1st National Exhibit - One Man’s Story
The (mostly) true adventures of a trip to the First National Bonsai ExhibitionBy Will HeathWill Heath with Candy Shirey and Paul Stokes
Three AoB editors meeting for the first time at the National Bonsai Exhibit
Photograph by Cris Guidry
Deciding to make the trip to the First National Bonsai Exhibit was an easy decision, well as easy as they come anyhow. Soon here in Michigan, my benches would be frozen solid and my bonsai were already shedding leaves in anticipation of another winter torture session of ice that reaches 42” deep below the surface soil at times. Had this exhibit been during our week or so growing season, the trip would have been impossible. So, since I had the time and because my girl was all for me disappearing for a few days, if not longer, I rented a car and headed for the border.
In a strange quirk of geography, the shortest distance from Michigan, USA to New York, USA is straight across Canada. According to my trusty GPS, my trip would take five hours less if I left the country, traveled across another country, only to reenter the same country that I started from. Knowing this, I packed light, carried no sharp objects, firearms, explosives, books by Nick Lenz, or live plants, which are looked upon far worse than any of the former. Based on the personal experience of a few Canadian bonsai friends, I have come to the conclusion that the entire border patrol are avid bonsai aficionados who acquire vast collections from only what they confiscate at the borders. Either that or they just hate us all.
The trip across Canada was uneventful, no crossing moose, no rampaging elk, not even horse riding Mounties, although I did witness a fight at a “service center” but it broke out into a hockey game before it got good. I made the mistake of buying a package of cashews while I was there to eat while I watched the game. At first, I thought the price was a little high, but then I realized it was marked for Canadian currency. After doing a quick conversion in my head, I realized that they were indeed overpriced. I purchased them anyhow, big mistake, the smallest bill I had was an US hundred, which they graciously accepted, returning in change strangely colored paper and funny looking coins, which I suspected to be counterfeit money, it may very well be, how would anyone know? I tucked the bills and weird coins in my pocket, reminding myself that I could dump them back into Canada on my return trip.
I thought later that I may well have to wire home for more money, as the toll roads, toll bridges, toll expressways, toll tolls, and peanuts had taken a toll on my expense money. I was able to pass off some of that counterfeit money at these “tax as you go” booths, but they kept giving me back more for what I suspect was change. Finally, I reached the US again and promptly paid a toll for the pleasure. After a few more tolls, I arrived in Rochester New York, home of the First National Bonsai Exhibition!
When I booked the hotel by phone, they assured me that it was right next door to the exhibit, what they failed to tell me was that in-between the hotel and the exhibit was a super highway stained red, no doubt, from bonsaists of the past who attempted to cross it. Sure, there was a bridge and a street that I could use, but due to the shear size of the highway, the walk was anything but “right next door.”
After checking in, I drove to the exhibit. I had always heard that New Yorkers were rude people and the drivers were the worst anywhere, but I found this to be quite untrue. In fact, I am led to believe that I am quite well known in New York, either that or I am a fantastic driver, as people kept telling me I was number one. Well, I could not actually hear what they were saying over my blaring country music and the noise of the traffic, but they were holding up one finger and saying something, what else could it have been?Guy Guidry with Twister
Photograph by Kim Mazzatto
Arriving at the exhibit some forty-five minutes later, I was stopped by the sound of pain and grunting coming from a trailer. Walking to the rear of the trailer, I was quite surprised to see Jesus and a couple disciples straining to move an incredibly huge bonsai with one of the most massive trunks I have ever seen outside of an old growth, virgin forest. Okay, it was not actually Jesus, but if he were alive today and doing bonsai, that is what I would imagine he would look like. It was actually Guy Guidry and his quite famous bonsai “twister.”
Being the idiot that I am, I offered to help. I, as we were attempting to lift the bathtub-sized pot onto a blanket, was struck by the fact that I was lifting history. I heard Vaughn Banting in the wind; not knowing the next day would bring the sad news of his death. I saw all the articles about Guy and “Twister” flash before my eyes, I felt a double hernia aching to happen, and I was promptly reward for my reverence by “Twister” with a sharp twig in the eye.
