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 Post subject: Profile: John Armitage
PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 11:54 pm 

Joined: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:35 pm
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Location: The Art of Bonsai Project
Profile: John Armitage

John Armitage styling a Japanese White Pine in Japan

John Armitage was born in 1973 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK. He first came across Bonsai in the form of a display of Tropical bonsai that appeared in a local garden centre. When he was 12 he also started Karate and with an interest in oriental culture, thought that bonsai would be an ideal pastime along side his karate training. He would visit the library to borrow the early Bonsai books that were available and analyse them with his father Alan (a professional artist and keen gardener). They would order seedlings from the early bonsai dealers and attempt to style them like the trees that they saw in the books. What fun there is in ignorance!

When he was 14 he joined the Yorkshire Bonsai Association, which was one of the largest groups in the UK at the time. At 16 he was elected on to the committee of the YBA. At this time also he also met a man who would be his friend, mentor and guide from this point forward: Dan Barton. John attended as many workshops and courses that he could, regularly travelling over 200 miles to Dan's home and attending workshops with Peter Chan and Hotsumi Terakawa. John also helped out at Peter and Dawn Chan's Herons nursery in Surrey. Setting off at Midnight on a Friday night he took a bus to London, a train to Lingfield in Surrey before starting work and returning home on Sunday.

After John left school in 1989 he set up what was probably Yorkshires first specialist bonsai nursery in the garden of his parents in Leeds, later moving to a shop in the city centre and later rented space at a nursery nearby.

In the mid 90's John's attentions turned away from his bonsai business and he concentrated on his Karate school. In 1999 John got a "normal" job and moved in to an apartment with his then girlfriend and later wife. Having sold most of his bonsai collection, the remaining few trees remained at his parents until 2001 when he separated from his wife and moved back to his parents and began caring for the few trees that remained. John only intended to have a few bonsai at first but the bonsai bug was back stronger than ever.

Reforming old relationships with Dan, Peter and making new contacts with people like Marco Invernizzi fuelled John's passion. John rejoined the Yorkshire Bonsai Association and become its main teacher and Chairman, running classes from his home for the members. John became one of the founding members of the Association of British Bonsai Artists and demonstrated at it 2003 Joy of Bonsai event in Bath.

In 2007 John travelled to Japan to study under Nobuichi Urushibata in Japan for almost 3 months, which was a life changing time and made him realise how much there is to learn. On his return, he started the Northern Classical Bonsai Group, a Bonsai school near his home. John continues his own Bonsai education with Dan and Marco and Peter Warren and is returning to Japan and to his study under Urushibata san next year. John feels it is very important to keep learning even though he has students of his own. He feels privileged to have made so many great friends in Bonsai, too many to mention here and is still supported a great deal by his parents (they water his trees when he is away) and his girlfriend Debbie.

John has won many awards for his trees but most special to him are the recent successes at the Noelanders trophy where he won 2nd place for his Kifu entry and the awards at the British Shohin Associations exhibition. John is very much into the smaller sizes Bonsai so much so that he is now the chairpman of the British Shohin Association.

John is in demand all over the UK and more recently has travelled further a field to pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm sometimes finding it difficult to juggle a full time job and all his bonsai commitments. "After 22 years in Bonsai I still feel that I am just scratching the surface".

The following is an on-line interview with John Armitage

AoB: Why bonsai John? What attracted you to this art and where does the passion come from, for you?

John: I took up bonsai when I was twelve at the same time I started Karate really through an interest in Japanese culture. Straight away my parents encouraged me. After over 20 years, involvement in bonsai, my passion and motivation change and sometimes disappear altogether.

I sometimes miss the naïve joy that I got from bonsai in the beginning, which was later replaced by a certain cynicism. After a break from bonsai I returned and since then my pleasure has mostly been gained from learning and teaching. I do not profess to be a great artist and probably never will be but enjoy practicing and teaching a good, solid level of bonsai and when I see great masters in Japan and Europeans like Sandro Segneri and Marco Invernizzi, this spurs me on and makes me want to achieve more. I am not a full time bonsai professional, so earning money from bonsai, although it helps, is not my chief motivation. Being involved as Chairman of the British Shohin Association enables me to spread my enthusiasm and really gets me fired up. It also means that on top of my daytime job, I never get a free minute.

