Profile: Dan Barton
Dan was born in Hong Kong in 1938 - the last of thirteen children - he has six brothers and six sisters, four children (one deceased) of his own and five grandchildren.
Dan first acquired an interest in bonsai in 1969. He has never had any formal training in bonsai and was essentially self taught, but he was fortunate in having been trained and qualified in the first instance, as an art teacher, and, later in graphic design with Applied Photography being his main subject, he was self-taught in this too. He was a Senior Lecturer at the Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England) and finally graduated to Head of the Photographic Department. It is the last 40 years of involvement with various aspects of the visual arts that have helped him enormously with bonsai and it is essentially this background he relies on when creating his miniature trees.
Dan took early retirement from his Lecturing Post with the Polytechnic about 17 years ago and set up an educational Service in Bonsai involving: demos, workshops, master classes, lectures, residential courses etc.
Dan has, for over 25 years, served as a judge for Bonsai at the Chelsea Flower Show and numerous other Royal Horticultural Society shows; he has received three Awards for photographs of bonsai trees exhibited at the International Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition, Osaka, Japan, including the major Award for 1989 and has also received many other International awards for bonsai. Dan was recently made a Member of the British Bonsai Roll of Honour (by FoBBS) for contributions to the furtherance of Bonsai within Britain and he was honoured in 2006 by the Association of British Bonsai Artists (ABBA) with their "Most Prestigious Award" for his contribution to British Bonsai. He has been a guest bonsai demonstrator at numerous Bonsai Conventions in the U.K., most of the European countries, and in America on numerous occasions. Dan has conducted over 500 different programmes.
Dan had his first book on bonsai, 'THE BONSAI BOOK', published in 1989 by Ebury Press (it has since been re-printed several times). He is currently working on a second book that will deal mostly with aspects of the aesthetics and philosophy of contemporary bonsai practice in the Western World and offering an alternative approach from the traditional methods to the subject. It will be a very visual book and will be very different from any other book on bonsai.
Dan was Founder of the Association of British Bonsai Artists, The Bristol Bonsai Society, and The Classical Bonsai Circle. He has created several national Bonsai events such as "The Joy of Bonsai" and "Bonsai UK Exhibition", (BUKEX).
In recent years, he has extended his interests to making handcrafted stoneware pots for bonsai with his wife, Cecilia. They market these pots under the business name of 'Esoteric Pots' with a guarantee that no two pots will be the same. His latest endeavors include painting in oils.
He finds that sharing his talents, knowledge and experience with others is the most fulfilling and rewarding part of his life. In fact, "Life is so good, there is no time left to die".
The following is an on-line interview with Dan Barton
For many it seems that you have created more pottery than bonsai over the past ten years, is this true in your mind and why?
As far as my own bonsai collection is concerned, yes, I have created more pots than trees, but remember, I have also conducted innumerable workshops and demos etc and conceptualized and created many bonsai for other people. But I have to concede that I have recently cut back significantly on my personal bonsai collection as I am finding it physically difficult to manage large trees and also so many trees. Time is also a factor as pot making is very time-consuming and I suppose I spend at least 50% of my time making pots. It's a fabulous medium to work in as you can't force the pace of clay and have to work with it. It's very relaxing. I have also recently started painting in oils again.
Tell us about your pottery, what led you to become a potter and do you feel a knowledge of pottery is important for those who design bonsai?
I first started making pots for my bonsai about 30 years ago as I found it very costly buying pots for all of my trees. I was then asked by some of my friends whether I would consider making pots to sell and that's how it all began. I made a few and these soon sold and although I refuse to mass-produce pots; I make about 100 a year. Almost all of the pots are made using the ‘coiling' method of construction that can sometimes take as long as 2 -3 days to complete a single pot. I make pots in all sorts of shapes and sizes but I mostly enjoy making "primitive" pots for literati style bonsai. I can inject a lot of my personality into these designs and I very much enjoy the freedom of form the style allows. I strive hard to steer clear of ‘measured and mechanical' shapes as these can sometimes end up looking very laboured. Furthermore, I avoid making pots similar to the traditional Japanese and Chinese ceramics as they do this so well and usually so cheaply so there is no point in mimicking them. I like to think I have introduced a number of unusual ideas, textures and glaze effects in my pots and it's encouraging to see so many of my ideas being ‘copied' by other ceramicists. I suppose this must ‘say something' for them! It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
It is of course a great help to bonsai artists if they have an understanding of pottery as the pot plays such an important part in the final presentation of the tree. It is similar to choosing a frame for a picture — it has to be just right to do the artwork justice. There are so many different shapes and colours to choose from and this can prove bewildering. It should also be pointed out that no matter how good a pot may be, it should never detract from the tree… its task is to enhance the design of the tree and compliment it. Having said this I feel we in the West do not pay anything like enough attention to the importance of the pot or indeed to the potters scattered around the Western world…. There are so many really excellent potters around these days and they are not being given the credit or exposure they deserve. It involves just as much artistic skill in producing a good pot as it does a good bonsai and the sooner we acknowledge this the better.