The tree loaded, and introductions completed, I stood alone in the parking lot enjoying the beauty of it all and then I saw Chris Johnston, who hugely disappointed me by having the gall to be a real person and not some old, evil demon from bonsai hell. He was actually quite cordial and we agreed to leave the past behind us over a handshake. I watched him walk inside, and I, lacking anything else to do, went over and kicked his car.
Okay, not really, but that would have been a more expected ending to our meeting. Seriously, it was nice to finally meet you Chris.
Inside I quickly met up with Candy Shirey and Paul Stokes, both fellow editors at AoB. Candy was by far one of the nicest people I have ever met and Paul was completely different than I expected. Strange that I have known and worked with both on-line for years and this was the first time we met in person.
The place was hopping! A full day before the actual exhibition, people were rushing though this one small corner of an absolutely huge hospital, mixing in the hallways with gurneys, stretchers, and wheelchairs, some even occupied with patients in various degrees of health. Bill Valavanis was directing an army of volunteers, setting a display up, taking another down, changing places, and doing the do-see-do with some of the best bonsai in America, and some other ones as well.Will Heath, Dan Robinson
Photograph by Paul Stokes
I met many people I had only talked to before on-line, Candy making it a point to introduce me to all who passed by, but I was being constantly distracted by trees, Pines, Maples, Apples, Elms, Junipers, they were everywhere in various stages of display. Wheeled, carried, dragged, and pushed, they did a strange dance to the music of excitement, mesmerizing me with their silent grace, whispering to me, talking to me, which reminded me that I needed some serious sleep.
My fantasy of leaving and going back to the hotel to sleep was interrupted abruptly by being recruited to lift Twister up onto a Tokonoma. It took four men to lift the beast; it was a task for heroes, or at least fools. I was just the man for the job.
About this time, we talked to Rob Kempinski on the phone, he claimed to have discovered a great barbeque place while exploring downtown Rochester and invited us all to join him. Candy Shirey, Paul Stokes, Guy Guidry, his wife Cris, a few others, and I decided to meet him there and verify his claim. Rob asked us if we could pick up Colin Lewis on the way, we certainly agreed and decided that Rob would get us all a table at this busy place which had an hour wait time for seating. We piled into Candy’s SUV, having to pull up the rear, third row seating to make room for everyone, called Colin for his hotels’ address, punched it into Candy’s GPS, and headed for his hotel.
As near as I can figure, Colin’s hotel was in Ohio.
By the time we arrived at Colins’ hotel, Rob was calling us like a jealous ex-girlfriend, being in the awkward position of placing his name in for a table for ten and sitting there with just one other person beside himself.
On the way back, Guy, being the backwoodsman that he is, promptly begun giving directions that were quite contrary to what Candy’s GPS was voicing. Not quite trusting modern technology, Guy seemed determined on a few occasions that the restaurant was in the complete opposite direction than what the GPS said. Colin, in what I was to later find out was his usual manner, tossed out seriously intelligently funny witticisms here and there, that had me laughing so hard that I am sure all who were there are still questioning my mental health, well at least the few that haven’t before. Between outbreaks of laughter, I assured Guy that he should trust the GPS and, thankfully, between the lightning fast jokes and insane conversation that was quickly filling the vehicle, Candy navigated us across the states to the Dinosaur Bone Barbeque.Will Heath, Rob Kempinski, Paul Stokes
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey
Arriving at the barbeque, picking our way through a dozen or more Harleys parked outside, we found ourselves in a bar that would feel right at home in Memphis. The first thing to hit me was the incredible, wonderful, absolutely tantalizing smell of barbequed bliss. I suddenly remembered that the last thing I ate was a pack of cashews in another country hours and hours ago. People were everywhere, it took us awhile to find Rob and his friend and when we did, we found them seating at a table for two, happily eating away, traces of barbeque sauce on their fingertips.
