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 Post subject: Profile: Vaughn Banting
PostPosted: Wed Jan 24, 2007 4:08 pm 

Joined: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:35 pm
Posts: 163
Location: The Art of Bonsai Project
Profile: Vaughn Banting

Vaughn Banting
Vaughn Banting's life story is truly an amazing one that will take you from the jungles of Vietnam where he was wounded in action to his incredible journey though the world of bonsai where he eventually taught the art in such far-away places as Columbia South America and South Africa. He helped to start the The Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society and the Thursday Knights Bonsai Study Group, which was home to such well known artists as Guy Guidry.

Vaughn's work with native species, including the Bald Cypress is nothing short of legendary and his energetic desire to teach as well as learn from others sets an example for us all.

It would be impossible to give a bio of Vaughn that encompasses so many of his accomplishments and his life that would be more detailed and complete than the one that is already posted at From his start in bonsai, to today, his life is remarkably documented there, complete with photographs of his bonsai, his gardens, progressions, and friends he has made along the way.
So we will just say that we are proud and extremely honored to feature his profile here at AoB.

The follow is an on-line interview with Vaughn Banting.

AoB: What's your recollection of your earliest encounter with bonsai, how did What did you feel about it and was that first impression the defining moment in your pursuit of bonsai, or did it take more than that first viewing to make you get involved with bonsai.

Vaughn: When I was a kid growing up in the family nursery business we used to do all our own propagation. There was a Chinese juniper that we used to propagate that we referred to as Sylvester juniper which I think in retrospect was similar to the cultivar which was used by John Naka to create his famous masterpiece. These little cuttings because of their long needles reminded me of little pine trees and when grown out did look like miniature pines so I used to use coat hangers to bend out the branches to make them look even more convincing. One day my dad saw me doing this and told me that the Japanese did a similar thing to stunt plants and that he had a friend who was managing the nursery my dad was working at then when we first moved down from Canada who had a whole collection of these stunted trees that he'd grown himself mainly from air-layered branches taken from Japanese Maples and sweat gum trees. Dad took me to see this gentleman's collection (whose name was Lee Rivett) and soon after that he brought me a tiny book from a garden center simply titled "bonsai". I still have the little book and it has a picture of Frank Nagata (the father of California bonsai) on its back cover. I think the price marked on the book was 39 cents. Reading this little book validated my efforts with coat hangers to redirect the branches of my little juniper plants that I had by now started to grow in clay azalea pots because they were shallower than regular clay pots and seemed to make my little trees more believable. Those first endeavors led me to my lifelong fascination with bonsai sweeping away in its path my other interests at the time which included growing orchids, bromeliads and succulents.

Water Elm

AoB: You majored in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in College, do you feel this education helped greatly in your pursuit of bonsai?

Vaughn: Actually no, by the time I entered university I was already growing bonsai, writing articles for BCI magazine and giving lectures to local garden clubs on the subject. Perhaps the study of botany and plant physiology helped me with the understanding of how plants grew in a general way but most of my knowledge of bonsai at that time was learned through trial and error. I owned Yuji's book by then and that helped me a lot.

AoB: How did you go about learning, do you consider any particular bonsai master as your teacher, or did you study on you own?

Vaughn: As people would come into my father's and mother's nursery and showed any interest at all concerning my early bonsai attempts I would put their name and phone number in a little file I kept, dreaming some day to contact them again to form the beginning of a bonsai club. By the time I had finished university (or rather by the time I finished my third year of university and was drafted and sent to Vietnam) I had started my business, my little file of the names had grown enough that I thought it was time to launch such a group. So I put ads in the local papers setting a time for our first meeting and called all these names I kept in my file. I called Mrs.
Edgar Stern (owner of Sears and Roebuck and the creator beautiful Longue Vue
Gardens) and asked whether I might use the Playhouse on the grounds to house our first meeting. She graciously accepted and was a great patron of mine until her death.

With the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society now launched and housed I shared what I knew about bonsai with its growing membership, initially presenting all the programs myself. Sooner or later we developed a treasury large enough to afford our first visiting master who by the way was Chase Rosade.