Finally, most of us in the West tend to over-pot our trees if compared to Japanese bonsai that are usually very tight-fitting.
What considerations do you feel are the most important when choosing a container for a bonsai?
This will very much depend on the tree to be potted. Is it a young tree at an early stage of development or a mature specimen bonsai? Young trees in training only need to have a pot that will provide a suitable growing environment that will enable healthy growth. This can be anything from a washing up bowl (with suitable drainage holes) to a wooden box made for the job or indeed any appropriate training pot. Choice of colour and shape is not overly critical if the pot does its job. On the other hand, choosing a suitable pot/container (eg slab, rock etc) is very critical if it is to do a specimen bonsai justice. The shape and size of the pot needs to enhance the aesthetic sensibilities of the overall presentation and should be chosen in sympathy with the design or style of the bonsai. Colour also plays an important part and this needs to be carefully considered in respect of every individual tree. It is difficult to generalize about the choice of colour but it may be helpful to consider the following. Coniferous species usually look best when potted in pots with muted ‘earth' colours such as dull browns, somber ochres, burnt umber, Indian reds, raw sienna, gun-metal greys etc. The colours work best when latent within the clay body rather than as an applied glaze so colouring oxides will often do the job. Having said this, some of the muted yellow ochres through to dull brown glazes can often work. Very often, if the choice of pot colour reflects the colour character of the trees' trunks then this will usually succeed.
Deciduous and flowering trees offer the opportunity for a much wider choice of colours and decorative elements in the pot. But again, difficulties may arise if there is seasonal colour change in the leaves of the tree or if the tree is a flowering/fruiting species. You then have to decide which is your preferred season and choose the colur of the pot accordingly. Flowering species can usually tolerate more ornamentation on the pot surface than regular deciduous bonsai. But glazes of various colours may be chosen provided they enhance the overall presentation and do not create a distraction. Remember, it does not matter how beautiful or expensive a pot may be, it always takes second place to the tree that is planted in it.
The depth of the pot should approximate to the diameter of the trunk (just above the root crown). Obviously this is not the case with cascade and semi-cascade bonsai that require deeper pots. Also certain species such as black pines and azaleas benefit from deeper-than-average pots.
Formal styles of tree should be planted in formal pots almost bordering on the austere (usually rectangular), and less formal trees can often look good in oval, round and even hexagonal shaped pots. Literati bonsai usually look good in shallow round ‘primitive' style pots.
It is very difficult to be absolutely finite about the choice of pot because there are so many variables to take into account.
You have seen the days when the British bonsai masters were ruling Europe and also had a great impact in America. This has changed very much since then. Now the British are coming back with great force, what are your thoughts about this and why did this happen?
Assuming the rhetorical accuracy of your question, there are several reasons why this should be, possibly because England had a significant head start on mainland Europe with the introduction of bonsai into the UK reaching back to the beginning of the last century. It must be remembered that at that time bonsai was ruled by enthusiasm and a great deal of ignorance rather than acquired skill but in the UK we had a huge heritage of gardening and horticultural skills plus centuries of aesthetic skills. All of this has contributed significantly to the development of bonsai in England. Added to this, in those early days of bonsai, most bonsai were grown from seedlings, cuttings, layerings, graftings etc with a few ‘heavenly' (or so we thought) trees imported from Japan. When I reflect now on those early imports I shudder at the thought of their relative insignificance compared to contemporary imports from the East today.
Three decades or so ago we in the UK probably did lead Europe and possibly the USA in the broadest sense with our bonsai skills (but this didn't make them ‘good' trees, only ‘better' trees as most bonsai then fell far short of what we see today (western-to-worldwide). At that time very few of us resorted to collected material — most of our material trees were self–propagated or purchased nursery stock material. The major reason why much of mainland Europe has overtaken the UK in their bonsai is because of the acquisition of ‘yamadori' or collected trees. There is a massive availability of yamadori material in Europe ripe for the taking (let's not delve into the moral issues associated with this practice!!... at least not for the moment). And so European bonsai has flourished and super-ceded everything almost worldwide in the past 20-25 years. Countries especially thriving at the moment are: Italy, Spain, France, Germany and several of the Eastern block countries. And some of the most popular species collected from the wild include: mugo pines, junipers, olive trees, hawthorn, yew, Scots pines, beech, cork bark oaks etc., and from the USA: live oaks, Californian juniper, bald cypress, buttonwood to name but a few.
It should be remembered that people often compare England with Europe and with America. That is, all of the mainland European countries as a group and all of the American states as a group; well, if you consider the English population against the populations of America and Europe you will appreciate how small we are by comparison. Yet we do nevertheless still sport some very fine bonsai artists that are world-class. Notably, Kevin Willson, Peter Adams, Colin Lewis, Steve Tolley, Tony Tickle, Terry Foster, Dave Prescott, Peter Warren, John Hanby, John Armitage, Craig Coussins, Graham Potter; there is of course also Peter Chan and John Trott who have both won more than 25 Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medals for their bonsai exhibitions in the UK, to mention but a few, there are course many more excellent bonsai artists. If this fact is then taken into account and comparisons are made against INDIVIDUAL European countries and individual American states I think you'll find that there is in fact a pretty even spread of bonsai talent across the board and that England is still well-able to hold its head up high. A very high percentage of the trees exhibited in Europe's premiere bonsai Event (Ginkgo) is from the UK.
