Profile: Warren Hill
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Author:  Editorial Staff [ Tue Feb 26, 2008 6:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Warren Hill

Profile: Warren Hill

Warren Hill

Warren Hill was first introduced to Bonsai in 1960 while living in the Los Angeles area of California.

After this initial exposure Warren went on to study the rich Japanese culture that spawned this unique art form. In addition to his Asian studies, Warren majored in engineering and horticulture while attending college. Warren's formal Bonsai studies and training has been with a wide variety of Japanese sensei, (teachers) which include such notables as John Yoshio Naka and Saburo Kato.

In 1974 Warren began teaching. Since 1974 Warren has conducted lectures, demonstrations and workshops for numerous State, National and International Bonsai Organizations.

In 1996, the Federal Government, U.S.D.A., Agricultural Research Service selected Warren, to be the Supervisory Curator for the United States Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.

On September 30, 2001, Warren retired after serving as head of the Museum's staffing and operations for five years.

After leaving Federal service, Warren and his wife Sharon relocated to Sharon's home state of Tennessee. He maintains a busy teaching schedule at Tree-Haven, Warren Hill's School of Bonsai located in Greeneville, Tennessee and throughout the Nation.

The following is an on-line interview with Warren Hill

AoB: You have done countless workshops and demonstrations in the U.S. over the last 20 years, what, if anything have you seen in the way people perceive bonsai?

Warren: The way people perceive bonsai is of course varied, depending on their exposure and knowledge of the art. Regions of the country having little or no exposure to Asian art and culture tend to be narrow in their understanding and interpretation. This is usually based mainly on the "cute" potted plants marketed as bonsai by large regional and national retail outlets. In many cases this is the only so called bonsai they ever see.

Regions that are more of a melting pot, such as the east and west coasts of the United States are of course more aware of the international cultures that co-exist and blend including Japanese and other Asian countries. As the public becomes more aware of the richer bonsai experience as taught by the clubs, societies and individual teachers, the appreciation and respect for the art grows.

AoB: Has the expectations of the newcomers to the art changed?

Warren: As the Bonsai enthusiasts reach new levels and exhibit those, the expectations and abilities of the newcomers grow also.

AoB: As the Supervisory Curator for the U.S. National Bonsai Collection, you overseen the care of some of the most valued bonsai in America, could you tell us more about this responsibility and how you assured proper care was given?

Warren: The Supervisory Curator position for the U.S. National Bonsai Collection has many duties and responsibilities. The primary responsibility in my opinion is of course the health and care of the Bonsai Collections. In addition to the bonsai care, the Educational Mission for the public by the Bonsai Museum and the Department of Education and Visitor Services is a high priority item for the curator and staff. This mission includes planning and staging numerous events such as exhibitions, programs, and workshops. Personnel management, training and coordination of staff and volunteers to accomplish the Bonsai care and events are primarily the responsibilities of the Supervisory Curator.

Some of the things instituted during my tenure at the Bonsai Museum to ensure proper care of the bonsai were:

1. Establishment of a Pest and Disease Prevention Program.
2. Reformulating and Improving the Soils and Fertilizer Program.
3. Establishment of Individual Collection Data Bases to more accurately
control and track History, Care, Etc. (Japanese, Chinese and North American Collections).
4. Updated the training of staff and volunteers in Bonsai Soil Science, Styles and Grooming Techniques.
5. Updated the training of staff and volunteers in Exhibition Design and Maintenance.

AoB: All bonsai eventually need re-potting, pruning, trimming, and sometimes re-styling, when faced with such tasks at the U.S. National Bonsai Collection, what precautions were taken to assure the original artists' vision was retained?

Warren: As you suggest, Bonsai, like all plants continue to grow and develop throughout their lifetime. A curator's responsibility is to provide the necessary environment without stress to encourage healthy but limited growth. In many cases, the trimming and pruning as well as other techniques are performed to improve and maintain the health of the Bonsai in addition to the artistic appearance.

In most instances, the vision of the artist is considered and respected in the care of the Bonsai. However, it is unrealistic to assume that the plant will be able to remain unchanged physically at some point in time.

The curator, being responsible for the health and beauty of each Bonsai as well as the collection, must have the authority to make the necessary care adjustments or non-adjustments which in his judgment will benefit the appearance and health of the Bonsai and contribute to the overall best presentation for the museum.


AoB: When selecting a tree for the U.S. National Bonsai Collection, what are the first considerations?

Warren: Many things are considered when selecting a candidate to be included in one of the museum's collections, such as:

1.Is there room in the collection for another tree?
2. Is the quality up to the museum standards?
3. Is the species unique?
4. How many of the species already exist within the collection?
5. Does the donor have a previous donation in the collection?
6. Does the tree fulfill the design norms for the collection?
7. Is staffing adequate for additional care requirements?

