Profile: Lindsay BebbLindsay BebbLindsay has been practicing bonsai since 1970, and for 30 years owned and operated, with wife Glenis, a 7-day a week bonsai nursery in Brisbane, which was Australia’s only Retail Accredited Bonsai Nursery. He is an international demonstrator, workshop tutor, lecturer and judge. He was a Headliner and workshop tutor at the World Bonsai Convention in Washington DC; a Headliner and a Judge at the BCI International convention in Chencun China; Headliner at conventions in Australia and New Zealand; lecturer at the ASPAC convention in Singapore, and is to be a Headliner at conventions in Taiwan and Puerto Rico in 2009. Lindsay has also been a Judge of many international bonsai photographic contests
Since selling the nursery in 2007, Lindsay has been funding a programme to help train experienced bonsai practitioners to become bonsai teachers for the national Teachers Register.
Since 2001 he has been Secretary, and Director for Australia and New Zealand, of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation. Some of his previous positions include Director, 3rd Vice President and 1st Vice President of BCI from 1996 – 2001; President of Australian Associated Bonsai Clubs from 1991 – 2002, President of the Queensland Nursery Industry Association from 1996 – 1998, and Australian Representative on the ASPAC committee.
The following is an on-line interview with Lindsay BebbAoB:
You have held some impressive positions in many respected bonsai organizations, such as: President, Bonsai Society of Queensland, President, Australian Associated Bonsai Clubs, President, Queensland Nursery Industry Association, Director and later 1st Vice President, BCI, and Director and Secretary of WBFF and the Executive Adviser of the Board of Asia-Pacific Bonsai & Suiseki Federation. Of all these posts, which were the most challenging and why? Lindsay:
The most challenging of these positions was 3rd and 1st Vice President of BCI and the nursery industry job. The nursery industry position involved organization to government stuff and that was sometimes difficult. My time as President of our national body, Australian Associated Bonsai Clubs, was the most rewarding. I enjoyed doing that job. You know – charity begins at home and all that.
The BCI Vice President positions were extremely challenging because the basic assumption behind Vice President jobs is that you will progress up the ladder to the Presidency. If that was to happen then I had to know all about the management and operation of the organization. I had to know the BCI Bylaws and Policy and Procedures Manual inside out, and since BCI was incorporated in California it meant having to be familiar with “systems” in the USA. It was a time consuming task. It took more than 2 years of work to get a handle on it, but at the other end I think I knew more about its combined inner workings, incorporation conditions, financial viability, its management problems and its potential to survive, than any other person at that time.
Since my time on that Board I have watched the steady decline of BCI with some interest. I hope that can be reversed as a permanent situation but we will have to wait a while to find out if recent changes by BCI start to improve membership over time.
I am currently serving as Director for Australia-New Zealand and Secretary of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation.AoB:
Politics have weaseled its way into many bonsai organizations and many have said that it has stunted growth and creativity. Some major organizations have come to the point of collapse due to politics. What are your feelings on the role politics is playing in bonsai?Lindsay:
Well, we can’t escape it, of course. We have to try to manage it. I just adopt a casual view along the lines that “stuff” happens from time to time. Clubs, regional bodies, national organizations, and international organisations all fall foul at some time or other, but the pendulum swings. You have to believe that good times will return. Not all political activity is negative, of course, but where it does become a very serious threat to the viability of an organization, a person or persons within the organization needs to take action to settle things if possible, and with as little blood on the floor as possible. Maybe! AoB:
What advice would you give the organizations, clubs, or forums that suffer from rampant politics? Lindsay:
If it’s a club and just just one or a few are causing the trouble, kick them out. Majority rules! I don’t know how forums work but if they are established with guidelines governing conduct online, then the same should apply.
If it’s a regional or national organization and the trouble is being caused by a few, tell them things would work better without them and suggest they change or depart. Majority rules!
Of course the odd person(s) out may be morally or legally in the right, but the thing is, they could be completely out of step with the majority, in which case they should get with the program or move on. Majority rules – rightly or wrongly!
