Profile: William N. Valavanis
William N. Valavanis in his bonsai garden
Bill became interested in bonsai and horticulture at age 11 and persued his interest by studying Ornamental Horticulture at SUNY Farmingdale and Cornell University. He has made over 40 trips to Japan and formally apprenticed with Kyuzo Murata and Kakutaro Komuro in Omiya Bonsai Village in Japan. Additionally a 30-year study and association with Yuji Yoshimura combined with his formal horticultural degrees, apprenticeships in Japan and his artistic talent provide Bill with the solid background to promote and teach Classical bonsai art around the world.
He is the proprietor of the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester, New York where he maintains a fine personal collection of Classical bonsai. He offers introductory and advanced classes as well as seminars and symposia in Rochester, New York. He also maintains a busy teaching schedule for bonsai and horticultural organizations worldwide. In order to further promote the artistic and horticultural expression of Classical bonsai art around the world he began publishing International BONSAI magazine 28 years ago. He has authored two books and many articles published in English, Japanese and other European languages.
Bill is an active member and officer of numerous local, national and international bonsai and horticultural organizations. His distinctive bonsai and displays have received many awards both in the United States and abroad.
He freely shares his 40 plus years of dedicated bonsai study, experiences and discoveries with students and serious bonsai fanciers through International BONSAI and his educational bonsai programs.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with William N. Valavanis :
You are the founder and owner of the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester, New York and also publish International BONSAI magazine. Could you share with us what visitors there, who are not experienced in bonsai, comment the most on when viewing the bonsai?
William N. Valavanis:
I have numerous visitors to my garden for the past few decades, both newcomers to the art of bonsai as well as the top world bonsai masters from around the world. Those who have not seen bonsai before are at first overwhelmed by the grand view of the bonsai garden. They are not too critical and enjoy everything as a result. Then they look at the individual specimens and enjoy "nature in miniature".
Those experienced with the art see fine-quality bonsai and tend to study the design, species and garden layout. They are often quick to notice and recognize the different styles and enjoy the beauty of my artistry which is combined with the necessary horticultural practices to create and maintain the bonsai in the best health.
The world's top bonsai masters comment that they immediately see the numerous decades of continued love and dedication to fine-quality classical bonsai. They nearly always comment on the fact that so called "instant" bonsai, created during a few quick years of development are not found here. What they see are works of art that are the results of years of carefully growing and training young plants from seed, cuttings and grafts. Most comment on the well-developed surface roots, trunks and bark. My bonsai are "quiet" bonsai. While I enjoy working with a small number of collected trees, I prefer a quiet, classical taste to the often overworked and occasionally ostentatious specimens, which feature very large areas of dead wood. I can only think of one specimen in my garden which features dead wood, and that specimen is a recent addition. I'm gratified these world masters recognize and comment on the years of work and love that have been necessary to create such works of art. While my personal tastes in bonsai obviously influence the content of the magazine, I make it point to cover many styles in that publication. The world is a big enough place for many tastes in bonsai. Perhaps not my garden though?
Main display area at the International Bonsai Arboretum
What do the beginner's eyes of your visitors see that the experienced bonsaists should learn again to see in bonsai?
The beginning bonsai hobbyists immediately see the beauty of my art and appreciate that. Perhaps they have an easier time taking in the full experience since they can usually only see the whole instead of the parts. Experienced bonsai hobbyists are always looking to see crossing wires (they find a few), wire scars and weeds (they find a lot). What this indicates to me is that those who are experienced tend to look for faults and may not as easily appreciate the total aesthetic impact of design and art.
What events took place in your bonsai career for you to start the International Bonsai Arboretum and International BONSAI magazine?
Boy, what a long question, no short question- long answer!
I began studying and growing bonsai when I was eleven years old and am still at it, only even more serious now that I realize there is so much to learn. In order to finance my new "hobby" I began to sell a few of my extra specimens. People purchased them from a young teenager! Then people asked me to show them how to create bonsai, so I began teaching. As a young lad of 15 I had to do a lot of studying and research in order to present an educational program. I still do that, and people do not realize the work I put into presenting a program, especially a new one with slides. A tremendous amount of research goes into each program, article and magazine I publish. In fact, I must study the subject completely while publishing each issue of the magazine so only valid information is presented. I guess my character for such serious presentations was established over 40 years ago.