Furthermore, if you consider the greatest number of books that have been written about bonsai (outside of Japan), then the highest percentage appears to have been authored by British enthusiasts. But the most encouraging thing is that more and more talented bonsai artists (I hate using the reference: ‘Master'!) are appearing with each New Year all over the western world.
The availability of bonsai conventions, workshops, books, magazines and other technical opportunities has made it very much easier to develop ones bonsai skills these days. Furthermore, many enthusiasts are traveling to Japan and other countries to learn more about bonsai. All of this has accelerated the art of bonsai. So as the saying goes: ‘what goes around, comes around!'
Bonsai to an overwhelming majority of folks is a hobby that they do because they want peace; in the upper echelons of the bonsai world there is not much peace though. Why is this and what can we do about it?
I thought it wouldn't be too long before I'd be plunged into the bonsai political arena!!!
Yep, you're absolutely right! There is a great deal of bonsai bitching and backbiting throughout the bonsai world. The sad fact is that it is totally unnecessary. It only exists because we ALLOW it too. If we stop for a moment (and now I'm climbing into the pulpit) and think about it, it all comes down to choice. We CHOOSE to make war (bonsai war)…. I know this very well because I was one of the very worst culprits in this nasty game. And how sorry I now am ‘for my sins' because I realize the total futility and juvenility of it all. It achieved nothing! Repeat: "It achieved nothing!".
Most of the nastiness stems from the insecurities in oneself and petty jealousies with others and the imagined threat this poses.
If we consider some of the other art forms, for example painting, and consider some of the great exponents in the field, eg Van Gogh and Cezanne and so many of the other impressionists who worked TOGETHER and shared their ideas and their art (even if they did not always agree) we then have to ask ourselves why can't this be the case with bonsai? Well the answer is, it can. If everyone thinks of their closest bonsai friends (and I mean TRUE friends) they invariably get on well and are happy to share their hobby with each other so why can't this simple act of affection and friendship be extended further to other exponents of the art outside of ones usual circle of friends? Well it can…. It only requires the will to MAKE IT HAPPEN.
A couple of years ago I did a lot of soul-searching and identified in my mind the bonsai people I had the greatest number of grievances with and asked myself — WHY? And there really wasn't any sound reason for my behavior so I took the decision to approach all of these individuals and to apologise for my behavior over the years and since then I've never felt so good.
We are all good friends now, because of my ‘conscious decision' to make amends. It was in the end, so easy….. one just has to do it! Once again, we are down to CHOICE. It is choice that governs our lives and the more we are able to contemplate this fact and apply it to positive endeavour the better and more enriched will our lives be. So if we are to overcome the problems that plague the upper echelons of bonsai we need to get a grip on ourselves and do what we know to be right. This will take a bit of guts and character!
Having said all of this it is important to identify some of the many of ‘CAUSES' that contribute to the problem rather than just comment on its ‘EFFECTS' — the bitching.
We have already accepted that there are very many hugely talented people practicing bonsai and producing exquisite work…. What a wonderful situation! By now what has happened (especially over the past 20 -30 years) is that quite a large number of these artists have elected to turn their art/hobby into their living and practice bonsai in a professional capacity. That's excellent and why shouldn't they! The problem is that this pursuit will invariably result in a degree of competitiveness (commercial) that in turn can sometimes become quite nasty as each promotes themselves and their work as, ‘THE BEST' (we've all heard this claim so many times by so many people). So petty jealousies will inevitably arise between individual bonsai artists (and also many of the ‘wanabes') and a degree of back biting (after all, we are all human) will ensue. This spread of the different factions, will each have its own following of ‘admirers', who in turn, will support and promote their pet ‘gurus' and so the problem escalates and the battling grows beyond just individuals. Is it necessary? Who can say? All I am doing is trying to identify some of the problems. ‘Money' is now involved and people have to make a living so it is difficult to know how it can be controlled. It probably can't be and so the battling continues.
Another problem developing from this is that most of us think of bonsai as an art form of some sort or another and we tend to globalize or standardize it as all-encompassing for the entire bonsai world but we forget that art results from the INDIVIDUALS that have created it and not necessarily the masses and we in the western hemisphere fiercely protect that right (in Japan there is a far greater preparedness to ‘CONFORM' to the dictates of the group/community). If this is the case then there are bound to be varying differences of opinion on an individual, national and international basis. So once again the individual bonsai artists and their followers will very often disagree and so the inevitable: bitching and character defamation!