AoB: Could you tell us more about Nobuichi Urushibata and what it was like learning from him?

John: I don' t think that I have ever met anyone more passionate for bonsai than Urushibata san. He was also very keen for western students to experience and absorb as much "bonsai" as possible. This included him taking me to exhibitions, auctions, clubs etc. I wasn't used as a "slave" as I had half expected and although I did perform many menial tasks on the nursery I was always being taught. There was one occasion, whilst we were traveling from nursery to nursery in the van, we stopped at the traffic lights, Urushibata requested a white pine from the back that he had just purchased and proceeded to reshape the branches and tell me why he was doing this then the lights changed to green and off we went again. Bizarre. Even when he was ill, he was still working on the nursery until late with few days off. The man is totally committed. Much has been written about my study at Taisho-en and is sounding a bit like a scratched record by now.

AoB: You will be studying further under Nobuichi Urushibata. What factors had impressed/influenced to go to Japan again, that you could not pursue in Europe?

John: I will be going back to Taisho en and Urushibata san from the month of January 2009. There are quite a few reasons that I want to return each year. The first is because out there I have no other distractions and can pour all my efforts into bonsai. Unlike the full time apprentices, I did not have to worry about working, paying bills etc, I just lived bonsai 24/7. Although I am sure that they are there, I did not witness much politics during my stay, except for the western bonsai politics that had followed me out there. Again, I would not like to generalize about Japanese bonsai, but the spirit influenced me greatly, most of the people I met (especially Urushibata san) were welcoming and kind and were extremely knowledgeable. Many having their own approach and I found that many people had many ways of growing bonsai; this contradicted much of what I had been told. Obviously, I went and will continue to go to study the technical side and improve my skills but I have to be realistic about how these techniques can be applied to the often poor summers I get here in northern England.

Meanwhile, I continue to learn in Europe from all sorts of sources but mainly through Marco Invernizzi, Peter Warren and my life long friend Dan Barton. In addition I spend occasional weekends working at Herons Bonsai in Surrey and Willowbog Bonsai in Northumberland to constantly improve and refine my skills.

John's Display at the BSA Exhibition

AoB: You are the Chairperson of British Shohin Association. Is Shohin your forte?

John: It wasn't until I went to Japan. The school just happened to be run from Taisho en (which grew and sold many high quality shohin) and at the time I had no preference towards shohin when I booked. During my stay I found that shohin fitted my lifestyle more than I had previously considered. You see it is said that to grow bonsai at a serious level you need one of three things: space, money or time. I, like a lot of people today have little of any of them. In Japan if one dreamt of exhibiting a bonsai at one of the top exhibitions you would need to invest some serious cash in the material tree and possible enlist the services of a nursery to assist with the styling and the day to day care. This is out of the reach of many people. This not the case with shohin, on a balcony, with a little money and with ability and care you can exhibit your work at the best exhibitions. Even in the west we have seen the standards rapidly increase at exhibitions so much so that you need to either spend a great deal on the material or have grown the bonsai yourself for quite sometime. With Shohin however, it is possible to develop good bonsai from less costly material and propagate much of it yourself. Although I am not condoning a "cheapskate" attitude to bonsai, with a bit of expense and time you can get some really nice shohin that will develop quickly and you can get so much pleasure arranging the displays.

I was very pleased that I was asked to fill the roll of Chairman of the British Shohin Association. We are working hard to pass on the joy of growing the smaller sizes of trees, we will produce a specialist Shohin Journal for our members and at our 2009 exhibition we will even have a book produced from the exhibits.

AoB: How would you describe Shohin bonsai in comparison to other sizes?

John: Shohin in Japan is one of the few growth areas of bonsai and an area where there are even many women involved and even some professionals. Bonsai in Japan is seen as an activity for the older generations and is a popular hobby for retired people. Younger people are working hard; raising families, paying mortgages and have little time for bonsai, similar to the west. Again, growing shohin is possible where larger trees would be impracticable.

Even the material is more accessible. At exhibitions I found small, root wrapped black pine, maples, zelkova, quince, roses, itoigawa junipers for sale for £15 - £30. These were well grown with good roots and in the case of the deciduous trees, just the making of branches. So the keen shohin hobbyist can buy a few cheaply and develop good shohin over the next few years and get a great deal of enjoyment for their efforts.