So I began my "bonsai business" named "The House Of Bonsai"
in 1966 while my family was living in Charleston, West Virginia and I was in high school. Soon I began lecturing and demonstrating at many garden clubs and horticultural organizations in the region. At first I did not charge (boy, have times changed!), I only asked for someone to pick me up and return me home since I was not old enough to drive, although my parents often drove me to my programs and helped me too. One year I sold marigolds to church and school organizations for Mother's Day. Cars lined up in front of our home to pick up their orders. My father returned home from work one day, saw the long line and just went around the parked cars to get into the driveway. Well, one of my customers went up to him and told him to get in back of the line like the others. Both parents supported me during my entire career and continued to encourage me to continue on with my bonsai studies.
My bonsai business grew, catalogs were issued and I began teaching around the country, this was in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. I also began studying classical bonsai with Yuji Yoshimura in the late 1960s since he lived in Tarrytown, New York and I was studying ornamental horticulture on Long Island at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. It was a couple of hour drive, but friends from the Bonsai Society Of Greater New York took me with them since I did not have a car (but finally got my drivers license!). This began a 30 year study and close association with Yuji Yoshimura who opened my eyes to his art of classical bonsai and encouraged me to continue his work, in my own style.
In 1970, 1971 and 1972 I made several trips to Japan to formally study bonsai in Omiya Bonsai Village under two of the top bonsai masters, Kyuzo Murata and Kakutaro Komuro. During that study period I also studied bonsai-saikei with Toshio Kawamoto in Tokyo as well as bonsai chrysanthemums with Tameji Nakajima and the Shofu School of Ikebana. When I returned home from Japan I decided to attempt to grow and teach bonsai professionally and make a living, although nearly every adult advised me it was not possible. But my family supported me and I tried it. Then I realized that I wanted to teach my interpretation of classical bonsai to a wider audience, the world. So I changed the name of my business from The House Of Bonsai to "The International Bonsai Arboretum", dedicated to promote the artistic and horticultural expression of classical bonsai art. This was in 1978.
As far as my magazine, International BONSAI goes, that is an extension of my teaching classical bonsai art around the world. Now, how I started that endeavor is an interesting story:
In the late 1970s I was a director of The Bonsai Society of Greater New York. Their magazine originally started and supported for many years by Yuji Yoshimura was The Bonsai Bulletin and had an international circulation. The society needed a new editor and Mr. Yoshimura encouraged me and assisted me editing the magazine in 1978. I enjoyed presenting new articles to the readers, but not the organizational politics and difficulties. So, I decided that a new publication might be a good idea. The world's first independent English bonsai magazine. At that time, there were three society magazines: The American Bonsai Society Journal, published by the American Bonsai Society, Bonsai: Journal of Bonsai, Saikei and Suiseki, published by Bonsai Clubs International and The Bonsai Bulletin, published by The Bonsai Society Of Greater New York. Each magazine had problems. So I had a great idea! Let's all get together and publish one quality color magazine and give a few pages to each society for their business. Well, after I proposed my idea to all three organizations, they about killed me! So, after careful thought and assistance from Yuji Yoshimura I decided to continue on with the project myself. Now after 28 years I am so glad I did! Instant decisions can be made and followed. I take the job of publishing seriously. There is no one to blame is something goes wrong. If I don't do a good job people will not renew their subscriptions. This is not the case with organizations, especially non-profit societies.
International BONSAI cover
You are the publisher and editor of International BONSAI. Selecting articles for such a quality publication helps to shape the world of bonsai. How do you decide what is right for the magazine?
As mentioned earlier, I am very serious about providing authoritative, valid educational articles in my magazine. Each issue of International BONSAI is on a specific topic, either species, styles or group. Therefore our readers have an educational "mini lesson" and can come away with good information, tips and inspiration.