Is painting globalised? — or is sculpture, or photography or any of the traditional arts etc. No, of course it's not. It's practiced by the individual for his or her own personal reasons and not just conformity to ‘the fashion of the day' as is so often the case with bonsai enthusiasts. This can hardly be called art. It's just dogged routine because so many of us simply do not have the courage of our convictions to stand up and do anything that may differ from the general trend. Most of us are terrified of being criticized and when we are criticized we all take it so seriously and let it gnaw away within us subsequently causing the most vicious thoughts and hatreds towards each other. Water off a duck's back, I say…. Ignore it!
Well we simply cannot all agree about every aspect of bonsai but we can agree to disagree and we can acknowledge that there will most certainly be a massive difference in opinions and we will have to cope within this situation. But we can help ourselves and help bonsai in general if we can recognize the good in others (even if we disagree) and strive to develop a sense of RESPECT for others and the work they create (good or bad). I am sure that the answer to so many of the unwanted aspects in bonsai can be resolved by this, or at least, it may reduce some of its negativisms if we can accept the differences in others and exercise greater tolerance.
I firmly believe that there are a number of attributes other than the usual practical ones of aesthetics and horticulture that are essential if we are to truly benefit from all that is available from bonsai and I am referring here to the spirituality of the art. For maximum gain from bonsai I believe we need the following: A love of life; a love of people; a love of nature (especially of trees); we need patience, we need tolerance, commitment and dedication; we need the ability to give as well as to receive and we need to be able to accept the differences in others practicing the art; we need love and we need to be able to give love, but above all, we need humility. ……… And here endeth the lesson for the day!
The comments above are a FEW of my personal views based on almost 40 years of observation and experience. There are of course many other reasons why the bonsai fraternity is so aggressively disposed towards each other. Far too many for me to discuss here but remember, I'm not taking any side; I'm just trying to answer the question above.
How important is the quality of raw material for the final bonsai?
Extremely important! I cannot over-emphasise this. Bonsai is difficult at the best of times so if we use inferior material we are only compounding the problem. Bonsai is about time and about life and therefore it is about change (this is its fourth dimension), so it is never static. The changes we seek in bonsai are to create a beautiful and mature specimen tree over a period of time… often a great deal of time, but as we are mortal and only have a limited lifespan ourselves, it would be nice if we could realize our bonsai goals within our own life spans. So we need to really consider what material we use for bonsai and try to be as un-compromising as possible.
Ideally if we can obtain material that has a well-ramified root spread, sound trunk with a good taper and good bark quality (ideally, already matured), good branch structure and good health we will have a head start in creating our bonsai. But, believe it or not I am still starting some bonsai projects from seed, cuttings, division etc. I'm in no hurry…. The longer it takes, the longer I will enjoy the hobby. My own preference is that I am a ‘maker' of bonsai rather than a ‘keeper', so the material I use emanates from all quarters.
If the quality of raw material indeed makes a great impact, then the British bonsaists are at a disadvantage compared to the folks who live close to the Alps or other areas where there is an abundance of high quality collectible material. What are your thoughts on this?
Whatever makes you think this? Yamadori material is relative to the country from whence it comes. In the UK we have some of the finest examples of collectible yew (taxus), Hawthorn (crataegus), Scots pine (P. sylvestris), Beech (fagus), oak (quercus), blackthorn (prunus spinosa), common juniper (j. communis) to mention but some of the yamadori material available from the wild that is as good as anything available from Europe or anywhere else in the world. Perhaps our material is not as massive as the European material, but big is not necessarily always best!
In any case, collected material is by no means the only source of material that will result in good bonsai. Many of the finest classical bonsai have been created from cultivated material. Notably, some of the great broom style zelkovas, some of the mountain and trident maples and a host of other examples can easily be seen if one refers to some of the earlier copies of the Japanese exhibition souvenir books. After all, where in the wild would one stumble across a yamadori zelkova or maple worth collecting? Do not allow yourself to be seduced by the current international trend that considers yamadori material to be, the be all and end all, of good bonsai. That is rubbish and has only arisen because we in the west tend to be in such a hurry and at the same time we mustn't discount the quick and lucrative turnover that can be obtained from the sale of bonsai created from collected trees. This latter point is, I think, getting closer to the real motivation behind creating bonsai from yamadori material. It sells well! The bone fide bonsai enthusiast who has neither the financial means to buy trees nor the ability to acquire collected material is quite content to bimble along enjoying the hobby without getting caught up in the ‘you know what!
Enormous pressures by the yamadori boffins is being directed at the whole of the bonsai scene and it is very difficult for ‘Mr Ordinary Bonsai Man' to enjoy any credibility. This fact is doing so much damage to our hobby as its practice only caters for a very small minority of enthusiasts who have the financial means to pursue it. It is also setting such impossibly high standards of attainment that many aspiring bonsai enthusiasts are being driven away from the hobby because they are finding it too difficult to keep up and are often ashamed of their humble efforts. This really hurts me!