AoB: What are the goals of the U.S. National Bonsai Collection?

Warren: To play a leading role as an International Center for the Exhibition and Study of Bonsai and associated Asian Arts.

AoB: What can you tell us about your studies with John Yoshio Naka?

Warren: John Naka was a remarkable man. He was loved by all that knew him. For me, John was a Renaissance man... gifted in so many ways. It was indeed an honor and privilege to have known him as friend, mentor and teacher for over four decades.

John's passion for nature and the arts lead him to Bonsai. His constant striving to reach the next level as a participant and teacher was inspirational to his many students. The mixing of tradition, new ways and humor always made for a great learning experience. In addition to Bonsai, John, by example, led the way for many of us in humility, patience and the Philosophy of life. He is missed....

AoB: What do you think John would think about the state of bonsai today?

Warren: John was an optimist, always looking at the sunny-side. I am sure that he would be excited and proud of the bonsai growth and development throughout the world. To John, Bonsai enthusiasts the world over amounted to one big family.

AoB: You also studied with Saburo Kato who is not as well known as John Naka to many. Could you tell us more about this teacher and his ideas?

Warren: Saburo Kato and John Naka were good friends and kindred spirits. Both were passionate about nature, Both were gifted artists, and both were good teachers by example. Both were humble and spoke from the heart. John mentioned to me that Saburo Kato was in some ways his mentor. John sought Kato's advice early on in John's career when he was searching for the best approach to American Bonsai.

Master Kato believes that each tree had a natural beauty about it and the job for a bonsai artist was to find that beauty and develop it into a bonsai with a minimum of effort. Techniques for radical change in the natural shape were usually not appreciated nor used. Hand tools were preferred over power tools.

Patience and nurture rather than domination was more his style. Mr. Kato has of course worked with all kinds of Bonsai throughout his long career and is expert in all of the styles but he excels in and is best noted for his yose-ue (forest) arrangements, as was John Naka. I think it would be accurate to say that Momiji and Ezo-matsu would be two of his favorite trees to work with.

Master Kato's respect in Japan and the world is unparalleled as an artist and as a strong advocate for peace through the gentle art of Bonsai. John Naka and Saburo Kato both walked the path of "bonsai no kokoro" during their lives. I am indeed fortunate to have had the friendship and guidance of these two giants among men.

Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: While in college, you majored in horticulture, do you feel that such formal study helped with your pursuit of bonsai, or was the non-bonsai related teaching irrelevant to actual practice?

Warren: The formal study of horticulture and related sciences in my opinion are invaluable to anyone with an interest in Bonsai. Bonsai is unique in many ways and is probably the most sophisticated form of horticulture on the planet, but, reduced to basics, it still amounts to soil, water and fertilizer and the interrelationships between them. Knowing how to style Bonsai is great, but similar emphasis needs to be on the horticultural aspect and long term care to keep them alive and well for future generations.

AoB: There are an incredible number of bonsaists who use the Internet as an educational and inspirational tool for bonsai today, what are your feelings on the Internet's usefulness?

Warren: I think the Internet can be valuable as a tool for education and inspiration. At this time it's my feeling that there is more specialized information available through books and other publications. The social aspects of the web such as networking and sharing data is great. I am sure that the Internet has a bright future for Bonsai.

AoB: What would you like to see more of on-line? Less of?

Warren: More exhibitions and horticultural techniques. Less pop-up ads.

AoB: It has proved to be very difficult to involve the Japanese on international bonsai forums such as AoB. Based on your vast knowledge of the Japanese culture, why do you think this is?

Warren: The Japanese people and culture can be very complex in a wonderful way...private and democratic. Consensus building is often the way to deal with issues and situations. Individual soapboxing is usually not appreciated as in the west.

Egalitarian and more of a meritocracy than the United States, respect and rank from bottom to the top is usually based on ability. I would think possibly it might be more proper and maybe more successful to request Japanese participation in forums through the official channels of communications such as the Nippon Bonsai Association. Let the leadership make the choices as to whom and under what circumstances they will participate.


AoB: What would you say was the main difference between the way the Japanese view bonsai as compared to westerners?

Warren: Contrary to popular thought, all Japanese do not practice Bonsai. However, Japan is a country of nature lovers and coupled with the widespread appreciation of art and cultural things in general, Bonsai is highly regarded as a fine and appreciated living art. The added dimension of time and age gives an almost mystic, spiritual quality to many Bonsai. Early religious beliefs such as in the Shinto religion, spirits are can be associated with mountains, trees, animals, etc. and even Bonsai. Many Bonsai are regarded as part of the family and treated with the respect and dignity befitting a family member.

