai is in Japan, it takes quite a bit of study. The fingerprint is of great subtlety. One might think this is only about form, and technique, but I think it represents a different philosophy. I think our work is sometimes very transparent in the west because we lack subtlety, and partly also because we don’t display much interest in subtlety. We’re TRYING to show who it is who made this tree. This is no small difference.Michael Hagedorn
Photograph by Candy ShireyAoB:
Could you tell us anything that you would call a striking difference between how the Japanese people view bonsai, versus how we, Westerners see it? Michael:
It is possible that Westerners do not have much involvement in bonsai other than a pretty form or the creative satisfaction in bending branches. It was partly for this reason---since I had little depth to my own understanding of bonsai---that I went to Japan. I went to Japan for very personal reasons, and this question was high on my list. What was it that I was missing? Why was my involvement with bonsai skin deep? And I was not just interested in what answers the Japanese would have; I was interested in answering them independently, as a Westerner. It was a strange juggle: to work on a question that I was determined to answer uninfluenced, and yet also soak up everything that I could get from the Japanese perspective. The second part of ‘Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk’ deals with my conclusions regarding this. AoB:
What are the innovations, if any, regarding the cultivation techniques that you observed in Japan today? Has the general approach to bonsai changed? Michael:
Well, when we look at books even from 60 years ago it is apparent how much has changed; the common use of wire is less than 100 years old.
The current inventiveness of bonsai techniques seem almost without a ceiling. For a recent example, witness the wild transformation of a Japanese Maple by Mr. Ebihara, how he was able to remove the center of a trunk and transform the movement and taper of a tree. Some in Japan find his work appalling, but who is to say that his techniques might not be commonplace in 30 years? The quality of the resulting bonsai is a separate issue, but the willingness/ability/insight to restructure a deciduous tree in a dramatic way is something new.
I would say there has been a huge revolution in the way we look at our quiver of skills and say, sure, why not try that? It has gone well beyond grafting. Tradition is a very changeable thing, if seen this way. In fact, I don’t think tradition has much to do with technique. Techniques are always changing. It is what use we put them to that determines whether we are within the tradition or without the tradition---both valid efforts.
The current hand tool carving going on in Taiwan is superior to any of the power tool carving in Japan 30 years ago, much more invisible and with a much better future. The mark of a tool does not go away if it’s there to begin with, time does not erase it.
Also we have seen a great increase in field growing bonsai in Japan as the interest swelled in the last century, and the mountains could no longer support the demand. For the most part, these bonsai do not represent the best in bonsai. Bark on pines never seems to develop as well on ground-grown trees as pot-grown trees, even with follow-up time in a pot. Deciduous trees from the field are coarse, and never seem to outgrow those beginnings. And yet without those efforts, our numbers of bonsai would probably be too low.
I do not believe technique restructures the beauty of bonsai very much. Technique can be exciting; it is not the heart of the art. Excellent bonsai are not created by technique, they are created by artists. Even with his bulging technical quiver, Ebihara has yet to make maples as beautiful as the late Murata. Taste in Japanese bonsai is constantly changing; they don’t make better or more beautiful bonsai in Japan that they used to, only different ones. AoB:
How does the general Japanese public perceive bonsai? Is it accepted as art? Are there any public bonsai schools? Michael:
The general public in Japan is often clueless about bonsai. It is, as they often say, ‘an old man’s hobby,’ not something anyone with better things to do ought to be doing.
Never got the sense that bonsai is considered ‘art’---with a capital A---in Japan; this is as it should be. It is what it is and I don’t think talking about it or trying to fit it into a name changes it any.
Speaking for myself, I’m a weary prisoner of this question: in ceramic graduate school the art vs. craft question was poisonous and I am reluctant to comment again on it. Bonsai is bonsai. It is in some ways so unique that a simple term like ‘art’ belittles it rather than raises it up. Name an art that does what bonsai does.
As I write this I’m reminding myself that this is the ART of bonsai interview, so I hope these opinions do not get edited out of existence! It is just that, personally, whether bonsai is considered an art or not has no relevance to me, and I do not think it has any particular interest to those in Japan either. It is, I think, generally considered a traditional art, which is another beast. I think we call ourselves bonsai ARTISTS because we have to call ourselves something. But whether it is true or not…well, maybe we are artisans.
Not aware of any public bonsai schools, although many masters have local clubs that meet monthly, so they do some teaching available for the public. AoB:
You often suggest to graft JBP onto ponderosa pine and shinpaku (is it really shinpaku and not shimpaku as most westerners think?) onto American junipers. Why exactly is this so desirable? Michael:
The spelling of shinpaku is indeed confusing; in hiragana there is no single ‘m’, whereas there is a single ‘n’ consonant, so it would seem that shinpaku is the correct spelling.