When selecting specific articles, many from Japan, I immediately look at the author to see if he is a professional or hobbyist. Now, there is nothing wrong with bonsai hobbyists, as many are as skilled and knowledgeable as the best professional (some are even better), but it is important to know where they are coming from.
There are numerous articles in bonsai publications which feature bonsai demonstrations with little text explaining what the artist is attempting to do. Yes, a photo may be worth 1,000 words, but I like to think that our readers want and deserve more than pretty pictures. It is very quick and easy to fill a magazine with full color glossy photos of bonsai masterpieces or artists working, it is much more difficult to get good articles where subscribers can actually read and learn something directly. I want to present valid instructional and correct information. There are, however, those who find it easier to only look at glossy color photos and lack more in-depth reading. There are numerous bonsai books featuring beautiful photos, but they may not provide the more complete coverage of the subject that is necessary to become a master artist or connoisseur. I personally think our subscribers want something educational in addition to just the inspirational.
I try to include something for every level of bonsai enthusiast, from the rank beginner to the established bonsai master. The main article in our publication usually begins with how to obtain or propagate specimens. A technical article or two helps provide valid information for experienced bonsai hobbyists. Then there are the masters of the art; for them I present photos for inspiration and advanced articles on design, philosophy or display. I am very interested in the fine art of bonsai display. For several decades I have featured the artistry of the Keido School of bonsai display. This has been a rather inspiration series of popular articles which beginners may not fully appreciate or understand. So this year I'm featuring another series of articles on display which are more educational and aimed at Westerners, who do not always have the fine-quality Japanese and Chinese tables, scrolls and accessories needed for a formal Japanese style display.
Additionally periodic reviews of new books and products are included to help inform our subscribers on something new I have discovered. Also bonsai exhibitions and important events are featured.
Unlike other bonsai publications, society news is not included. In fact, it is interesting to note that the first issue published 28 years ago is still in demand, even as a reprint, sine it contains educational articles on Satsuki azaleas. There is very little information, which is "dated" in our magazine.
What are your goals for your magazine and what can we expect in the future?
I would like to see more subscribers from across the world. With additional subscribers (and advertisers too) I will be able to add more pages, with more color photos and educational articles.
William N. Valavanis studying with Yuji Yoshimura in 1969
Who has had the greatest influence upon you in your career? If you had your time over would you have learned the art any differently?
Yuji Yoshimura has had the greatest influence in my bonsai life, I never thought of it as a career. I'm having fun at what I'm doing. It is not really work.
If I had to do it over again, I probably would do it very similar to what I have done for the past 43 years. Study both art and horticulture first, then learn the techniques for creating bonsai and finally learn how to appreciate and share the love of bonsai with others. Getting more and more people interested in the art of bonsai is very important. Not just because they spend more money and subscribe to magazines; they are also an extremely important segment of the bonsai community. By working together and welcoming more people into the art of bonsai we can advance and improve it.
In high school I wish I had studied more design and art subjects. I studied ceramics in order to make my own bonsai containers. In the 1960s bonsai containers were very difficult to locate.
You have studied with Yuji Yoshimura, Kyuzo Murata, Kakutaro Komuro, Toshio Kawamoto, Tameji Nakajima, Mikio Oshima, Joseph Burke and many others. Was there a common denominator in all of these instructors?
They were all interested in trees? These skilled and knowledgeable artists were the finest I could find and were willing to share their techniques and love of bonsai with me. All of them were Japanese, except for Joe Burke. But he once was in China during the war and did have Yuji Yoshimura as a prisoner, so perhaps there is an Asian connection there too.
If you were able to study with anyone else, living or dead, in their own style of bonsai technique, who would it be and why?
I would have loved to study with Saichi Suzuki and Fusazo Takeyama. Although I have met both artists on several occasions in Japan it never worked out for me to study with them, but I did study their bonsai in their private gardens and have studied their books. Both were aged when we met and were no longer accepting students.
Saichi Suzuki was, perhaps the greatest pine bonsai masters of all time. His Daiju-en Bonsai Garden is in Okazaki, Japan. He was responsible for selecting, propagating and pioneering the cultivation of the "Zuisho" dwarf cultivar of Japanese five-needle pine, Pinus parviflora. His son Toshinori continued his work and the family garden is now run by his grandson Toro.