I can say from personal experience that caring for a much loved Bonsai over a period of time spanning decades resulted in a close family like attachment also. In my opinion, given the time to mature, western nature lovers who grow Bonsai with the special care needed to produce great age and character will develop the same close feelings with their plant friends.

AoB: Could you tell us more about your school of bonsai? Why did you start it and what are your goals for it?

Warren: After retiring from the Federal Government and moving to East Tennessee with my wife Sharon, we decided to continue teaching Bonsai as I have been doing for the past 30 years. Since our home and property would allow us to have a classroom, exhibit area and nursery facilities, we decided to open a school of bonsai. Raising bonsai and teaching others has become a lifestyle that is both challenging and satisfying. Passing on beautiful bonsai and the knowledge to create and care for them to the next generation is important to me. Our goals for the Tree-Haven School of Bonsai is to provide a broad curriculum covering all aspects and levels of the Bonsai experience. To provide materials for the student's needs and host exhibitions to educate and inform the public about the Art of Bonsai.

AoB: You also have an apprenticeship program at your school; could you tell us more about this?

Warren: Tree-Haven's apprenticeship program works like this: Potential students apply through the mail or over the web. A simple explanation describing who they are, what their Bonsai background is, and what they hope to accomplish here at Tree-Haven. If accepted, their time here can be part or full-time, depending on where they live and their circumstances. For full-time students, room and board is provided, for part-time meals are provided. Travel expenses are provided by the student. Apprentice hours are variable, depending on the time of year and tasks assigned. The training involves some class time if needed, along with hands-on bonsai work. All of the training and much of the bonsai work involved is executed by working with Warren Hill. The length of stay depends on the student's situation...some stay a few days, some stay a week or more and some return several times during the year. In some cases the work is hard and the hours long, but always there is much to learn about the art and science of bonsai.

AoB: A lot has been said recently about what source is best for bonsai material, collected stock, nursery stock, cuttings, seedlings, are all debated as being idea, what are your thoughts on this subject.

Warren: There are many ways to create a bonsai, some are long term, some short term. In the past, I have used all of the plant materials mentioned in your question to create bonsai and continue to do so today. If a bonsai enthusiast is serious about learning, I would recommend using all of the methods above as they each have an advantage for the grower. The timing of the choices made should depend on the experience of the bonsai artist. Early on, nursery stock, cuttings and seedlings are great for learning the materials and relatively inexpensive. Later on, when more experienced in the care of bonsai, collecting yamadori from the wild should be an option. Also, the purchase of a pre-trained "finished" bonsai is another option that in my opinion should be only done after one has the expertise to provide the proper
care, or as in Japan, the owner has a person qualified to provide the necessary care.

Saburo Kato commented that the ultimate bonsai experience is to grow a mature bonsai from seed! I am in agreement with Master Kato as some of my now mature bonsai I have grown from seed. Of course, this is only one of the ways to a beautiful bonsai and we each must make our choices based on preferences.

Photograph by Walter Pall

AoB: Who do you think are leading American bonsai to a higher plane today?

Warren: There are many good, qualified bonsai instructors teaching in the United States currently. Some of them have an approach that is a little different from the others and individualistic.

Many of them have specialties that are appreciated, but, I don't see anyone at this time filling John Naka's shoes. I do think as a group, they are together in leading American Bonsai to a higher plane.

AoB: What would you like to see more of in America concerning bonsai?

Warren: I would like to see a more liberated approach to styling, less domination of the plant materials and more listening to what the plant material is saying it wants to be.

AoB: William Valavanis is hosting the first ever American National Exhibition this October, how do you feel about this historic event and what advice would you give to assure its success?

Warren: I spoke with Bill about this event last October while at the GSBF convention in California. I think it's a great idea and certainly overdue. Like Bill, I have traveled throughout the United States for many years and am aware of the many high quality bonsai that are in all regions of this country. Many of them have been exhibited in local or regional shows, or not at all. The National Exhibition Idea was something I was thinking about when I was at the National Bonsai Museum in Washington D.C. I thought it was an idea whose time had come. Unfortunately, my hands were full and could not devote the time and energy necessary to explore the possibilities. If anyone can pull this off, Bill Valavanis can with his organizing skills and publicity options. I think the selection of highly qualified and respected staff members for the
selection and judging committees is an important item to help ensure success.

TREE-HAVEN, Warren Hill's School of Bonsai is located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains near the picturesque and historic town of Greeneville, Tennessee. For more information on the school and on Warren, please visit his website at

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