I only recommend grafting foreign species because I don’t think our own species are well-explored yet. I see some Rocky Mountain juniper foliage that I think would be wonderful grafted onto rocky mountain trees that have very poor, dangly, skimpy foliage. Actually I’m a proponent of keeping our trees native even if we can; I encourage those interested in this to root cuttings or collect native trees for foliage quality, and then use that for grafting material.
Grafting is a superb way to improve the quality of our bonsai. We can replace unmanageable foliage with excellent foliage. Particularly for smaller ponderosa, the long needles don’t seem to make much sense in terms of scale, and since we can control the length of JBP needles much better, and because the bark matches so well, I have occasionally grafted small ponderosa with JBP. It looks good, and is one way to use these wonderful smaller collected trees. Bunjin and very large ponderosa might certainly be left ponderosa.Michael Hagedorn
Photograph by Candy ShireyAoB:
How hard is it to survive decently as a professional in America vs. as one in Japan? Michael:
There is much more competition in Japan. I think American professionals can survive well, but there is proportionally higher teaching. In Japan there are more client services rendered, such as stying and maintaining trees. In America, teaching seems to be the mainstay, although styling and maintaining is gaining in work percentage.AoB:
You are a rarity in America as one of a very few artists who offer a full line of services including Maintenance, Consultation, and Styling for individuals. It has been discussed here at AoB that in order for patrons of the art and collectors to begin to thrive in this country that a solid service industry as they have in Japan would need to be created. Would you agree with this assessment and do you find it difficult to offer such services when there are so few collectors.Michael:
Yes, I do agree with that statement. One of the problems is that some of the collectors out there do not show their trees. Professional work is sometimes invisible to the public, and so the inspiration that it might engender is not there. When that happens, when we see more professional work, then we might see more interest in services. I think the National Bonsai Show, held this year in Rochester, NY, is an example of the type of show that might help this.
Interest in services continue to grow, and I think we will continue to see growth there as our pioneers like Kathy and Boon who have started strong client bases develops to others such as myself, and my friends Matt Reel and Ryan Neil who are still studying abroad. I think when they return we may see a new dynamic in the professional community---a sort of a critical mass, and we will see professional quality work more frequently in public shows. AoB:
You wired trees while in Japan that were accepted into the Kokufu show in Tokyo, the Taikan Ten, the Sakafu Ten, and one that won a Kokufu Prize and another a Prime Minister Award. Tell us about wiring these trees and the expectations you worked under. Michael:
By my first year I was wiring trees for the Kokufu, which I credit entirely to my preparation from Boon. Without that I would certainly have been a couple years there before doing such work, especially the great honor of wiring trees that normally Suzuki would have been solely working on---that is an example of his support of his apprentices. He is a very generous man. But he also wanted us to test ourselves, to see if we could swim or sink. And just before we’d sink he’d suggest something to make sure we didn’t---and the big test was trying to do the work well enough that he did not need to say, ‘redo it.’
There were the familiar expectations: you had to work fast, even on these show trees. But we were a bit more focused, did not want to make mistakes, and we would pay more attention to detail.
Although this was great experience, I get even more excited with working on raw trees here in this country. I dream of our future, when we might have trees worthy of our teachers in Japan, and I know we will get there, too. Our trees are good; they just need time and perseverance and guidance. AoB:
You had the honor of working with Kinbon, the premier Japanese bonsai magazine, on a couple occasions and were featured in the magazine. What did you observe about the organization that impressed you the most and what could other publications learn from them? Michael:
It was an honor, and while the trees I worked on for the articles were fairly mundane, it nevertheless was educational. To be honest, and I hope this does not spread too far, I did not find Kinbon to be particularly impressive as a publication. They were famous for reversing negatives and misrepresenting things. I was surprised; Suzuki was always laughing and shaking his head about Kinbon.
Nevertheless, the knowledge about bonsai by the head editor was high, and that should be a prerequisite for Western editors and publishers: know bonsai well! At least as well as those who are the most ardent students in bonsai.AoB:
How did you find your way into bonsai pottery? Are you planning to continue creating your wonderful line of bonsai containers? Michael:
I took a course in wheel throwing as a sophomore in college. Back in high school I was already into bonsai, so I made the containers in college for bonsai that I could not afford…one of those happy times in life when a good week was when I could scrape together enough pennies for some meat to add to my beans. I got very familiar with beans and rice, the cheapest things on the planet. But this was the beginning, and I continued to keep bonsai and make a few pots even while a pursued a graduate degree in ceramic sculpture. It was always there.
Yes, I’m sure I will make pots again, but it will be some time off probably, and I may not be making many of them. But the itch will itch again, undoubtedly.AoB:
Although there has been some innovation in bonsai pottery concerning color and texture, the basic shapes have remained virtually unchanged. Do you think this is because we are so used to certain styles being potted in certain shapes or is it because only certain styles of pots work artistically? Michael:
This is probing question. It is true that innovation in bonsai container forms have not really taken off in the tradition: tradition is a wary animal. Doesn’t like new sounds or smells. The ‘moon’ pot or ‘crescent’ pot is maybe one exception. That is generally accepted; at least in the west. Not used too often in Japan, but you do see it. Genuine rocks with natural cavities for planting are more commonly used there than crescent pots.