I have seen more than a few documents of incorporation that provide for a committee or board of management to drop-kick troublemakers out of the organization, but many are reluctant to use the regulations. I think if any problem persists and is serious, committees should take action within that framework if it is available to them. Let’s face it, if you boot out a few troublemakers from a club they’ll probably go start another club. That could be good for bonsai. At least it might result in two separate homogenous groups. Until…. AoB:
You and your wife, Glenis have successful ran the Bonsai Nursery in Brisbane for over 30 years. How has the business changed over the years and where do you see it going in the future? Lindsay:
We started out as a cottage industry business in a small leased shop with less than 100 square meters of land behind it. Pretty basic stuff it was! It started as a purely lifestyle decision but gradually we moved to what I’ll call mainstream nursery industry business. We stayed purely bonsai and at no time strayed from that but we joined the national nursery industry association and started to attend seminars and courses based around retail selling, promotions, realistic costing, pricing and profit. As we applied more of what we learned from courses and industry research, we gradually became more successful.
In 1995 we purchased 4 acres of residential land that no one wanted, borrowed half a million dollars and setup a completely new nursery in the middle of suburbia. We had over half a million people living within 30 minutes drive of the nursery. Hell of a gamble with that debt but it paid off.
We incorporated a coffee shop into the new development. People could come in and have anything from a coffee to a full meal – the real deal. We kept that coffee shop going every day of the week for 7 years! We also started a club based on the nursery, which we continue today as a free newsletter subscription on our web site, called Goshu Bonsai. Goshu is the Japanese name for Australia. We would have a full program of demonstrations one afternoon a month and members could come along, sit at any of the tables in our coffee shop, order their cappuccinos or whatever and watch the demo. We could seat 50 people that way. Now how civilized is that for a club meeting?
We had a serious business behind the scenes, but up front we had a lot of fun!
Twelve years later, in 2007, 30 years after establishing the nursery, developers made us an offer for the land. We accepted, and so we move to your next question…A View of Lindsay's GardenAoB:
Your business is now on-line. How has this changed the way you do business and do you see a greater swing toward on-line purchases as compare to the traditional hands-on shopping? Lindsay:
A retail bonsai business in Australia that operates solely online has no way to survive if it is to support an income. Since we are not trying to receive an income from it, there is little pressure. There are products and services that bonsai nurseries can advertise and sell online, and do, but we are in a hands-on business and customers want to handle things. Who in their right mind would buy a pot online to suit a particular tree unless they had already decided on that same pot but found it cheaper online, or they lived in woop-woop with no other way to get one! Customers even like to handle tools to decide which to buy. So surviving in the retail bonsai business means having a physical shop front of some kind.
One thing we appreciated very much in our retail business was that customers want a personal, stress free, hands-on, educational and entertaining shopping experience. We were serious about that part of business planning, and we made money. We were also a one-stop-shop for everything bonsai – retail products/courses/workshops/tours/services. The nursery was open every day and we made it easy for customers to spend money. In addition we had a wholesale arm supplying major chains.
I see no swing away from this. Online purchases of bonsai and/or bonsai products will never be significant in Australia in the foreseeable future, in my opinion. It will grow, though. I think it is important to use an online presence to help steer customers to your physical door.AoB:
What is your opinion of Internet forums? What is good about them? What is bad about them? What would you change if you could change them?Lindsay:
I have no direct experience with Internet forums. I have read articles about some of the forums and articles downloaded from some of them. My personal opinion is that they can provide a valuable service to bonsai hobbyists and professionals. They can also be a crock! I have read some absolute nonsense reprinted from forums. Make you want to puke. That is not the fault of the forum, of course. Open things up and anyone can have a say, not just real people!
I wouldn’t change them. The positives far outweigh the negatives, I think.Lindsay in his garden.AoB:
You recently judged the Art of Bonsai Awards. What did you think of the contest, the entries, and the response? Lindsay:
Fantastic, fantastic and fantastic! I was so impressed. I have to admit I knew nothing about your site before I was invited to be a Judge, but I have let lots of people Down Under know about it. After I accepted the invitation to be a Judge, I saw there were about 230 entries, each of which had to be given a score, and I immediately took a heavy bottle of red out of the wine fridge! What a response! Having judged a few international photographic competitions over the years I was really impressed with the response to yours. I mean, some competitions have become defunct or receive very few entries through lack of interest and/or respect, but the Art of Bonsai Awards is something else.