There are of course very many advantages in using yamadori material but remember it is mostly the quality of the trunk and mature bark or natural shari that is the prime attraction. If nebari (root ramification) and branching is to be considered this often falls short of ideal and some pretty ugly, over-heavy roots can exist and badly placed branches can too. With bonsai created from non-yamadori sources one can often gain far better control of the nebari and branch structure than is possible with collected material. There are of course exceptions to this!
Remember too that Mother Nature is mostly responsible for the design and quality of trunk character with yamadori material and not the bonsai artist.
For a long time it was quite clear what a good bonsai had to look like. Since about 15 years ago very different looking bonsai have come out of Japan and were (and still are) copied in Europe. What's your opinion of this development?
This comment is very true but like so many things, when someone comes up with an original and awe-inspiring idea/s this often sets up a trend and we all want to mimic it.
Although you haven't mentioned it in so many words, the extraordinary examples of the driftwood style of bonsai from Japan captivated everyone in the bonsai world, to say nothing about the amazingly innovative techniques employed to arrive at these exquisite works. Concurrent with this inspirational outpouring was a growth worldwide of very talented bonsai artists needing a stimulus to kick-start their artistic potential and these Japanese ‘images' of mind-blowing trees did just that. What opportunities it provided for the new genre of bonsai artists, and so, everyone clambered onto the band wagon and ‘bingo', we now seem to have nothing but an endless outpouring of massively carved trunks and other deadwood with variations of foliage headgear. Not very tree-like in the natural sense but hey, who cares! This is the current trend and if it sells… well come on! (Maybe I'm being a little ‘tongue in cheek' and maybe a little provocative — no offense intended to anyone)! But my own feeling as your question implies is that we are drifting to some extent from the literal translation of bonsai — tree in a tray/pot, and digressing towards more formalized presentations that don't really seek to represent trees in miniature (in a pot) but rather suggest how trees ‘should look'…. In other words, Big ‘G' got it wrong; Man knows better. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh and over-judgemental but I can only respond to what impresses me aesthetically and I must confess that in the first instance my bonsai preference is for bonsai that look like trees in miniature. If I cannot achieve this with the material to hand then I will pursue the traditional Japanese structural approach of, ‘first branch, second branch, third branch, bullshit branch and so on'. And if this is not possible then I will endeavour to create a ‘living sculpture' and get out the Makita, Dremel and other weapons of war and do battle!
One of the sad facts of the current trend of rendering almost every conifer to a dis-emboweled state is that we are reaching a point where they are all beginning to look the same. You know the saying; ‘Seen one, seen the lot!'. What's happened to innovation, creativity and indeed, what's happened to art. It all appears to be an exercise these days in ‘follow my leader' and ‘who can do the best' technique! Remember, technique should be a means to an end and not an end in itself.
So it seems that bonsai is rapidly giving its main credence and support to ‘technical excellence' and is losing sight of innovation and creativity and the trees are beginning to be categorized and ‘samey'. I know in time that this will change as it is only a contemporary trend but if some of the current day bonsai artists could only have the courage to ‘do their own thing' and not just follow the trend like sheep we would have a wealth of far more exciting and innovative examples of bonsai art and much more VARIETY. BELIEVE IN YOURSELVES AND BE INDIVIDUAL! You have the talent, exploit it to its fullest potential. It may not make you rich but at least you will know that you have left something behind for the world that resulted from YOUR OWN creative endeavour.
Sir Bernard Lovall once said that if he had a code of practice to offer as a lifestyle it would be; "Singleness of purpose and absolute honesty". Frankly, what could be better than this if we are to be true to ourselves and true to our art.
It is easy for me to make comments of this sort because I've made every bonsai mistake in the book over the years. So, believe me, I know the score and am not ashamed to admit to it. I only hope there is still sufficient time left for me to travel down the ‘more enlightened' road. There is another adage that says; ‘don't learn from your mistakes, learn from the mistakes of others'. Learn from my mistakes and don't allow them to be repeated.
One of Dan's acccent plantings
Some say that Italy is the strongest nation in the western world. Some say they are overdoing it and are pretty much one-sided in their approach toward bonsai. What are your ideas here?
My own view is that Italy is currently leading the rest of the world with bonsai creativity and so they should. Italian horticulture and landscaping is sensational and then way back in the background were characters like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello, Titian, Tintoretto, Masaccio, Bellini, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Giotto…. The list is endless. What a heritage of inspirational masters of aesthetics. The Italians have and are saturated with inherent artistic and design talent…. Did someone mention Ferrari; Versace and so on. Say no more, it's in their blood and we should all be so grateful that they are available and willing to share their skills with the rest of the bonsai world. But as mentioned earlier, everything is relative and each country has its centers of excellence and masters' of the art (of bonsai).
No, I certainly don't think they are overdoing it nor do I think they are one-sided. I think they and of course several other European countries provide a great deal to inspire the rest of us with our bonsai. It is so easy to look for faults in the work of others but believe me, this serves absolutely no useful purpose…..look, instead, for the GOOD and see how you (I mean of course everyone) can adapt it to your own work and in this way you will progress. Learn from success not failure.