I would not say that shohin are easier or harder to grow than other sizes the challenges faced are simply different. With any successful bonsai the key is in the details. You make a tree look bigger by having many details in a small space. This is more important with a tree that may only measure 7 inches. Straight sections, crossing roots, chops are easier to mask and distract the viewer from in larger trees, with shohin, every inch counts!

Obviously, the day to day care differs but in my opinion the main difference is in the display. Seasonality plays a much larger role than with bigger bonsai as does the interaction between each of the bonsai. So much enjoyment can be had from playing with these displays and the discussions that arise between friends when viewing them.

The display of shohin is, I think where the art really applies, more so than large trees as there are many more elements involved which need to interrelate. The choice of scrolls, the seasons, pots, ornaments, suiseki, stands and accent plants can make display very complicated, but in a good and enjoyable way.

Shohin in Japan seems more progressive. I mean this in a promotional and organizational way with exhibitions images available online, good websites, mail order and web-shops to buy stands, pots books and even dvd's. We are striving to do the same with the British Shohin Association.

AoB: What will be your suggestion/advice to a serious learner of bonsai who cannot afford to take lessons from a bonsai master?

John: It depends on how serious the individual is. My friend, Rudolfo Lazo from Chile had only been involved in bonsai for two years when he resigned from his government job to study in Japan. It was something he simply had to do. But for those where that is simply out of the question then they should commit themselves to a bonsai school. Not just a workshop, but also a series of classes to develop bonsai and the ability of the individuals over years rather than a six-hour workshop. Most nurseries in the UK have now realized how limited a workshop is. Sure you may get a nice tree at the end of it but how much did you learn. Bonsai are not created in a few hours but over years with unrushed techniques and good day-to-day care. Workshops are good but should be attended in conjunction with a long-term school. I can only comment on the UK but I know of at least 6 schools around the country that operate a school class such as this. Many teachers have different ways to achieve the same results (many people many ways) so rather than chop and change, stick to one teacher at least until you have the basics sorted.

Another of John's Displays at the BSA Exhibition

AoB: How do you personally assess the state of your current bonsai work?

John: I am always my worst critic. My work, my demonstrations etc always have room for improvement. This is probably why I push myself so hard. Like everyone, I find great frustration when I do not come up to the standard that I would like for myself, especially when I saw trees at the Kokufu ten and in many collections and nurseries. I was pulled up on many mistakes that I made whilst in Japan and even laughed at. So what? You pick yourself up, nurse your bruised ego and do better next time.

AoB: Are you pleased with where your bonsai and yourself have gone?

John: When I first returned to bonsai after my short absence I could not have imagined that I would have done what I have done and have worked on the trees that I have worked and importantly met the people that I have met. Had I just stayed in my own garden, attended my local club etc as many do, I would not have realized what a big bonsai world there is out there. Now that I have, I realize how much more there is to learn. Much of what I have done is not solely down to myself. I have been very lucky to get the support of bonsai friends, family and bonsai professionals. The exposure that I have received from magazines such as Bonsai Focus has also had a beneficial effect on my bonsai career. I pretty much think about bonsai 24/7 so I sometimes find it hard to accept when I meet people who do not share my devotion and merely "play" at bonsai with no serious interest in improving themselves and their trees. For me it isn't possible to play at something. It has to be 100%. But hey that's just me!

AoB: What do you plan on accomplishing in the future?

John: For me to keep learning is the most important thing. Obviously I would love to be doing bonsai as a full time career as I have in the past. I am realistic however and I think in the current financial climate in the UK it would be a mistake. There are many people trying to scratch a living out of bonsai, we don't need another one. I want to continue teaching on a wider and wider scale, work hard to develop the British Shohin Association and keep pushing the virtues of Shohin bonsai to as wide an audience as possible.

AoB: If you could change anything about your bonsai what would it be?

John: For me personally, it would be the time that I am able to spend on my Bonsai activities. There is so much that I would like to do such as more writing for magazines, to have more time for my bonsai school and to have more time for my trees…

AoB: Has your association with the martial arts influenced your approach to bonsai, if so how?