Fusazo Takeyama was the proprietor of Fuyo-en Bonsai Garden in Omiya Bonsai Village, Japan. He specialized in group planting, deciduous and unusual bonsai species. Fortunately, his son, Hiroshi, continues his work.
There are two more gentlemen I wish I had the opportunity to meet: Norio Kobayashi and Count Norinaga Matsudaira. Norio Kobayashi was one of the world's most prolific authors and publishers. His first book was published in 1930. He started Bonsai magazine and published 518 issues of this important and influential periodical spanning many decades. I am fortunate to have nearly a complete set of these historic relics in my personal reference library. He was one of the founders of the National Bonsai Exhibition in Japan (Kokufu Bonsai Ten) in 1934.
Count Norinaga Matsudaira was an active bonsai hobbyist who popularized miniature or shohin bonsai in Japan. Together with his wife they cultivated over 1,000 specimens. He was the first president of the Kokufu Bonsai Society which initiated and sponsored the now famous National Bonsai Exhibiton (Kokufu Bonsai Ten).
Springtime at the International Bonsai Arboretum
You have been doing bonsai for over 40 years, if you were to compare the art of bonsai in America when you started and now, what would be some of the major differences?
The art of bonsai in America has significantly changed since I first began the study in the early 1960s. First, today there is an abundance of available plant material, supplies and bonsai organizations. I had a very difficult time even locating bonsai containers in the southeast. Whenever my local garden center got a shipment of pots (once a year) I immediately spent my allowance (and borrowed funds from my parents) and purchased all of them. I also went to my art teacher in high school, learned how to make plaster molds and used the newly purchased containers as models so I could make more pots for my specimens.
There are a tremendous number of good books now available, and another few English language magazines have entered the market since I began independently publishing International BONSAI in 1979. There are now bonsai organizations in most large metropolitan areas of the country. "Way back then", there were only one or two conventions held yearly in the United States. Now, with the increased interest there are many. Most years I attend nearly 10 such conventions either as a featured instructor, exhibitor or vendor where I teach, exhibit, promote and sell classical bonsai art and related supplies.
If one carefully studies the club bonsai magazines from the 1960s and 1970s, clearly a difference will be immediately noticeable. Artists have grown in their skill and refinement. This is very similar as comparing the Japanese bonsai exhibition albums from the 1940s and 1950s to contemporary albums.
The bonsai in America have gotten much larger than in the earlier days. This is, perhaps, because it is much easier to create a large bonsai than a smaller specimen because there is more plant material to work on and it is easy to disguise faults. Many of the bonsai artists want to impress the public and others by imposing large size specimens. Collected specimens are more popular in the United States now than in the past, and again, larger trees are more impressive and easier to create than small ones.
Since the early 1980s when I featured and introduced Masahiko Kimura to the English speaking bonsai world through my magazine his techniques were immediately absorbed by westerners. All of a sudden, artists like Dan Robinson, who had already been using chain saws and power tools, became suddenly popular since they had considerable experience. Since Mr. Kimura "validated" the use of power tools, many people want to try their artistry with large specimens with lots of "wood to carve", so again, here, larger specimens became and are currently more popular than smaller ones.
The refinement of the current bonsai in America is far superior to those exhibited in the 1960s. More detail wiring and careful attention is given to trimming and grooming for exhibits. We even use bonsai tables now rather than bamboo placemats for exhibits!
It's funny now that I reflect on the bonsai in the past; a large number of our current specimens are very similar in development as the bonsai in Japan in the 1970s.
America has always seemed to be behind other countries in the art of bonsai but we have been at it for quite some time now, why do you think this and what, if anything, can we do about it?
That is an interesting assertion that I don't believe is correct. It depends largely on what the person judging has seen. Having traveled all over the United States and the world for decades I think America is lacking a comprehensive national exhibition, not high quality bonsai. I would suggest to those who bemoan the lack of better American bonsai that they don't have the experience to know where to see them. The recent emphasis on bonsai display coupled with a prestigious North American exhibition would help many see the quality we have on this continent.