"Don't try to make your tree look like a bonsai, but rather try to make your bonsai look like a tree". You have heard this, of course. But why is it that 40 years after John Naka has said this loud and clear that the overwhelming majority of bonsai still don't look very much like trees but rather like bonsai?
I think I've already answered this question above in question 8. But having said this maybe its because bonsai is a contrivance of nature to create ARTIFICIAL images that formalize the best that Nature itself can do. At the end of the day, I personally, like my bonsai to look as natural (albeit well-groomed) as possible and an essential attribute that bonsai must have is that they must ‘look alive' and demonstrate their joy of life. They have to show that they are living and responding to the seasons and the changes that this brings to them…. for heaven's sake, at the end of the day they are plants!
I loathe plasticised bonsai that look moribund and sterile and that have every single leaf in absolutely the right place and I fully support John Naka's quote above. The sad fact is that so many people at all levels of the hobby simple don't have a clue what bonsai art is really about. Shoot me down for this remark if you like but it's a fact and I'm sticking with it but don't ask me to justify it because I have no intention to…. just think about it (for about 35 years as I have done) and then we can discuss it further…. If I'm still around! John most certainly knew what he was talking about.
Where do you see the future of bonsai in the West?
I think that when bonsai in the west has another 50 – 60 years under its belt it will have settled down and we will have a much better understanding of what it is all about as an established art form, as is the case in Japan. I think there will be many more patrons of the art from the general public than at present and we may find greater preparedness by the existing Arts' Councils and national lottery schemes to support bonsai. I believe there will be more national bonsai museums around the world; more inter-action between countries to share their bonsai experiences and art. I foresee more trees being recognized as ‘National Treasures' and more bonsai artists being acknowledged and rewarded for their contribution to the art of bonsai as was the case with John Naka. I believe the spirit of bonsai will be better understood and accepted by a far wider percentage of the bonsai population. I foresee general education (possibly through universities) including bonsai as a study subject included in their course curriculums. I envisage more bequests being made for the setting up of bonsai centres of study. I think there will be much more evidence of emergent alternatives to the traditional Japanese approach to bonsai and we may well see many new ideas of how ‘trees in trays' (bonsai) can be presented, designed and formed using new and unusual species and embracing any new technologies that may be available.
I think there will be more in-depth information published about bonsai than at present. I think we may even find the evolution of some bonsai intellectuals. I think there will be some people that will take a real radical look at the practice of bonsai and examine the possibilities of ‘turning it on its head' to see what else we can do to extend its potential as an art form.
I think computer programmes will be created to facilitate the designing of bonsai through virtual imagery and CAD. I think there will be far better-structured courses and workshops developed for the teaching of bonsai. I think Penjing will be better accepted in the West than it is at present with attempts to see whether the gap can be bridged or indeed the two forms amalgamated in some way.
I see wondrous things for the future of bonsai in the West and am ever the optimist.
Are you in a position to comment on the state of the art in America as opposed to such countries as Japan and Europe?
I'm not really sure whether I am in a position to make any meaningful comments in this respect. I have only visited America on 13 occasions for bonsai related activities and most of those trips were either to Florida or California with one or two further north. At the time of my visits bonsai was far less sophisticated in the States than it is today but the enthusiasm for bonsai was second to none, anywhere in the world. I found the Americans greedy for knowledge and anything that would progress their development in the art. They were always very attentive and always ready for instruction. My only concern was that at that time there seemed to be a reluctance for anyone to take the initiative and pursue anything that may have questioned convention. Everyone seemed happier to fit in with the general trend — Nick Lenz was not around at that time!!! It struck me from my limited observations that the only ‘rebels' that seemed prepared to ‘stick their necks out' and challenge convention were the Gang of Four (my good friends Messrs Banting, Hoerner, Marchal and Guidry) from New Orleans.
I mentioned Nick Lenz above; I've never met him but would very much like to. His work is controversial to say the least and whether one likes it or not here was a man prepared to stick his neck out and test new ideas. This is what art is about; it's about investigation, exploitation endless searching and the application and development of new technologies and their application to the production of beautiful images. It doesn't always have to be good, but it is this endless quest to implement ones creative potential that distinguishes the artist from the technician. This doesn't necessarily mean that I necessarily like Nick's work but I am most certainly fascinated by his ‘thinking' and innovation. A challenge was there and he was prepared to take the bull by the horns and check it out. I find it very witty…. Good on you Nick!
Although there is in America a far greater preparedness these days to be more visually inquisitive and exploratory — there could be more. This is where, in my humble opinion, I feel Japan and Europe score higher marks. I think in Europe especially, we are prepared to challenge convention in the way that Kimura San did with some of his early and very bold artistic statements — what a revelation for all of the bonsai world. Farrand Bloch conducted a number of extraordinary bonsai projects a few years ago that really brought a totally new way of considering the treatment of bonsai and like Nick Lenz his work was quite revolutionary. I am very disappointed that he has not taken his ideas further because it is not necessary whether or not they were successful but more a case of departing from the ‘rule book' and ‘doing their own thing'. Remember, when you don't try out new ideas you can get into a bit of a stalemate situation rather as the ancient Egyptians did with some of their art — for nearly 3000 years!!!
