Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibitionby Peter Warren
First, I would like to congratulate Bill Valavanis, his vast team of assistants and every one of the exhibitors for making the first National exhibition a success. There were many old, genuine bonsai in the exhibition and I was truly impressed, I learnt a great deal about Bonsai and Americans. The standard of trees was very high and judging each individual tree was very difficult.
Choosing the winner of the Yoshimura award however was easy. The decision was unanimous amongst the three judges, Seiji Morimae, Pedro Morales and myself; the Black Pine of Mike Page fulfilled all the criteria with ease. After the decision was made Mr. Morimae and I were asked, in a very polite way by many people who couldn’t understand the value of the tree, to explain the decision. I would like to thank all those who had the desire to learn and the courage to ask.
To understand why the tree was chosen I think it first important to understand the criteria of the award and who Yoshimura was and what he represented. The term “classical bonsai” is considered by some to be a euphemism for unrefined trees that have not been styled, wired and shaped into some obvious shape. Some people mistake classical bonsai for something that they have seen in a textbook. A triangular shaped tree with 1st branch, 2nd branch back branch is not a classical bonsai; it is a textbook bonsai.
Yoshimura Yuji was a man who understood the heart of bonsai in Japan over 50 years ago. He was born in a Bonsai nursery into a family that defined the aesthetic of the time. Kofu-en was the one of the top three gardens from the Meiji period up until the 1960’s. Yuji’s father was a man of incredibly refined taste and education. His clients included aristocracy and artists, the cream of Japanese society. The trees of the time were more than simply pretty trees; they were carefully crafted works of art, created in a pot over many years of hard work and suffering. In the natural movement of the trunk and branches they contained humanity not signs of the human hand. When looking at such trees the viewer feels in awe of nature, not the sculptor who created it as not one person created such masterpieces, the trees were old, established and had history. Many people had touched them and left their imprint in an indistinguishable way, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.
The Kofu-en aesthetic was one of inner beauty over exterior prettiness, the human condition over human hands; favoring elegance over impact. When one looked at such a tree, your heart feels at rest and the wind can be heard blowing, becoming more than what can be seen in front of one’s eyes, the tree takes on an ethereal beauty. Yuji was taught this aesthetic and he taught this to the Western world, first in Japan and then in the US. He devoted himself to these aesthetic ideals and many of the finest quality bonsai in the US are directly descended from his highly refined eye. These trees will appear untidy, irregular and confusing to somebody unfamiliar with the aesthetic, which is much more than just a set of visual ideas, it represents a philosophy and an empathy with the natural world, in particular humanity. To truly understand the depth and inner beauty of such trees requires study of more than technique and form, it requires a study of bonsai history, knowledge of the people, the trees and the ideas of the time. This study is the refinement that is important for Bonsai, not wiring of the branch ends to create a pretty outline.
Bill Valavanis was lucky enough to have known Yoshimura and to have gone to the trouble of searching out the information, to have dug beneath the surface, to have travelled to Kofu-en many times, to have seen the trees and experienced the aesthetic first hand. Mr. Morimae apprenticed at Chikufu-en, a garden renowned for its refined and elegant style, he also knew Yoshimura’s father and was immersed in the “classical” bonsai world. Today Morimae is renowned in Japan for his highly refined taste, one only has to visit his shop in Ginza or look at his work to see this, and he has a deep respect and understanding of the meaning of Bonsai to the Japanese.
On a personal level I was able to study such trees by seeing them in old books, seeing the remaining trees in person but more importantly seeing the respect that such trees commanded amongst those people whose taste I admired. The trees that the Western world sees in exhibitions or in Kinbon magazines are completely different from the truly high class trees that are respected by the true lovers of bonsai. I saw my master make a financial loss on many “classical” trees simply because he wanted them in the garden to enjoy for himself. Out of 100 customers only one or two people had the ability to see the beauty in the thin trunk that had struggled over the last 150, to look beyond the obvious and experience all the tree had to offer; invariably these customers were usually too poor to buy them. These were the trees we put on display for ourselves when the gates were shut and we were sat around drinking beer and relaxing, enjoying bonsai ourselves rather than working. I was told tales of who owned the tree, where it went and what happened to it when the owner died. The simple trees without wire and pretence told me their stories in the movement of their branches and the flakes of their bark and then quietly got on with whatever else life had to throw at them. It is a hundred times harder to make such a tree than to make something which is thick, powerful and cleanly sculpted. Such trees are not made, they evolve, we are merely guides along their path, giving them water, food and the occasional helping hand.