In what direction would you like to see the art of bonsai heading in the next decade and what do you think we need to concentrate more to get there?
I really believe that the bonsai in America are developing well and at the same speed as the art did in Japan. However, I also think that many of the American specimens are lacking in basic design. Yes, they may be large and impressive and appear to be beautiful to those who have had a limited exposure to the wide world of bonsai or other arts.
Many hobbyists are creating a "naturalistic" feeling of bonsai to express their understanding of the American landscape and how native American species grow in nature. They want to create a bonsai which look like the large trees they see in nature. I understand that philosophy. It is fine and one aspect of bonsai but not a foundation of my understanding of the classical art of bonsai.
People try, and do, create the "miniature trees" they see in nature and enjoy them. However, they often forget about basic design and try to duplicate the way trees grow in nature. In this way, they copy both the good and bad design elements indiscriminately. It is important to remember that nature is not beautiful, nature is nature. Beauty is perceived by man and imposed on nature. There are an abundance of "natural" trees which have basic design difficulties and are difficult to enjoy but are nevertheless duplicated by bonsai hobbyists that haven't learned to discriminate and resent being told they need to.
If you don't understand this basic design, you may be duplicating a bit of nature which is not refined and has a basic fault only to express a tree which is growing in nature. While appropriate variations and imperfections are welcome additions to genuine art, they are not a replacement for enjoyable design.
The only way to learn basic design is to study. There are many sources. It may be very helpful to study art of all media, photography and basic design to understand the basic concepts of design. Only then, will one have the background and experience to begin to distinguish poor design from dynamic and stimulating forms.
Dwarf Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Bill, you are known to be well-versed in what most consider Japanese traditional bonsai. What is your definition of this term, and do you feel that the more modern philosophies of bonsai styling are complementary to the traditional aspects, or are they something to be avoided.
Yes, I have studied traditional or "classical" Japanese bonsai for over four decades. I have been taught this concept and am beginning to understand it and want to share it with others.
Classical bonsai art was actually begun in the early 1800s in Japan. The publication of the classic text, "Somoku Kinyoshu" in 1829 began to set up the art of classical bonsai. This text was the first to provide an insight to what was considered to be artistic bonsai. For the first time drawings were used to illustrate idealized basic forms, taboo branches and how to improve bonsai to expose their true beauty.
Many people now consider this type of bonsai to be "old fashioned" "boring" 'traditional' and even some have labeled them as "cookie cutter bonsai". This opinion is fine; I feel there is room for all thoughts in the wide aspect of bonsai. I do think that the critics of traditional bonsai confuse technique with artistry. There are many poor examples of both in all bonsai tastes. However, the classical form is what I am studying, enjoy and teach.
I have no problem with other, more modern philosophies of bonsai, as I previously stated, there is room for all thoughts. Just think how boring it would be to walk into a bonsai exhibition and see an entire row of formal upright Japanese black pine bonsai! We need a variety, which includes "naturalistic" and modern design concepts. The only thing I am recommending is that these new forms embrace basic design principles.
Last month our local bonsai organization held our annual spring exhibition. One of our members brought three specimens to show before he brought them to our show. I guess he was looking for "approval" to bring them. He had two specimens of beginning classical bonsai form and one rather unusual tree. The tree clearly did not conform to my understanding and teaching of classical bonsai art, I encouraged him to display this bonsai that he worked on for many years. It was rather bushy, tall and perhaps a mix of slanting style combined with a cascade branch. Quite unusual. He brought the bonsai to our exhibition and although one of my advanced students questioned me about allowing the tree into the show, I told them it was well designed with good form, even though it did not conform to the "rules" they have been studying, some for many decades. The bonsai was well received and caused some lively discussions. But in the end, our exhibition included a bonsai which was rather different, but well designed, and added a special flair to the total display.
Are there certain species (climate appropriate) that you feel should only be used by more advanced bonsaists, and also what have you found to be you preferred bonsai species?
I do not believe that any species should be restricted to a certain section of bonsai hobbyists. The art of bonsai is to be enjoyed by all, and that includes species as well. Perhaps a few species might be difficult to cultivate, especially when containerized, but trying to keep these species alive, with an artistic form is one part of the fun, challenge and accomplishment of the art.