Our next visiting master was John Naka who among other masters and teachers me were later to bring in proved to be the membership's favorite for a number of years. Included in those other masters that we brought in during those years was Yuji Yoshimura whose workshops on grafting techniques and group planting conspired to take the membership as a whole to a higher plane in its understanding of horticulture. So to answer your question I did both and I can't say anyone master teacher played a greater role in my education of bonsai. But if I was absolutely forced to select just one teacher whose skills impacted me it would have to be John Naka.

AoB: The Thursday Knights Bonsai Study Group, which met in your garage for several years had many talented members such as Guy Guidry, do you feel that such informal groups offer an advantage over the tradition club workshops?

Vaughn: Yes I most certainly do. I was at a point in my bonsai learning that I wanted to go "higher" and to take me to that higher plane of understanding I needed to select from the general membership those elite few who seemed to "get it". Once I got them up to my level I could enjoy a peer group that I could bounce ideas off of and learn new techniques from.

AoB: You helped to start The Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society, what problems did you encounter starting this society and what advice would you give to people attempting to do the same thing?

Vaughn: Well above I mentioned my own technique for gathering a membership but BCI has for some time now published a booklet on the subject and it's a good guide for the purpose.

AoB: You grew up in Banting's Nursery and after returning from Vietnam you started to built your own company called Nicholas and Banting Horticultural Services which is now being run by your sisters, based on your vast nursery experience as well as your bonsai experience, do you think that growing bonsai in America will ever rival it's counterparts in Asia?

Vaughn: First let me clear up a matter imbedded in your question.

Banting's Nursery is being run (and has been for many years) by my sisters, NOT my own company Nicholas and Banting. Actually there is no Nicholas and Banting anymore. As each new tumor was resected from my brain, my cognition and physical prowess diminished to a point that I had to sell my business to one of my foreman. However she proved unable to handle the business and I was forced to foreclose. But having been dummbed down by radiation and chemotherapy as well as by four brain surgeries there was no way I could take it back and run it myself so just before Katrina struck I signed the papers to sell it to a good friend and competitor, Robin Tanner which instantly doubled the size of his own company (which by the way sat adjacent to my own property). However when Katrina hit our two properties were plunged under 8'of water and remained that way for nearly a month. I had just reequipped all of my offices in my building with new computers to give Robin a good start and made other upgrades to the property as well as to the fleet of service vans and pickups which were subsequently also plunged underwater. Robin Tanner decided to not start up the business again but rather to lease our joint properties to a tree company for a staging area for cutting up the large trees throughout the city and the Gulf coast. The revenue from this lease agreement keeps food on the table for both Robin Tanner and I now, but again to answer your question, no I don't particularly now with China coming in with its huge exports.

AoB: You have taught bonsai in many other countries including Columbia and South Africa, what differences were most outstanding between the students in these countries and those here in the U.S.?

Vaughn: I'm hesitant to use the word "remarkably" as that sounds so patronizing but I found their skills and talents for creating bonsai equivalent to the bonsai students in our own country. The primary reason for that I think, is that John Naka had already taught bonsai all through these regions and as most of you know, John Naka's influence on bonsai throughout the world cannot be overstated.

AoB: If you could only teach one thing about bonsai, what would it be?

Vaughn: Well as a club in Cape Town South Africa learned firsthand and to this day associates me with it, is the strict attention paid to the incremental spaces between the ascending branches on a tree's trunk. These diminishing increment spaces between branches is as an important hallmark defining good bonsai as is bonsai taper. Whether these increments are defined by the bends in a trunk or the spaces between its branches is of little matter to the basic concept here.

Flat topped styled Bald Cypress

AoB: You did a lot of amazing work with bald cypress trees bringing this species to the forefront of native material suitable for bonsai.
Why the use of cypress, what are the advantages of this species over other material for bonsai?