It turned out that Rob had put in his name for a table that would seat all of us and was told the wait would be an hour or so. While we were picking up Colin in Ohio, they called his name and then promptly refused to give him a table for ten when it was obvious his party numbered exactly two. You’d think he had asked for a vegetarian plate or something the way they quickly shuffled him to what had to have been the smallest table in the place, next to the highest traffic area. I still do not think he has really forgiven us for that.
The smell of the food convinced us to put in our names and we waited for an hour or so before we were seated, luckily they had a bar. I ordered the first round and tried to pay with the change from that pack of cashews I ate so long ago and my suspicions were confirmed, that strangely colorized paper is no good at all, must be for tolls only.
Rob was right though, it was the best barbeque I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Maybe it was the hunger, maybe it was the hours’ worth of drinks, maybe just the good company or great conversation, but damn, that food was good! That place earned the AoB 5 star rating!
After the evening, we made the rounds, dropping people off at their respective hotels, driving Colin back to Ohio, and finally called it a day.
What a trip so far and the exhibit was not even officially opened yet, the ribbon cutting ceremony not scheduled until the following morning. I fell into a deep sleep dreaming of bonsai, counterfeit money, lost keys, and people in wheelchairs chasing me around that damn tree of Guy’s which was trying to trip me while simultaneously poking at my eyes with long, claw like branches.Guy Guidry, James Daly, Kim Mazzatto
Photograph by Will Heath
After the ribbon cutting ceremony the next morning, the day flew by quickly. Working the AoB/KoB table for a few minutes between talking to everyone, studying the bonsai, and drinking coffee in order to raise my heart rate up to a level that could pass as living, allowed me to watch the reactions of the guests at the exhibit. Overall, the response was overwhelmingly positive, one could actually hear the “ohs” and “ahs” as people pause in front of one bonsai and then the next.
The bonsai were phenomenal, cascades, uprights, slants, formal, informal, traditional, non-traditional, it was an experience only those who have attended such exhibits can know, but one which all can enjoy, no matter what background or experience level they come from.
It was impossible not to be called by the bonsai, calling out to all of us like Ulysses sirens, no man, no person could resist their song. Dan Robinsons’ Juniper held me captive, Candy Shireys’ Apple on rock amazed me, Shohin teased me with their realism, displays spoke to my soul, Guy Guidrys’ Bald Cypress seemed to grin, daring me to bring another eye closer, “lift me, lift me” it seemed to whisper seductively.Warren Hill
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey
I met many people who I have known for years on-line and ran into others I have met before, the exhibit attendees read like a who’s who of American Bonsai. I talked with Warren Hill about collecting and was fascinated by some techniques he used, promising myself a visit to see him soon. Down to earth, open, caring, and genuinely friendly, I instantly felt like I was talking to an old friend, a teacher, and a mentor.With Guy Guidry
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey
Guy Guidry revealed some soil and fungus thoughts, which contradicts much of the popular thoughts currently proclaimed as gospel, and which will keep me awake for many nights. His passion for bonsai was beyond any other I have ever seen. It was contagious and energizing, like a fever that spreads, infecting all who dare to come too close, his passion set us all on fire, no one was safe. The best news from Guy was a discussion about a possible book from him in the near future. Such a project is long overdue from him and will no doubt offer some unique perspectives on bonsai.Colin Lewis, Will Heath
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey
Colin Lewis planted some seeds in my brain that will no doubt change my perceptions forever. Colin was like a druid, a wizened wizard in modern times, there was a mystery about him which colored his words and sent them searing into your mind. Truth mixed with wit is a dangerous weapon that he welded with the experience and knowledge only years of practice could produce. He was also one of the funniest people I have ever met, even when I asked him to sign a handful of books I had brought for the occasion.Will Heath, Pedro J. Morales
Photograph by Paul Stokes
Pedro Morales was a joy to talk to. There with an entourage of Spanish speaking bonsaists, who I think were calling me names, he was a true ambassador for Puerto Rician bonsai. He was very excited about the World Bonsai Convention and we made some plans for Kob and AoB to sponsor the Internet side of this great contest. The Banquet
