Profile: Jim Smith
Jim Smith is well known in the world of bonsai. He has exhibited at the BCI Convention in 1975, at all the BSF Conventions since 1976, at all the BCI Conventions in Florida, at all the Epcot Flower shows, and at WBFF in Orlando, Florida. He founded the Treasure Coast Bonsai Society in 1975, the Dura-Stone Nursery in 1979, and he has conducted workshops and demonstrations in many major venues. We are proud to present his profile and gallery here at AoB.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Jim Smith:
AoB: Jim, you studied under such masters as Yuji Yoshimura, John Naka, and Tosh Saburamura, could you identify a common between these great teachers that could be attributed to their artistic achievements?
Jim Smith: All three had a background in horticulture, therefore the health of the plant was their first consideration. They all practiced the principals of classical Japanese bonsai and they understood the necessity of patience.
AoB: With over 50 years of experience with bonsai you have seen the art of bonsai in America evolve to where it is today. What is your assessment of the current state of the art and in what areas do you think we need to concentrate on?
Jim Smith: At the present time bonsai is becoming more liberal, refined and acceptable as art to more people. Men women and children of all ages and all walks of life all over the world enjoy friendship through bonsai. We need to continue to encourage children and new people to become involved in our bonsai clubs. Interesting and friendly clubs attract new members. Bonsai is here to stay.
AoB: Your work with tropical species is well known worldwide, what was it like throughout the years working with tropicals when they were often looked down upon by the bonsai community?
Jim Smith: Bonsai to me was very personal, it was something I needed to do to satisfy my creative instinct, what other people thought of tropicals for bonsai didn't concern me. Since many of the temperate plants used for bonsai do not grow in south Florida it was more practical for me to grow plants that would thrive here. The trees I saw in nature influenced my bonsai styling.
AoB: Why is it in your opinions that tropicals were looked upon as not really bonsai material for so many years and what do you feel has contributed to changing this perception?
Jim Smith: Many People thought of bonsai only as a Japanese art form and since Japan is not a tropical country only temperate plants were used by the Japanese to create bonsai. In 1956 I moved to Florida and found that some of the plants used for bonsai in the North would not live in this climate. There are many tropical plants that were available to me so I started using them. Since the 1975 BCI-BSF convention in Miami more people became aware of Tropical Bonsai.
AoB: Besides the longer growing season, what other positive attributes do tropicals have that you have found makes them suited for bonsai?
Jim Smith: The growth habit of some are ideal for many different styles. The driftwood on our collected Buttonwood trees is outstanding. Bougainvillea are hard to rival when they are in full bloom. Dwarf Black Olive has a unique growth habit that is perfect for bonsai. The trunk of the Brazilian Raintree has a unique shape. We have so many Ficus to choose from that can be trained in every style imaginable. My favorite is Ficus 'Salicifolia-'Nerifolia' because it can be used in every style, another is Ficus microcarpa 'Kingman'. Yet another favorite of mine is the Portul aca ria afra since that is one of the first tropical plants I tried for bonsai after moving to Florida. The Fukien Tea imported from China is another popular plant used for bonsai.
AoB: It is often said that tropicals are not particularly suited to Jin and Shari, have you found this to be true and if so what other techniques do you use to give the appearance of great age in tropical bonsai?
Jim Smith: You hardly ever see Jin and Shari on most tropical trees because of their normal growth habit but there are some that have very striking dead wood such as the Buttonwood. This is a natural condition caused by the hurricanes in the tropics. I have created Jin and Shari (not very often) on Ficus and Bucida spinosa if it will add to the beauty of the bonsai, I never use it just for the sake of having it on the tree.
To give the illusion of great age I always make sure that none of the lower branches are growing upward, exposed surface roots will also make the tree look old.
AoB: If you could only teach one thing to aspiring bonsai artists, what would that be?
Jim Smith: There are so many things to learn it's hard to pick just one but an absolute must is to know the rules. After you understand the rules of bonsai you will always be able to create a bonsai. You must always find the front of the tree first.
AoB: Where do you see the art of bonsai in America at in 50 years?