The Yoshimura award was designed to be given to a tree which made the judges hear the wind blowing through the branches, one which told a tale in its bark and was an elegant and internally beautiful tree rather than an externally pretty tree with impact.
Walking around the exhibition at first, the only tree that stopped me in my tracks was Mike Page’s Black Pine. Sat quietly in a corner, squeezed between two other exhibits, it oozed character and elegance. It was an unusual tree to see, something that neither Morimae nor I were expecting to see amongst the hustle and bustle of everybody setting up the exhibition. It had something other than simple technique and form; it had the wind blowing through the branches. We both looked at each other and smiled.Mike Page and Seiji Morimae
After a long day of judging, the time came to sit down together and decide on the award winners. Thankfully, there was very little difference between the trees we all picked individually and the three of us were able to decide all the awards without outside influence. Bill remained absolutely tightlipped during our discussions regarding the Yoshimura award. It was not until afterwards that he told us the story of the Internet based criticism he had received.
What you cannot see in the small picture on the Internet is the absolutely sublime natural movement in the trunk, the flaky bark and the scars along the trunk. Bill said in one post that it was scar free but on close inspection, it had very old, very small scars, as old as me. In pictures, you cannot feel the history of the tree and be moved by something so thin yet so elegant. You cannot see the depth of the tree, both visually and spiritually. Here is a tree, which changes depending upon the viewing angle and position, and unfortunately, it was photographed at its worst angle. The photograph attached is a much better representation of how much character it has. The kink in the base of the trunk is impossible to recreate, the movement is a result of years of suffering, the bark texture speaks volumes. Compare this with painted white dead wood and a highly polished live vein, which has more character?
The day after the decision was made, Morimae asked Mike Page about the history of the tree and although initially shocked at his response, in retrospect it was not at all surprising. He purchased the tree 8 years ago after the previous owner had died, a very good friend of Mikes who had suffered from ill health in her old age and subsequently her trees, including this black pine, suffered. She had originally purchased the tree over 20 years ago from a second generation Japanese bonsai professional in the San Francisco area that had grown it as a bonsai for many years.
Another “coincidence” was the influence of Mike’s good friend Warren Clark who had taken classes in Tokyo run by Yoshimura as far back as 1951. All things considered, it is not at all surprising that it won the award, the tree told its story very well and very gracefully, without needing to shout or conform to any ideas that had been enforced upon it.
The tree is far from being perfect; the display is far from perfect. It has too many branches, it is top heavy and it needs more negative space. The green part of the tree needs to be altered slightly to truly bring out the character of the tree; the planting position could be changed etc.etc. This is not a criticism of Mike, simply an acknowledgement of the fact that it is not finished, merely on the path from life to death. Mike had added his part to its history and will add more before he inevitably passes on to the next life, he almost did when the announcement was made, but hopefully it will not be too soon! I hope that somebody who is sympathetic to the tree can take it on, continue to care for it and allow the spirit of not only Yoshimura but the many people who have touched and been touched by the tree, to continue to live within such a thin and fragile frame.
The purest enjoyment of Bonsai is a connection between the tree and the viewer. It comes into being when observed, not through critical eyes, but an open mind and a receptive heart. If you can be still in the presence of a truly great bonsai tree then it will teach you many things about life and about death, it will tell you its story. This cannot be done through a photograph, it can only be done in person and only if human constructs like design criteria and self interest can be forgotten. To those who cannot find the beauty in the simple, elegant movement in the tree should clear their mind entirely and reappraise their approach to Bonsai and life in general. Once all is forgotten, take a deep breath and look at the tree again.
Mr. Morimae summed it up best when he said, “There is no trace of ego in this tree”. For me, this is the essence of Bonsai and this is why I, Morimae and Pedro chose it for the Yoshimura award