Unless we try out more of these new and occasionally bizarre ideas the art cannot progress and is at risk of becoming sterile and moribund. For my own part, I could have been far more adventurous with my bonsai but like so many I suppose I lacked the confidence, but that was certainly not the case with my ceramic adventures. I would like to think that I have turned the tables upsidedown with my pottery and demonstrated that it is possible to depart from convention and still succeed. I measure my success by the number of times my work has been copied by other potters. A bit annoying at times…. Say no more!
So in a nutshell, I think Europe and Japan do still have the edge on America in bonsai but once the American potential is fully realized and applied then, watch this space!
An example of the wonderful pottery of Dan Barton
Your book, "The Bonsai Book" is now a classic, and people are willing to pay a premium price for a good copy on the Internet. Considering the vast number of bonsai books written in the past decade and the incredible popularity of your own book, what would you say was different about your book that made it so well received?
Probably luck. Firstly, thanks for your kind comments — much appreciated. I think that if my book does enjoy the status you ascribe to it then it may be because it was all based on first hand experience and nothing was gleaned out of other books. Everything that was written in it was tried and tested by me although I now recommend that you buy your Lime sulphur rather than try to make your own because the recipe in my book is very hit or miss and the Mark Two compost recipe was based on a Californian mix and is not in fact suitable for European bonsai. Isn't it strange that we give bonsai nationalities!!!
I also think the manner in which the book was written may have some bearing on its popularity — I tried to write it in such a way that each reader would feel it was written especially for his or herself.
If or when the bonsai book I am currently working on ever gets finished or published then that will be a book worth reading. It is totally different from The Bonsai Book in every respect and indeed from any other book on bonsai and introduces many original ideas. It will be mostly focused on the aesthetics relating to bonsai and will be considerably more advanced than my first book. I just wish I didn't have to earn my living and could spend more of my time working on it. I'm currently through 4.5 chapters…. There are 8 chapters in total.
Do you know of the whereabouts of the hawthorn bonsai from the cover of "The Bonsai Book"?
Yes — I sold it last November and it is now being well looked after by someone in the North of England. It is much improved from the cover image on my book.
There is a section in your book about the various techniques used in training pine bonsai. To this day, the sheer number of techniques used on pines, complicated by the time table when these techniques need to be applied, is very confusing to many. Do you have an advice on how to simplify the approach to these techniques, in order to clear all the confusion?
Agreed; the range of techniques for pruning pine shoots on two-needled pines is very confusing and I frankly don't know whether it is possible to simplify the various techniques without devoting a whole book to the subject. Now there's a challenge for someone. The best way I find is to find some you can trust that has experience of some of the techniques and see whether they will let you actually watch them apply the techniques to their own trees so that you can see EXACTLY what it is that they are doing. Trying to understand the written statements on the subject just isn't as clear as a practical demonstration.
Each pine at every stage of its growth requires subtle variations in the applied techniques of pruning to achieve the desired result. On the other hand, when you do understand the technology of pruning pine shoots then much of what is required is a matter of logical conclusion. Well that's not very helpful is it — see what I mean about written instruction! Come over Will and pay me a visit and I'll show you in person and also give you a good break in little old England.
The level of light available to the tree, the ambient temperature, the length of growing season, the applied fertilizing and watering regimes — these all play an important part and have to be considered as well as just pinching out growing shoots.
You are currently the process of finishing a new book, this time dealing with the aesthetics relating to bonsai. This is a subject that is very rare in bonsai, especially in bonsai books which tend to be "how to grow" books and is the reason why books on bonsai are shelved in the gardening section of bookstores instead of the arts section. Can you share why you decided to focus solely on the aesthetics of bonsai?
Because, as you say, this aspect of bonsai has been rarely touched on and because my background training in aesthetics relating to the general visual arts and my lecturing in the subject over a period of 26 years places me in a unique position to tackle such a subject. I feel I have the necessary qualifications to embark on such a task and am desperate to share some of my ideas and original theories on the subject with others. I have also been blessed by the good Lord with talents in drawing and photography and I feel I have an obligation too, to share these skills with my fellow men. The book will be crammed with many visual images — drawn, photographed and computer generated and will also discuss my two ‘Eureka" moments which will be quite a revelation. Enough said!
The book will leave out virtually all of the horticulture and usual bumpff written in most bonsai books but it will devote a chapter to pots for bonsai and also a chapter on accent plants.
As the first and only Internet forum dealing exclusively with the artistic aspects of bonsai, we have received some criticism for being so focused on art, to the point where we are often called elitist. Have you run into similar objections or criticism from others when the subject of your new book was discussed?