As far as my personal preferred bonsai species goes, unlike other artists, my favorite species is not the one I am currently working on. I have personal likes and dislikes, and my advanced students are aware of this, but are quick to note that I do not disqualify them from species brought into my classroom for shaping or advice. I try to have an open mind and am willing to help my serious students with all their bonsai, even "naturalistic" forms.
Personally I enjoy propagating, growing, training and enjoying pine and maple bonsai. I do not enjoy growing non-hardy bonsai species (indoor bonsai) because of their difficulties in over wintering in northern areas and eventual loss of vigor. I am very quick to acknowledge that if I lived in a warmer area where the trees are winter hardy, my bonsai collection would be full of Ficus, Fukien tea, Serissa, Podocarpus and many other interesting species which I have found to eventually decline in my northern climate, even with specialized care. I have spent most of my life studying and growing bonsai and have never seen a vigorous, healthy indoor species bonsai survive decades when grown indoors or provided optimum care during the winter. These bonsai specimens never exhibit the vibrancy and health as specimens grown outdoors in a full sun exposure where they are hardy.
Do you think that bonsai will ever be recognized by the general public as an art form and what path do you feel we need to follow to make this a reality?
Interesting question! Do you realize that there are even people who grow bonsai who do NOT consider bonsai an art, but merely a craft? However, like the majority of bonsai practitioners, I consider bonsai to be an art.
About fifteen years ago Yuji Yoshimura wrote an article for my magazine on "Is Bonsai An Art?" This was a well received and interesting article and many people responded with thought provoking answers and comments. This is an example of the type of unique, authoritative and educational articles I try to present to the readers of International BONSAI.
If the bonsai community desires to promote and improve our art as a true art to the public we need to invite artists, of all media, to our exhibits. Many exhibitions are held in art museums and that is an excellent opportunity to expose the public to our art form.
I believe that eventually, the public will acknowledge bonsai as an art form. I only wish I could live that long.
Japan and now some other countries have highly respected major bonsai exhibitions where world class bonsai are shown and judged, do you think this will ever happen here in America?
We need such a major exhibition of world class bonsai in America. And, in fact a professional bonsai organization was established earlier this spring in order to sponsor such a major exhibition. Now that the "Professional Bonsai Association" has been incorporated, we are now organizing the details for membership and will make details public when finalized. We are planning on sponsoring a distinguished bonsai exhibition similar to the National Bonsai Exhibition (Kokufu Bonsai Ten) in Japan and the Ginkgo Award Exhibition held in Belgium.
But foreigners fail to realize that America is a very large country and it is very difficult to transport valuable works of bonsai art long distances. So the Professional Bonsai Association is planning on holding a major exhibition on the East coast, west coast and Midwest areas of the country every few years in order to provide a venue to all bonsai enthusiasts throughout this large and great country of ours.
There are many new thoughts these days in bonsai, such as naturalistic styling, three dimensional styling, multiple viewing angles, flat top bonsai, etc. do you think bonsai is evolving and is such change vital to the art form?
Bonsai is a living, horticultural fine art form, and as such, must evolve. Change is eventual and perhaps necessary to accommodate the changing culture. I think there is room for all styles of bonsai, as long as the individual specimens incorporate good design. Personally, though I recognize good bonsai in several tastes, I will continue on with my concept and understanding of classical bonsai art, since I have not seen evidence of improvement of that form which I appreciate most. Of course, improvement, as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Juniper display with Shimpaku juniper, Juniperus chinensis var. sargenti "Shimpaku"
Display of bonsai is an art form in its own right. Do you see room for improvement in American displays and if so, what improvements should we aim for.
The display and appreciation of bonsai is a very personal expression of one's understanding of the art. There is no reason why a display with American taste cannot be displayed, as long as it is well done, and again here, done with an understanding of basic design.