Vaughn: As in selecting most bonsai material availability is paramount in the process. We simply have a lot of bald cypress growing in my area. This makes it not only available for collecting but also for analyzing its most important features of its branch structure. It seems to tolerate pot culture well and grows well in temperate weather conditions. They are cultivated as ornamental trees throughout the world making them available in nurseries everywhere. I saw some wonderful examples of bonsai bald cypress in South Africa where they are strictly started from nursery stock.

AoB: You developed a concept for creating taper on collected cypress that was highly innovated and then you put it into practice with remarkable results.
What led you to this invention and has it been successfully employed by others?

Vaughn: Although I did some work with developing taper on bald cypress by cutting out shelves incrementally up the trunk for new branches to sprout from the biggest breakthrough in creating taper on topped off collected bald cypress I think belongs to my student Guy Guidry. His contribution to the process was that the initial slanting cut made at the top of a collected cypress must end not at the new shoot or bud at the top of the stump but rather at a mark one third of the surface area exposed by the cut. This allows for the new bud or shoot at the top of the stubbed off trunk to increase in girth and only being reduced when the sprout's girth approaches two thirds the space of the stubbed off top's surface area. In my mind Guy's developed technique revolutionized and speeded up the taper building process in collected bald cypress.

AoB: In fact, you seemed to specialize in growing native species, a practice that was quite rare for the time you were growing bonsai and still takes a backseat to non-natives in many areas. Do you think that America has a great un-tapped wealth of native species that are still under utilized?

Vaughn: I certainly would hope so although it does seem that when the species of tree genera were handed out, Asia captured the mother lode when it comes to leaf shape and qualities in deciduous trees and needle qualities in coniferous species. But yes I like to work with the material that evolved here after Pangaea split up into continents. Although working with Water Elm (Plenara aquatica) turned out to be a bit of a disappointment due to a number of problems first and foremost its propensity for putting out new growth from old wood and abandoning last year's branches in favor of the new wood.

Extreme tapered Bald Cypress

AoB: In the bonsai community an issue that has been hotly debated recently is the thought that a bonsai should be visually appealing from all sides instead of only having one pleasing viewing angle, what are your thoughts on this?

Vaughn: I think it's a ridiculous premise. Obviously most of us would rather be photographed from the front rather than from the rear, the notable exception being women with assorted attributes. And what would we do with all the clich's; "always put your best foot forward" etc. but certainly a bonsai should be designed with the understanding that it is a three-dimensional art form and as such must offer something for the viewer at all angles.

AoB: Walter Pall has recently had his bonsai displayed in the Terminus Gallery in Munich, Germany, where they were displayed as art and viewed by contemporary artists and critics alike. Do you see bonsai becoming accepted as a valid art form and this sort of display becoming more common?

Vaughn: They already are in Japan and our own Greater New Orleans Museum of Art has staged such exhibits routinely in conjunction with scroll paintings on many occasions. And David De Groot at the Pacific Rim collection has staged many an interpretive show by noted artists. In the broad sense though I think the fact that bonsai are living entities precludes them from ever joining the main stream of sculpture exhibits.

AoB: Do you think bonsai will ever be displayed regularly like statues?
They were in the exhibit mentioned above, where a viewer could walk around the display rather than, as is common now, like a painting up against the wall?

Vaughn: I think that would be an improvement yes. The obvious danger though is that the bonsai would be too easily broken as it was experienced; not so a Henry Moore sculptures.

AoB: Bonsai is quickly being recognized as the art form it really is in America; something that other countries have long known. What would you say is the reason bonsai in America is so slow to catch up in this regard?

Vaughn: Our puritanical conservative roots have long restricted free thought as regards to art in this country. I feel the thaw is coming though.

AoB: You sold your business and dispersed your bonsai collection when you were diagnosed with brain cancer and given only one year to live (A diagnoses that you have beat by more than 10 years). Whether to sell your bonsai collection or not had to be a difficult decision for you to make, do you get the chance to see any of those bonsai now? Did any make it into national collections?