Never! The only reason most people have a pop at me is because I'm taking so long in producing it (almost 15 years now) but because of the complexity of the subject and the need to simplify it into understandable language so that everyone can comprehend its content has taken me years to chew over each sentence in order to achieve this. Furthermore, I too have had to refine many of the topics so that I too could understand what I knew and practiced intuitively. Now my intuitions needed to be rationalized. I have also had to teach myself a number of computer skills especially in familiarizing myself with Adobe Photoshop. This has taken me a huge amount of time…. I‘m a slow learner!
What would you say was the most important factors to consider when creating a bonsai?
To find the ‘soul' in the tree and then do whatever is necessary to release it. This will give it its individuality and unique position in the world of bonsai. Everything else should enhance and support this objective.
There is a small segment of the bonsai community that frequents Internet forums where discussion can take place about bonsai. This is a relatively new venue for bonsai as compared to magazines and/or books, how do you feel about these forums?
I personally shy clear of these forums because the few that I have visited tend all too often to seek the negative aspects in what contributors submit and the bitching ‘gets to me'. As discussed earlier in this interview, I've been down that road and it always leads to a dead end. So it's not for me anymore. If forums could guarantee positive and constructive criticism, mutual respect and refrain from the constant attempts to drag everything into the gutter I think they would be excellent. But from what I have seen that only happens on rare occasions.
With the Internet bonsai forums came those who have the talent to do virtuals of bonsai, showing some possible futures of the tree as well as virtually placing bonsai in a wide selection of pots before making the final pot decision and purchase. Some also find this new tool useful in manners such as seeing how a removed branch affects the overall design before making the cut and determining other such design decisions before committing. How do you feel about computer virtuals as a tool for designing bonsai?
Fantastic! Do it! Embrace modern technology and let it help you arrive at your solution. I wish I could be more skilled with computer applications; they provide an incredible modern day tool that the Japanese didn't have when they started off in bonsai so we have a wonderful opportunity to help us to improve with our bonsai.
What would you personally like to see changed in the bonsai community? Why?
I think I've more or less already hinted at what I would like to see changed or at least introduced into the bonsai community — mutual respect and greater support shown to others in support of the work they do in the same way that so many of the traditional art movements did. Eg, the Impressionists, Fauvists, Cubists, Pre-Raphaelites and so on. These guys shared their ideas and skills with each other and whilst they were not necessarily always in agreement they were a bit more civilized in their respect for each other.
We talk about and describe bonsai as an art but so little is really understood by the majority of the bonsai fraternity as to what art is really about. Far more education within the bonsai arena is needed in respect of this. Bonsai Conventions and other such like events should provide the space and time in their programmes to accommodate discussion in these matters where the participants have real faces to confront and not just ones that need to hide behind the computer screen!
In your opinion, who are the people making the good changes in bonsai today, who is leading the art into the future? What new innovations have you seen that most excites you?
In the first instance — everyone! I can honestly say that I have learned in some respect or other from everyone in bonsai that I have been involved with. Education cannot be quantified; it's all a matter of degree. Sometimes you learn a lot, sometimes just a fragment. But if you have learned then it does not matter how much or how little, what matters is that you have expanded your own state of enlightenment and progressed in your experience and knowledge. So coming back to the question; everyone is contributing to the pool of bonsai experience but if we are only concerned with those that have made major contributions then you may have to qualify which aspects we are concerned with the most — aesthetics, horticulture, administration and so on.
I have already mentioned a number of names in my earlier discussions above so far as the UK is concerned but I must confess that I am a bit nervous about mentioning any other names from Europe or America in fear of upsetting any people that I may leave out so I'm probably going to dodge the crux of this question and approach it from a different angle.
The people making the good changes in bonsai are the people who are receptive to learning from those who have taught them and who then carry that learning further to others so that they in turn will progress and so the betterment of the art expands and ‘good changes' are implemented in bonsai.
I suppose the one person that has mostly influenced the art in the last couple of decades and caused the bonsai community to wake up to more ambitious and creative opportunities has to be Kimura San. Through his inspirational work a huge eruption of talent has come to light and the bonsai world is so much the better for it. Just don't let it get bogged down with driftwood-style bonsai alone. There are bonsai image categories other than ‘ancient' — eg juvenile, mature and old! What's wrong with designing some of our bonsai to reflect some of these images that also exist in nature? For instance, would you say that a typical zelkova broomstyle tree represented an ancient image — of course not, it is far more representational of the juveile images of trees we see in our parks. Extend this analogy to other examples such as mature and old.
I suppose the opportunities afforded by computing applications are the innovations that are currently mostly exciting me, but to date, we have only scratched the surface in this respect. The potential is vast! Exploit it.
Another bonsai ‘tool' often not appreciated and used to its full advantage is ‘Imagination'. We all have it. Use it to creative end just as your compatriot did so successfully. I am of course referring to Mr Walt Disney. Virtually the whole of his industry was founded on IMAGINATION.
For more on Dan Barton and his art, please see the following:
The Accent Pottery of Dan Barton
The Pottery of Dan Barton
The Bonsai of Dan Barton