It is probably a bit of both: the tradition assumes a certain range of shapes, and those styles work well. No tradition becomes rigid unless it is ready to croak, and I’m sure we will see other forms added in the future. But we should not hold our breath. A wary animal it will remain…Michael Hagedorn
Photograph by Candy ShireyAoB:
Besides holding the soil and root mass, in your opinion, what is the role of the pot? Michael:
A foundation. Most pots have clean lines, even if curved or in petal forms, and these serve as stabilizers to the tree above, which is often highly irregular, abstract, asymmetrical. If most pots were also irregular, the whole thing would fall apart. Remember, trees are supposed to be growing in the ground, firmly in the earth. Our substitute for this in bonsai is to put it into a pot that serves as a grounding element. A stabilizer.AoB:
There always has seemed to be a slight prejudice against tropicals by the old guard, how are tropicals looked upon in Japan and what is your opinion on their use as bonsai? Michael:
Tropicals are used by some in Japan, but not, it seems, by many. These two questions are linked.
We should use what we are attracted to use. Or what grows well where we live. Personally, and this is a bias, I like the temperate trees which to me bring out what is most poignant in bonsai: the non-flashy, ‘don’t look at me too admiringly’, residue of life that is felt in pines, maples, junipers, ume. And that is a Japanese way of looking at something that finds expression in certain trees. I’ve been attracted to this aesthetic whether it was a tree or a pot or a painting or an old piece of driftwood---it seems in my makeup to like and look for this aesthetic, and so that is why I tend to gravitate to the familiar bonsai species. They speak of this so well.
But others might not be interested in this, and for them other trees will be better suited. Some tropicals I think do allow for this shibui sensibility, even better than Satsuki, which for most Japanese are classed in the category that is not intrinsically bonsai in ‘feeling.’AoB:
There is a new school of thought in bonsai design in which a bonsai should be designed in the round, or three dimensionally so that there are many pleasing "fronts" as opposed to designing a bonsai for the one single narrow "photo front" which often is the only view seen on the Internet. What are your thoughts on this? Michael:
Oh dear. I think I even wrote an article about something like this. Some of the finest trees in the world have multiple fronts, and can with few adjustments be well-shown from any of them. There are a few trees that the great masters puzzle over for a long time---a year sometimes---because they are so good. The possibilities are not easy to choose from. At this level of tree, the front becomes more and more personal. In general, on the average tree, masters tend to find the same front. The better the tree and the more options it has, the more they tend to diverge.
Trees that are great from many sides should be approached slowly. They are rare, and we should probably not seek to force many trees to be ‘round.’ AoB:
You attended the First National Bonsai Exhibit in New York this year, what are your thoughts on this historic event and how did it compare to exhibits in Japan that you have attended?Michael:
The First National Bonsai Show in Rochester, organized by Bill Valavanis, was timely and historic. Timely, because it was evident that people really wanted to see this happen, given the broad array of participants from all across the states. And historic as it was the first attempt at a show that brought this huge country's bonsai efforts into one room. The logistics of making that happen were mind-boggling, but Bill pulled it off.
Many awards were given, and I was delighted to find that the majority of them went to trees created in this country---not imported from overseas. There were plenty of imported trees, and these were perhaps necessary to fill out the show, but the depth and range of species at the show went beyond what the traditional range could contain. This was gratifying. And the level of work was high.
It is true that on a level comparison to Japanese shows the quality of the trees does not measure quite as high. But what are we to expect, given the age and potted maturity of the Japanese trees? We are still learning from Japan, and they have advantages that time cannot erase because time created them. We should be proud of how far this show has brought us. In fact I think there were a few trees in this show that were elegant and delicate and quiet and would have not gotten into a Japanese show such as the Kokufu---to its detriment. Sometimes one can walk through that show and feel like it's all steak and no vegetables. So, in a sense, the First National Show had more range than the Kokufu, and it would be wonderful if in the future---as I think we can all hope for future shows---it will retain this eclectic, rich character.AoB:
Michael, if you could only teach one thing to your students, what would it be and why? Michael:
Try to keep self-involvement out of the game. Bonsai is such a special art because it is one in which, at it’s best, the artist eventually becomes invisible. That is, the moment of creation has been obliterated by time, and the artist or artists have vacated the picture frame, so to speak. That is when a ‘styled’ tree has lived enough in a pot that it has taken over possession of itself again, and it is no longer a fingerprint of an artist, but is simply a tree again. Authentic bonsai of this nature are rare---but it is encouraged by, eventually, letting the tree be itself again.
Best Wishes to Everyone,
Michael HagedornMichael's book can be found at http://www.crataegus.com/New%20Book.html