John: Yes. When I was twelve, I also started training in Shotokan Karate. Particularly in this system, the basics and the repetition and ultimately the mastery of the basic techniques are crucial. This approach also runs into my bonsai. I am a strong believer in practicing the basics over and over again. With poor technique, you harm the tree and your bonsai will not develop, as you would wish. Regardless of ones artistic ability unless you repot, water, feed, prune, wire etc correctly you cannot create bonsai.

Many western enthusiasts, both in bonsai and in the martial arts want entertaining. They want to learn something new at each class or start a new tree.

AoB: If you could choose any bonsai artist in the world, living or dead, whom would you like to study with? Why?

John: I am not sure that there is one particular person. I learn wherever I go. I was in Switzerland recently teaching there and learnt so much myself. It's like adding another piece to a very large jigsaw puzzle. I am very fortunate that I have already studied with Urushibata san and hope that I can continue to do so. Though I do not think that I would be able to complete an apprenticeship like Mario Komsta, Peter Warren at Shunka en or Ryan Neill in Kimura sans garden. It takes a special person to do that.

AoB: What are your thoughts about the Internet bonsai scene? Do you believe it is beneficial? Why or why not? If you could change it for the better what would you do?

John: I have very little time to look at the Internet sites. I have a friend, Gary Evans who sends me the links to anything particularly interesting. I think that they are a very good thing providing that they do not detract from actually getting out and working on trees or stop enthusiasts from attending exhibitions, meetings, symposia etc as they will be able to see the stuff online.

AoB: What is your concept to keep your trees healthy?

John: Not to rush things. Bonsai are not created in a days pruning, wiring and carving but by day-to-day care and attention. You have to make a commitment to your trees. They need work, care and attention when they need it, not when it fits in with you.

AoB: Do you collect bonsai material? What is your advice to ensure a high survival rate after collecting?

John: I do not collect. Not because of any ethical reason, it's just down to time and space.

Itoigawa Juniper

AoB: How much grafting work do you expect, if any, on a mature specimen bonsai? Do you think grafting is a good method to correct or optimize surface roots?

John: I think that grafting will prove to become a more used technique as people better developed material. How often have we wished that collected material had foliage closer to the trunk or the trunk was shorter and to get the tree in a small pot etc? Grafting gives us these possibilities. Although they may seem long term, the material will be better long term. You are doing these things to the material for the future. So the future design is sustainable. As, I think our standards improve so does the level of the material that we wish to work with and the technique of grafting can be a great tool to achieve better bonsai in so many ways.

AoB: Based on your experience in Japan, is bonsai largely accepted as an art form and if so, what advantage does this give the bonsai artist in that country?

John: Again, I can only speak from personal experience and this should not be taken as a general approach to bonsai but the people that I met were bonsai growers. They did not class themselves as artists and I found little or no ego or pretensions. They went about their day-to-day work of looking after and creating great bonsai. Many only made a simple living.

For myself, I am happy to be a bonsai grower or whatever people want to call me! Growing good Bonsai is more important to me than being called an artist or whatever.

AoB: AoB has members from over 18 different countries, including many Asian countries, yet we have no members from Japan. Our contests here are recognized and respected by many bonsai artists and we receive entries from around the world, with the exception again of Japan. Why do you think this is?

John: Most of the nurseries and growers that I visited were older and had no or little use for computers and most have very little to prove. Bonsai is seen as an older person's pass time and the young rising "stars" get the recognition and customers through the quality of their work. Exhibitions in Japan are the traditional way of exhibiting bonsai and the owner of the trees are very rarely the creators.

AoB: Over the last few years there has been a noticeable trend away from the tradition Japanese school of bonsai and westernization has changed bonsai in many ways, what are your thought on this? Is it producing quality in your opinion?

John: I do believe an indigenous "style" of bonsai is a good thing. Using the material, studying and creating the forms that the native trees possess can create an image that the viewer can relate to. The raft hawthorn belonging to Tony Tickle is a super example. Some of the species that we import from Japan do not respond as well in the UK climate as we would like and therefore the results are not what we want. Developing our own material to a high standard before the all-important styling is the key, I think. I have a concern when people adopt a naturalistic approach as a shortcut, a compromise or as a form of laziness. For instance wanting to give the tree a "natural" style because its owner hasn't learnt to wire properly.

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