Profile: Colin LewisPhotograph by Candy J. ShireyColin Lewis grew-up in southern England where he received formal education in graphic design. This education had a strong influence in the development of the bonsai artist. Colin has been studying bonsai for over thirty years and has published several bonsai books and numerous bonsai articles.
Colin now resides in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, and works full-time as a bonsai instructor for the Ho Yoku School of Bonsai, working with private clients, and he is a consultant to the Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
The following is an interview conducted with Colin Lewis:AoB:
Colin, you have been growing bonsai for over 30 years now, what are the biggest changes in the art that you have seen?Colin:
Since I started in 1975, one of the biggest changes that I have seen in bonsai is the shift of influence away from Japanese bonsai traditions. People are looking less to Japan for guidance; they are making it their own art, technically as good as the Japanese but not in the classical Japanese stylistic tradition.
Another change that I have noticed is the increasing emphasis on yamadori. In Europe nowadays hardly any serious bonsai artists use imported material. Apart from some excellent collected shimpaku from Taiwan, the vast majority of top quality European bonsai are fashioned from native yamadori. This change is beginning to happen here in the USA, and it heralds a new age in bonsai - the beginning of (I hope) a rise in both the quality of the art and its appreciation.Photograph by Candy J. ShireyAoB:
How has your graphic design training affected the way you style bonsai?Colin:
Graphic design has had a significant influence on my bonsai style, but it is intangible. My thought process was developed by graphic design and it is this thought process that has transferred to my bonsai art, as well as the ability to visualize a proposed image and retain that mental picture until you can transform it into the tangible result. All design is a matter of problem solving: How to achieve the most aesthetically pleasing result within the limitations set.AoB:
You once embedded wire into trunks in order to shape them; this was a unique solution to a problem, what other such innovations have you used to style bonsai?Colin:
Once you understand how trees work, what they will tolerate and how they will react to a particular assault, you can use this knowledge to create new ways of achieving various ends. Other scary technique I use a lot is cutting wedges out of trunks and branches in order to manipulate them into more interesting shapes, or splitting thick branches lengthwise to make them easier to bend.AoB:
You are currently the bonsai consultant to the Larz Anderson Collection at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, How do Larz's bonsai artistically differ from what is being done today? How do you balance any desire you may have to retain the original style with the need to update the trees based on modern aesthetics?Colin:
When Larz Anderson first acquired these bonsai, in the early 20th century, there was a limited number of bonsai styles. In fact, the only style that was used in catalogs of that day that we would recognize is the myogi (informal upright) style. When the Larz Anderson trees were first styled, bamboo and string was used to shape the trees, instead of wire, and this is evident in the way the branches are shaped.
It is difficult not to introduce my own designs into these trees, but it is a temptation that must be resisted. Subliminally, it is bound to happen a little, and it does. My goal is to recover as much of the old aesthetic as possible. The style of each individual tree could never be absolutely returned to its original design, because over a century of growth has taken place, and many hands have worked them during that time. But the design gestalt can, and must, be honored.
Having said that, there is one very large hinoki specimen that, given my 'druthers', I would reduce by almost a half and convert to a more contemporary design. This particular tree has been allowed to grow beyond the point of recovery, and it would make a far better contemporary bonsai.AoB:
Colin, you have published many books and articles on bonsai, but if you could only teach one thing, what would it be?Colin:
I would like to teach kindergarten.
Seriously, the most important lesson to teach a student is how to recognize good raw bonsai material. That's where all good bonsai begin. Without good material you can't make good bonsai: As John Naka said, "You can't make chicken soup out of chicken crap." Once you can recognize good material, you should also recognize why it's good and how to progress it.AoB:
Do you still follow the bonsai scene in England and if so what is the state of the art there as compared to the U.S. where you now reside?Colin:
Yes, I follow the bonsai scene in England. England is light years ahead of the United States with regards to density of good art, commitment, ambition, and quantity of good material. England, however, is not the best place in Europe for bonsai art, Italy is.
I took a group of American bonsai lovers to the Ginkgo Exhibition in Belgium in 2005. They were blown away by the excellence of the exhibits. Even Bill Valavanis was mute for hours after touring the show. I'll be organizing a similar trip to every Ginkgo Exhibition from now on.AoB:
So why is bonsai in Europe so far ahead of the US?Colin:
Ye Gods!! There are many reasons; social, cultural, climatic, geographic.... To be brief: Europeans generally have far more leisure time, more disposable income, more freedom to collect yamadori. They are less concerned with obeying rules and, importantly, less politically correct.AoB:
Why should PC be an issue?Colin:
Political correctness manifests itself in American bonsai in several ways: The resistance to competition, the reluctance to tell someone their tree is ugly when it really is, the constant unchanging format of events, etc.