Top: Kim Mazzatto, James Daly, Rob Kempinski, friend
Bottom: Cris Guidry, Guy Guidry, Candy Shirey, Will Heath, Paul Stokes,
Photograph by PasserbyCandy Shirey, Will Heath
Photograph by Paul Stokes
Candy Shirey was, as mentioned above, one of the nicest people I have ever met, truly an ambassador of bonsai, she wove attendees together like a professional hostess. A joy to talk to and a well educated bonsaist, she was undeniably an asset to the exhibition. I have had the pleasure of working with Candy on AoB over the years and have always valued her straight forward, no nonsense approach, meeting her in person solidified my respect for her.Paul Stokes, Rob Kempinski
Photograph by Will Heath
Another person I met at the exhibition who I have worked with at AoB as well as KoB for years was Paul Stokes. Certainly different in many ways than I expected, he was also full of surprises. His ever-present laptop at hand, he was able to upload reports and pictures of the exhibition from out table there. He spent much more time than I did at the AoB/KoB table graciously provided for us and came supplied with posters, fliers and his never ending desire to advance the forums. Not many people know that he is the backbone of the forums; he brings all the ideas into reality and makes them work. A thankless and often credit-less job, he takes it like a professional and always has a laugh at hand.
The awards ceremony and banquet later that evening found Rob Kempinski, Guy and Cris Guidry, Candy Shirey, Paul Stokes, and I seated in the front of the room. Bill had placed a word find game on each table, offering a prize for the table who completed it correctly first. Well, it was an unfair advantage, we had Rob and his friend, both rocket scientists, at our table, and with the help from the rest of us, it was not long before I stood up and hollered out BINGO! Well, what was I supposed to holler out, Word Find? The prize was a wonderful bottle of wine with the lightly bodied hint of oak and apricot and a remarkable finish that went quite well with the delicious meal and another bottle of wine supplied with it.
After the banquet, the “gang” made an excursion to a local hotel to have a few drinks, strange concept, going to a hotel to drink, but it was a great time. Michael Levin joined us and quickly engaged me in a debate on politics, and the evening progressed, bringing a few warnings from the management to keep the volume of our discussions at a lower level. To fully appreciate this, you must realize that we were in the center of a football field sized area, in a pit like section that was surrounded by rocks, pools, plants, and televisions broadcasting the game. It took some serious noise making to earn such warnings. Never the less we were asked to leave.
Breakfast at Denny’s seemed the next logical stop, I had my reservations when, upon arriving, I noticed two uniformed security guards posted at the entranceway. Breakfast brought more of the free spirited conversation, in a slightly subdued manner, maybe because most of us found it hard to converse with our mouths full, or maybe because of the few serious looks tossed our way by the security guards. Nevertheless, sitting there with fellow bonsaists brought to mind that this was only a small part of the remarkable sense of camaraderie I observed at the exhibit. Rivalry, Internet grudges, egos, and other such trivial nonsense all seemed to have no hold here, we were all part of something historical and quite possibly part of a new bonsai future in America.
It didn’t take me long to pass out on my bed at the hotel later that evening, no dreams that night, just a sleep only exhaustion and a few drinks can deliver. At about eight in the morning I was awakened by an incessant knocking at my door. Thinking it was one of the friends I had met that weekend, I open it to find the worlds shortest maid standing slightly underneath her cart handle, one knurled and calloused hand lifted up high and holding the handle in what only can be described as a ninja death grip.
“Clean Room!” She barked in some foreign, death warrior training camp accent. Confused, still half asleep and dazed, I asked what time checkout was. “Checkout at eleven, clean room now” she barked back, one eye now bulging slightly out of its socket while the death grip tightened on the handle. I still swear I heard the stainless steel creak under that hand.
Finding myself in such a bizarre situation, not fully awake and thinking I must still be dreaming, I did what any sane grown man would do in the same situation. I quickly said “no thank you” and shut the door, locking the deadbolt and the chain. Then I found the new shears I had purchased from a vendor at the exhibit and stood there fully ready to defend myself against a thirty-six inch maid, just in case she kicked in the door and forced herself upon my rumpled bed covers.