I think the contest is very well organized. I like the categories and I like the way the judging is arranged and conducted. Many of the entries were of a high standard which was pleasing to see. OK, there were more than a few 1-out-of-10’s, but so what. People got in there and had a go whether they were professionals or rank amateurs, and that indicates broad appeal and confidence.
Thank you again for inviting me to be a Judge. I was very pleased to be part of the activity.AoB:
Would you change anything about the Art of Bonsai contest? If so, what?Lindsay:
Looking back I can’t think of a thing I’d change. AoB:
What are your feelings on the direction bonsai has taken over the last decade in regards to a shift from the traditional Japanese styling?Lindsay:
Everything is positive, up to a point. I believe in classical bonsai. There’s nothing wrong with contemporary styling in my opinion, but bonsai is classical bonsai to me, and all of my teaching is classical. If we adopt the attitude that bonsai is just another art form, rather than a specific art form indigenous to Japan, then I guess anything goes and people can feel relaxed about anything they do to a tree. That is just not where I am coming from.
I can’t accept some of the stuff I see where branches are shaped simply to put foliage where it is needed to make the outline look good for a demonstration. You know…. where branches are wired and twisted around, over, under, wherever and whatever. I don’t see the point.AoB:
We know and assume a lot about your professional approach to bonsai but what part of bonsai do you set down with at home over a beer, some music, and your own imagination? Lindsay:
Mostly refining work. I get great pleasure from doing all the things I didn’t have the time to do while we had the full-time nursery operating. Finally I can do bonsai! After years of teaching students how to get the best out of their trees, I can now do it for myself. It has only been a year or so, but it’s working. Once in a while I get the urge to look through my library of bonsai and stone books and I might spend a few days flipping through them for a bit of inspiration or simply for relaxation, but mostly I am now hands-on. My trees don’t know what has hit them!A View of Lindsay's GardenAoB:
What future do you see for bonsai in Australia?Lindsay:
I think the future is bright enough. As with anywhere else, bonsai will progress in popularity if there are people skilled enough to facilitate that. It is all in the education and promotion and it relies on having skilled people. You can see this anywhere in the western world now. Bonsai enjoys greater popularity and achieves a higher level of technical excellence in areas where the local skill and dedication is greatest. Good heavens – look at Italy! We need good teachers and good business people who make it easy for people to do bonsai, to be sure of a good bonsai future.
A big problem we face Down Under is availability of good plant stock. Importing trees into Australia is a very difficult thing and really not financially viable, so we have to rely on nursery grown stock. That means relatively young material. We can collect trees but only from private land with permission, of course. Collecting from the wild is forbidden almost everywhere. There are, and have been in the past, people growing trees specifically for the bonsai market in Australia, but the quantity of good stock is still painfully small.
Another big problem is getting the teachers we have to travel overseas and build on their knowledge and skill base. Not having easy access to a wide variety of good international demonstrators is a handicap.AoB:
What future do you see in bonsai Worldwide?Lindsay:
Bright. Remember that pendulum I mentioned earlier in the politics question? Well, same here. It may not be popular everywhere at the same time. This current worldwide economic meltdown will have a negative effect on bonsai but it won’t last forever. There may be positives in parts of the world. During the last recession we had in Australia we found that courses picked up in our business even though bonsai sales retracted. I think it is fair to assume that some conventions during the next 12 months or so may suffer through smaller attendances and that will be a worry for those affected, but I don’t think any of this will harm the future of bonsai worldwide.
There are a great many teachers around the world who are experienced enough and dedicated enough to keep this thing alive and well. And the sharing of knowledge and experience at the international level is at unprecedented levels right now. I think it would take a world war to change that.