Jim Smith: I believe bonsai will still be attracting new people as it is today. There are no restrictions as to who can participate. There may be more people with bonsai collections who do not want to be involved with the day to day chores of maintenance. This will create a need for more professional bonsai artists to care for them. Since bonsai are kept outdoors theft may also become a larger problem. Bonsai schools with qualified teachers may also be available in 50 years. Bonsai will continue to be popular as a hobby and an art form.
AoB: Do you think people should study art in their pursuit of bonsai?
Jim Smith: I believe studying all forms of art is helpful in creating bonsai. In bonsai we need to understand line, form, color, texture, balance, perspective, interest and movement.
I believe that many outstanding bonsai could be improved if the artist gave more attention to movement. Some bonsai direct your eye in two different directions, which is confusing.
I believe that many outstanding bonsai could be improved if the artist gave more attention to movement. Some bonsai direct your eye in two different directions which is confusing.
AoB: What is your definition of bonsai?
Jim Smith: Yuji Yoshimura defined bonsai as "the Art of Training a Plant in a Shallow Container". I have always accepted that definition. I am aware that some people do not regard some plants growing in bonsai pots as bonsai because of their lack of styling or the fact they think of them as being too large. I have never seen one that I thought was too big, I have seen many mass produced bonsai that lack the artistic beauty of a quality bonsai but to me if they look like a bonsai and are potted in a bonsai pot they are bonsai.
AoB: How do you feel about the often heard remarks from certain people that it is pointless to talk about art in bonsai and all that matters is just to enjoy it?
Jim Smith: It is important to enjoy the art, if you don't enjoy creating bonsai why do it? It is also important to talk to other bonsai artists to get inspiration, learn new techniques and explore new ideas.
AoB: We often encounter people who start their hobby in bonsai by acquiring young material or seedlings. Do you advise them to grow their own material from scratch, or rather to buy something in an advanced stage of development as their first tree?
Jim Smith: If the person has never grown a potted plant before I suggest that he start with an inexpensive plant to learn basic horticulture. To the person who is capable of growing a healthy plant I recommend he choose a bonsai for him to refine and keep his interest. He can then develop his styling skills with pre-bonsai nursery plants.
AoB: In your collection, name a few of your favorite trees. What is it that makes them favorites?
Jim Smith: My favorite plant is Ficus Salicifolia because it has all the characteristics you need to create bonsai. It has small leaves which will reduce even smaller for mame size bonsai. It is succulent and therefore will tolerate drastic root pruning, allowing it to be planted in very shallow containers. Buds break back profusely on old wood, never making it necessary to graft branches you may need. Ramification develops very quickly if you are diligent with your pinching. The only disease I have ever experienced is fungus which should never be a problem if good air circulation is provided. Borers have damaged a few trees for me but they are not a big problem. I still have my first Ficus Salicifolia although the last three hurricanes have completely restyled it.
Portulacaria afra is a close second for the same reason as the Ficus salicifolia, the only difference is that Portulacaria has no insect or disease problems so it is never necessary to use chemical sprays. I once accidentally sprayed my bonsai with an oil based chemical, the plant immediately dropped all it's leaves but completely recovered.
AoB: Any exciting projects that you are working on now or in the near future?
Jim Smith: I have been working with some new plants that I believe will make good bonsai. Isabel Hofmeyr of South Africa sent me rooted cuttings of different varieties of Ficus burtt davyi, one variety has very small leaves that is good for mame, another has an usual growth habit with lots of aerial roots. All four are suitable for bonsai.
Brussel Martin gave me three rooted cuttings of Wrightia religiosa that he brought back from one of his trips. The white flowers are very fragrant, I have since acquired a new dwarf variety and one with double flowers.
Another plant I have been growing for only a few years Ficus heteropoda, native to Mexico was given to me by Carlos of Miami Florida. The plant was only a few inches tall with very small leaves, it was a beautiful bonsai. I immediately planted it in a larger container to grow it for cutting material. After the first year it grew very large including the leaves and I have since propagated many cuttings from it. Fruit forms on the trunk and the leaves can be reduced drastically, the plant is ideal for banyan style. The plant Carlos gave me is now in a bonsai pot and styled as a banyan is 25 inches high, 40 inches wide, with 7 inch caliper trunk