In my experience, most people involved in bonsai outside of Japan do not want to grow or display bonsai in the "Japanese style". However, what they do not realize is what they see coming from Japan is not necessarily "Japanese style". Good design is good design. People often confuse this good design with being Japanese. But if you analyze both the bonsai form and display, putting aside the cultural signals some of the display elements carry, the end result is plain old good basic design. Our displays can be culturally appropriate for our country but should always exhibit tasteful design choices.
Improving bonsai display is an activity that is needed not just in America but also in Japan, Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.
New Year bonsai display with Dwarf Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra "Hornibrook")
Obviously the tokonoma didn't quite catch on in other countries, is there an equivalent besides the backyard next to the fence that is being used more now.
It probably never will catch on here - it is a cultural feature that, while attractive and useful, is very Japanese. Even if it did catch on it would have a different cultural meaning. Many people do not understand the use and appreciation of a tokonoma. The Japanese tokonoma or alcove is generally an indoor area of a home to display works of art, bonsai, suiseki, ceramics, ikebana, etc. In the past these were used to display items of religious significance or objects of reverence but they have become progressively more secular. Such a formal display area is not necessary to effectively display your bonsai. Any area, with a plain background to avoid distraction can be used to effectively display specimens. Any table, with a plain, light colored plain wall can create a perfect location to display and enjoy the beauty of your bonsai. Reviewing many of the exhibition albums you will find many excellent bonsai displays that aren't featured in tokonoma.
Bonsai against a fence. Most bonsai must be kept outdoors during the summer for optimum growth. Many people just place them in a back yard, often with a fence background (but not too close). An outdoor location like this is necessary for growth. If you want to display your bonsai or enjoy them closer, it is necessary to bring them indoors or to move them in an area where other objects do not compete with them and to allow their true beauty to be exposed.
In the yard some people often erect posts and highlight individual specimens. Some include suiseki among their bonsai to present a more naturalistic effect. This is also an ideal method in which to "age" stones for future suiseki.
In my personal bonsai display area I have three methods to artistically show my bonsai. Most are placed on long sturdy tables with plenty of space around each specimen for good sunlight and air circulation. Certain specimens are also displayed on individual posts, approximately two feet in front of a white stucco-like wall. And finally, a special bonsai which I want to enjoy is placed in my outdoor tokonoma alcove, complete with an outdoor carpet and hidden sky light to provide good sunlight.
You have been a judge at many events, how do you feel about the current varied methods of judging and do you feel a standardized system is needed?
Boy, what a can of worms this is! In 1968 at the American Bonsai Society's Symposium, held in Philadelphia, PA, a school for bonsai judging was conducted. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s the American Bonsai Society published a "Judging Manual", and even revised it too. This was not well received by the American bonsai community.
In fact, there are not too many bonsai exhibitions held in America where bonsai are judged. Being uncomfortable with the concepts of art and critique, perhaps Americans simply want to display their art for their own enjoyment. While valid, it will be difficult to create a respected national bonsai exhibition without this changing.
About fifteen years ago Yuji Yoshimura and I created a "Bonsai Evaluation Form" and it too, was published in International BONSAI. Soon after that, Arthur Skolnik wrote a "Suiseki Evaluation Form" which I also published in my magazine. I'm sure there have been other contributions as well. The tools for standardized judging are out there if we want to use them.
Should artistic merit be judged as well as technique?
Actually, bonsai are judged on an exacting scale every day around the world, even in Japan. This bonsai is worth $100 and this specimen may be valued at $200. One may be better for many reasons including design, species, age in training, container, owner, history, etc.
But, I feel the design is the most important element in the evaluation of a bonsai. Yes, technique is important, but design should be paramount. Would you give a bonsai an award just because it is neatly wired, I do not think so. As I mentioned earlier, people often confuse technique with artistry.
Decades ago in Japan a prominent bonsai master offered to teach me bonsai. I asked him what he was offering to teach. He answered wiring, pruning and shaping. I politely declined the offer and told him any one can learn to wire, even a monkey. However I was looking for a bonsai designer to share his thoughts and feelings for shaping bonsai. I did not study with this gentleman, but two other young foreigners studied there for about four years. They learned well, very well and are excellent and knowledgeable growers and technicians, not necessarily skilled bonsai designers.