I think the future of bonsai anywhere is linked to people having disposable income; receiving motivation through good quality books, magazines, Internet sites and teachers; and business people who make it easy for people to do bonsai. It will forge ahead the strongest when all those factors come together.AoB:
Photography has become an essential tool for bonsai. Do you use photography to document your trees or as an aid in developing them?Lindsay:
Yes, for both, absolutely. It is an essential part of my development and refinement work because it works so well. I don’t care how much I try to identify problems in a bonsai looking at it normally, I usually find something I missed when I look at a photograph. OK, so it takes time to set the tree up, take the photo, download it, identify the corrections needed and then go do it, then keep repeating the process until you’re happy, but I find the process invaluable. I have been less effective using photography to document the progress of a tree over time because I sometimes forget to take the before, progress or after shots. Anyone who has used photography to aid the development of a tree knows the value of it. I recommend that anyone who has not tried it, do so. AoB:
Have we become spoiled with perfect pictures shown in books and on-line to the point that no live tree could measure up?Lindsay:
No, I don’t think so. We don’t all see the same things in every bonsai or bonsai photo or bonsai drawing. The more “perfect” pictures we have to look at the better. AoB:
Who was the largest influence in your early bonsai interests? Why?Lindsay:
When I started to learn bonsai down here in 1970, all you could do was buy a book, and at that time the only book was the Sunset series thing! Skipping all that nostalgia, and my introductory courses and so on, when I got to a point where I thought I had the basics and was hungry for more, it was hard.
It took me time to get to know enough to know I needed more, if you follow my drift. I had started the 7-days a week nursery in 1977, and I had been organizing conventions in Australia for a couple of years employing overseas experts, but it wasn’t until 1984 when we had Yuji Yoshimura come down that heaps of stuff came together for me. He and I clicked from day one and that friendship opened a few doors for me. It was like takeoff from stalemate. He had the greatest influence in the early years because he facilitated a breaking out from the parochial, to international contacts, which of course lead to more sources of information and experience. The year 1984 was big for me and that was 14 years after I started doing bonsai, and 7 years after I went into it commercially.
We nearly all put in our bonsai biographies when we started bonsai but it means nothing in isolation. A View of Lindsay's GardenAoB:
You travel the world teaching bonsai to many cultures. What do you enjoy the most about this?Lindsay:
The opportunity to communicate my knowledge and experience; seeing what techniques there are that might be different to the ones I am familiar with; meeting new people; and the chance to experience different places, food and wine – particularly food and wine! Can you pick my age bracket from that statement?
I love teaching, and behind the scenes, in the planning stages, I take it seriously. I’m not alone in that. There are many excellent bonsai teachers out there and I fell really good knowing that, and having the opportunity now and then to see some of them in action.
If I ever lost the ability to teach I’d have to be ready for the grave. If I ever lost the ability to learn, I’d have to be ready for the grave. I love it all.AoB:
What would you say was the most difficult thing about bonsai to teach?Lindsay:
I don’t find any part of bonsai difficult to teach. If students start off at the very beginning and work logically along the bonsai creation path, everything is easy enough to teach. Some students may have a problem understanding parts of it, but a teacher knows how to get around such problems.
The thing is not to try to teach any part of the process out of sequence, and I try to keep it simple. If I’m teaching a newbie about primary branch placement for the first time, I don’t go beyond that basic thing. Get them to focus on the primary branches and don’t go into secondary or tertiary branches until they understand primary placement, for example. I take a building block approach. Get the foundation right, and then start to build logically. When I get to talk about branch structure for the first time I don’t try to cover all the styling options. I just do basic. Later they can be gradually taught the different ways they can style branches to bring out character, or make the branch look fuller foliaged, or increase the power of the trunk, or make the whole tree appear taller or shorter or whatever. Teach; confirm the teaching by getting them to work on a tree; progress to the next step and so on….
It can become a big problem to communicate to a student who has been practicing what they understood as bonsai for many years, and then decides to do a course. A good teacher avoids them!AoB:
What advice would you give to a person who is looking to move beyond horticulture in bonsai and starting to attempt to create artistic bonsai?Lindsay:
Now this is a very interesting question. I don’t start to teach people bonsai by starting with horticulture, and never have in 30 years of teaching. I start with the creation and feed in the necessary horticulture stuff as it logically appears. I’m a bonsai businessman remember. I don’t want to bore students to death. I figure all new students want to get their hands dirty and creative as soon as possible so I give just enough necessary theory and demonstrations before handing them a tree and a bunch of wire and help them put all before into practice. They learn all the stuff about how to keep it alive and healthy along the way. You know…sprinkle the less glamorous stuff in periodically. AoB:
What do you feel are the best resources on the web for bonsai?Lindsay:
I really don’t have enough knowledge of all the web sites. I have only ever used the links from the WBFF and BCI sites and have found many of those links to be very useful. I won’t name them because I have such limited knowledge of what is out there, but some of the BCI and WBFF linked sites are awesome regarding the information they share.