Vaughn: Actually it was a very sad time in my life they were all my children you know and to a large measure I had shaped their destinies but when I found myself not able to carry a bonsai across the yard because I needed one hand for my cane I knew the time had come to face reality and so I dispersed the collection. Gary Marshall still cares for the major part of my old collection but the American Collection at the National Arboretum has three or four of my trees and the Pacific Rim Collection has one of them trees in it. Fortunately knowing that the loss of my bonsai collection would put me into a deep depression I started studying more about haiku, that decision sort of softened the transition for me. Bonsai was one way of celebrating nature to me and writing haiku is just another way of doing it.

Since I can't do bonsai any more I let all my subscriptions to bonsai journals lapse but my finger is still on the pulse of bonsai through my interest in the National Bonsai Foundation.

A small part of Vaughn's once massive bonsai collection.

AoB: Something all bonsai artists worry about is what will become of their collections when they become unable to care for them themselves. Vaughn you are a member of a very small group of people who can offer valuable advice on this subject. What could you share with us, what advice would you give?

Vaughn: Through growing bonsai and the threat of a shortened life due to brain cancer I have discovered that the "process" of doing anything in life far exceeds, in pleasure the cheap thrill of a finished goal. My bonsai have already served me well, the fact that they may be looked after, after I am gone is just icing on the cake for me and I don't need any more calories so really, I don't let it bother me. After Katrina I have come to put things in perspective. I saw so many bonsai collections die either from drowning or the lack of electricity to keep a sprinkler system going while people evacuated from the storm. But I found many a bonsai grower who kept his or her passion for bonsai anyway. It's not the stuff of bonsai that keeps us going it's the spirit of it.

AoB: Your love of haiku is well known in the bonsai community and your original haiku are quite well received. When you gave up your bonsai collection what led you to pursue haiku instead of another outlet?

Vaughn: I had always written haiku at some tempo I just gave the horse its head when I was denied the practice my primary passion due to health reasons.

AoB: Of all the Haiku you have written, which one is your favorite and why?

Vaughn: The one I composed this morning because haiku are meant to be poems that celebrate the present and not record the past.

AoB: Your personal web page at is amazing For it's detail and tells the story of your life very openly. What prompted you to share so much of your life with the world?

Vaughn: I have produced no children (which was totally my decision).Instead I wanted to experience some of the world. But since my river of the DNA stops here I felt the need to extend it through sharing my experiences with anyone interested in them.

AoB: What do you feel has been your greatest joy or accomplishment in your years associated with bonsai?

Vaughn: The pleasures in seeing my students surpass me in creative genius.

Last edited by Paul Stokes on Tue Jan 29, 2008 10:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 3:29 am 

Joined: Thu May 04, 2006 4:12 pm
Posts: 3
Location: Lake Forest, California, USA
I love this story! I read this interview with great interest and then I visited Vaughn Banting's website to view his bonsai collection and read his autobiography from "cover to cover" in one sitting. His bonsai trees are certainly beautiful, and I certainly learned a few bonsai tips from his life-long experience, but it was the opportunity to learn about him the person that I am most grateful for. As a Vietnamese who was a refugee here in America since 1975, and as a doctor who makes cancer diagnoses daily for a living (including brain tumors at times), and as a bonsai art student who also admired John Naka deeply (and I also loved the configuration of Naka's bonsai garden too!), I am so deeply touched by his life story. The best part of it is the love story in there! It is so romantic! I wish Mr. Vaughn Banting and his love the best! Thank you AOB, for this Profile of a great American bonsai artist and a great human story!
Si Nguyen (in Orange County, California)

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 1:10 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:13 am
Posts: 1190
Location: Los Angeles, California
Vaughn's story is truly a great human drama. I've never met him, but I wish I did. He is an amazing person, and his life is an ispiration.
Thank you guys for this article!

 Post subject: Re: Profile: Vaughn Banting
PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2008 11:41 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Gary Marchel announced today on another forum that Vaughn has taken very seriously ill and that things are not looking well at this time.

I personally am saddened to hear this and my prayers are with him and his family.

Our thoughts are with you Vaughn.

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