I guess you would have had to been there.
Anyhow, I was determined that I was not going to be intimidated by a hotel maid, no matter how far her eye bulged out or how much she could bend a stainless steel bar. I was going to take my sweet time, enjoy a shower, maybe even watch a movie before I checked out of the room.
After showing her that Michigan boys were no pansies, I packed up my luggage and went to my last day at the exhibition. It was about eight fifteen in the morning.
The last day found us taking James Daly and Kim Mazzatto, new friends of the Guidry’s and newer friends of ours to the Dinosaur Bones Barbeque to show them that we were not exaggerating about the incredible food and atmosphere offered there. Guy, Cris, Candy, Kim, James, and I decided to sit outside and enjoy the day; the food was just as good, as was the company. Walking back to our vehicles gave us time to appreciate some of the scenery of downtown Rochester, including the canal. The days’ most famous quote came from Guy himself who, while looking over the bridge at some seagulls, remarked, “Those are the strangest ducks I ever saw.”
Regrettably, after putting it off far longer than I should have, the time to start the cross-countries drive home came upon me. The drive back across Canada was mostly uneventful, not much to report as I slept through most of it, waking only to pay the many tolls. I have long known that I wanted to leave this world like my grandfather did, in his sleep and certainly not crying and screaming like the passengers in his car.
I had almost completely depleted the pile of counterfeit money given to me on the first trip, but as luck would have it, the last tollbooth caught me with just a few weird coins left, forcing me to break the smallest American bill I had, a fifty.
Coming into the States the border patrol tagged me for a random inspection; no doubt because upon hearing I was coming back from the National Exhibit, they thought they could add to their bonsai collection. Besides having my sleep interrupted for about a half hour, nothing particularly exciting happened there. Well they did comment that I was ahead of schedule, as it seems that according to the time I entered Canada from New York and to the time I was exiting Canada to Michigan, I was speeding. I had made the cross-country trip in a half hour less than I should have.
Leave it to the same people who use counterfeit money for toll payments to post speed limit signs of 100 and then hide kmh under it. Hell, I thought this was the best country in the world when I first saw the signs on the way through the first time, I mean anyplace that would allow people to drive 100 mph was okay in my book. Apparently, there is a slight difference between the initials MPH and KMH. Enough anyhow for the border patrol to hold me up for the exact amount of time I was over schedule. Counterfeit speed limit signs, who would have guessed?
Arriving home late, I slipped the counterfeit money from that last toll into my daughters piggy bank while every one was asleep, deciding to let her worry about it when she gets old enough to break into it. Tired, weary, and exhausted, I still just had to take a walk along my bonsai benches in the back yard, remembering the weekend and rejoicing in the memories as well as being part of this wonderful event.
I slipped quietly into bed, gave my girl a kiss on the cheek and heard her mutter, “Why are you home so soon?”
Ah yes, life is good.Mike Pollock
Photograph by Paul StokesKim Mazzatto and James Daly
Photograph by Will HeathMarty Schmalenberg
Photograph by Candy J. ShireyMichael Levin
Photograph by Candy J. ShireyMike Page, Will Heath
Photograph by Paul StokesChase Rosade, Dan Robinson, Solita D. Tafur Rosade
Photograph by Will HeathChis Guidry, Will Heath, Candy Shirey
Photograph by Paul StokesGuy Guidry, Candy Shirey
Photograph by Cris Guidry For an official report on this historic event and more pictures, see Bill Valavanis's post at http://internetbonsaiclub.org/index.php ... ic=24246.0
Addition photographs can be seen on Candy Shirey's flickr page at
Rob Kempinski has some great photographs and a well written review on his blog at http://www.knowledgeofbonsai.org/rob_kempinski/
Another, more serious, review on the exhibition by Will Heath can be read at http://www.artofbonsai.org/forum/viewto ... =17&t=2664
*About Will Heath