Enough, I'm digging a hole for myself here!AoB:
As an artist, who performs many workshops and demos every year, what disappoints you more than anything else at these and do you feel that the artistic aspects of bonsai can be effectively taught in these environments?Colin:
Workshops where the material is supplied by the organizers generally disappoint me in the quality of material. If I had a choice, I would choose a "bring your own" workshop every time. The limited time and number of participants is also often a problem. I do not believe that the average American has a short attention span, but I have heard this excuse to justify two-hour workshops so many times.
The two hour demonstration is an insult - to the teacher and the audience. I would rather do a critique. Even though the critique is harder and more work, more teaching/learning can take place than in a short demonstration.
Bonsai takes a long time. It requires focus, the ability to maintain effort and a lot of patience. If an audience or a group of workshop participants can't stay focused for more than two hours, they might as well abandon bonsai and take up Playstation instead.AoB:
How would you describe the perfect student?Colin:
The ideal student would be under age 35, no career worries, totally irresponsible with life (but not with trees). The ideal student is dynamic, prepared to take risks, fit to collect trees, and receptive to ideas and techniques.
My ideal student would eventually surpass me in creating quality bonsai art.AoB:
A few years back, you made a significant impression on at least one Art of Bonsai editor with a presentation that you gave on "naked bonsai." Could you briefly summarize the message of that talk for us, and let us know how, if at all, your view on the matter has evolved over the last two or three years?Colin:
This is a question that could easily become a long discussion over breakfast.
To try to summarize: "Naked bonsai" is omitting all the fluff. Do not get diverted away from your goal by peripheral activities such as bonsai clubs, internet chat groups or internet forums, suiseki, etc. Focus on the direct line between your desire to create fine bonsai and achieving that desire. Go find the material, find an instructor - or two or three instructors - and immerse yourself in the horticulture and the art.
If you want to become an accomplished bonsai artist, you will only do so by your own efforts. It requires dedication, tunnel vision, an enormous amount of passion, the willingness to learn at every opportunity, and the drive to create those opportunities for yourself.Photograph by Candy J. ShireyAoB:
So you don't think clubs help bonsai?Colin:
To a certain extent they do. They introduce newcomers to the possibilities and give them a good grounding in techniques and horticulture, especially in their own climatic region. But they all have a glass ceiling that members cannot rise above unless they do so by their own efforts. But there's something about club culture, particularly in the USA, that seems to inhibit this. Many clubs have satellite study groups - a few like-minded friends - that seem to work better without the restricting club formalities.
For decades now, in Europe, all the best events have been organized by private individuals who have achieved a high level of bonsai art. They have nothing to do with the club scene - no politics, no peripheral activities, no low-level cub exhibits. Just high quality bonsai, bonsai, bonsai.AoB:
When styling a bonsai what, in your opinion, are the most important considerations? What should a person avoid?Colin:
Avoid shortcuts: Don't fake a design in order to get a fast result. Have the courage to aim high. Aim for perfection.
But there is a problem implicit in your question. You refer to styling a bonsai, as do almost all workshops, demonstrations, advice forums, etc. The initial styling of a bonsai is only the first step on a very long journey that can, and usually does, take many years. The rest of the journey is almost always ignored in conventional bonsai learning opportunities.
I've seen so many potentially fine bonsai, ready for that final wiring to perfection, that have been ruthlessly reduced again to bare bones for the sake of a dramatic demo, or because the owner knew no better. This is a direct result of what I call 'demonstration syndrome': The misconception that a sparse, freshly pruned and wired piece of material is the visual goal.
Back to your question: The most important consideration, I suppose, is the future. I am always considering the implications of what I am doing at the moment on the future development of the tree. Far too complex to go into details here and now, it's more a way of thinking than a set of rules.
I guess the most vivid example would be my work with the Larz Anderson Collection. These trees have been worked on for a couple of hundred years or more, and you can see all the evidence of that. When I'm working with them, I am constantly thinking of the person who will succeed me: Will what I am doing now make sense to them, will my intentions for the future development be clear, will the framework I am developing now be able to sustain continued growth and refinement?Photograph by Candy J. Shirey