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 Post subject: Profile: Nick Lenz
PostPosted: Mon Apr 17, 2006 11:06 am 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 324
Location: Amherst, New Hampshire
Profile: Nick Lenz
Nick Lenz is a crazy old hermit, not unlike Obi Wan Kenobi, who lives in the wooded hills of Massachusetts. He's also perhaps the best bonsai artist and potters in the United States. His work exhibits a flair for the dramatic and many surprises await those who carefully examine his bonsai. Deadwood may contain a demon's face, root structure may resemble legs, and the bonsai may be planted on something ...different; like a bowling ball. Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the excellent craft and artistry in Nick's work. Please enjoy the images in Nick's gallery.

The following is an on-line interview conducted with Nick Lenz:

AoB: Nick, it would be hard for me to name another American bonsai artist who has so successfully broken away from the traditional styling, rules, and conventions often quoted by many as bonsai gospel. What would you say was your greatest source of inspiration?

Nick Lenz: Art itself as a very encompassing attribute of every human culture.
But first, let me correct your nomenclature. Traditional styling in the US is imitative art... a copying of what the Japanese seem to do. Follow the rules; which are not rules at all but aesthetic parameters that work. I think Andy Rootleg [sic] agrees with me (finally) on this one. In all I do bonsai-wise, I follow the generalized sense of the rules. They work.

So what the hell is tradition per se? Do we immaculately prune our lawn trees so that their branches spread laterally and need support from branch crutches? You and I are both European in origin, right? The romantic Dutch painters represent amazingly tortured but beautiful trees in their landscapes, even if dark in color and spirituality. The Hudson River School produced many artists portraying trees of more aesthetic character than just about all bonsai you will ever encounter. We find them as mature beasts in nature, but rarely. We stop the car and gawk, just like the Dutch and the HRS guys did. We ask: Why can't I do that? I am the one who tries it, because I have the curiosity.
And then there is the contemporary art trend through the 20th century and into this one. The question always arises: How can I do something like this and pull it off technically? Limitations of a living tree are annoying. But I do live more in an expensive art community in this 5 college area than in an imitative bonsai community. They really enjoy the "strange" stuff I do. They too are part of my tradition, as we are living it and producing it together.

Tonight, before writing, I judged the ABS John Naka Award pretty picture contest and I was actually delighted by one tree. That forces me to the intent of design:

The tree always leads.
If it doesn't tell a story, it is as dead as the Democratic Party.

AoB: It is hard for a person to be original and creative without getting a lot of flak from traditionalists in the art. What would your advice be to those who are also attempting to break away from the traditional?

Nick Lenz: My spontaneous response to this would be bleeped on National Public Radio.

Furthermore, it is not in the least difficult for a person to be original and creative if he or she already is. One does it like getting up in the morning, popping pills with coffee, feeding the cats, pooping, eating healthy gristle grain cereal with bacon... Life flows except when the greedy wish to stop it for you. Stopping is boring.

AoB: You are also quite a renowned potter. Your pots are as unique as your bonsai and they rank in quality right up there with the best in the business. What decided you to start making your own pots?

Nick Lenz: Necessity.

AoB: For all the potters and bonsaists in the world, there seems to be very little published (or possibly) known about why a bonsai pot is made the way it is, and the exact function of different aspects of such. I hope you do not mind a three part question designed to solidify some oft-debated information about bonsai pots?

a) Besides economical considerations, is there any reason a bonsai pot is not glazed on the inside when it is on the outside?

Nick Lenz: Will has been after you, so let me give you a different but equally valid answer than I gave him:
A large pot is difficult to glaze on the inside because so much glop runs out the holes and coats the bottom, which has to be cleaned - that is a bother. Little pots are not glazed inside because anal-compulsive Japanophiles won't buy them.

b) Do bonsai pots breathe?

Nick Lenz: Only the low fired ones. They also disintegrate quickly in a cold climate. Sarah Raynor pots are high fired and so are mine.

c) Some bonsai pots are raked or otherwise given a rough finish on the inside, does this serve any particular purpose, in your view?

Nick Lenz: Sure - it makes it more difficult to extract the tree for repotting. Do the Chinese and Japanese do this? They have been at it for hundreds of years.

AoB: Even some of your pots are uniquely different and pleasing to eyes that have long grown accustomed to the typical shapes available through traditional potters. Stacked boxes, alien eggs, wedges, and such, all blend perfectly with the bonsai they support. What is your inspiration for these pots and what are your thoughts on the role a pot should play in the presentation of a bonsai?

Nick Lenz: Just experimentation. Why should bonsai be stuck with a stable ground form? What can be more unstable than a sphere? Challenge.

AoB: You use some interestingly different items in your compositions ranging from a warrior with a freshly amputated hand...

Nick Lenz: He fell over and broke it off. It was easier to dip the stump in red acryllic than to glue it back on.


AoB:... to tanks, Greek sculpture, castle ruins, spheres, gargoyles, and dolls, yet they all work together visually. This is a far cry from the typical mudman or hut used so often in history. So different in fact, that anything out of the norm is now compared to your work. What led you to experiment with such unconventional items and what are your thoughts on being so well known for this aspect of your work?

Nick Lenz:1. The child liked to smash toy cars.
2. Visitors started bringing hokey garbage to place among my trees.
3. Strange artifacts can be a great pun on the Chinese garbage with a contemporary twist.
4. It is all a lot of fun. Nothing deep ever intended. I was very annoyed that the buyer of my "tank forest" actually wanted the tank, a coveted ceramic piece by me, when he bought the outlandishly heavy thing. I had removed and hidden it. So:
5. Visitors enjoy this nonsense, even if they decry it.

AoB: So Nick, when you create such pieces as Penelope, Root Over Tank, and the Maleficent Tree, is there a story in your mind that you are trying to tell or is it just a cumulation of materials at hand and following where the materials lead you?

Nick Lenz: Of course there is always a story or social comment. Everything is very deliberate and takes years to accomplish. Bonsai has to do with age.

AoB: One example comes to mind with your Larch over garden concrete, Penelope. Was the story of Penelope and her twenty year wait for her husband, Odysseus, in the "Odyssey" on your mind as an inspiration for the piece?

Hiding From Birth
Sculpture by Nick Lenz

Nick Lenz: No, just an umbrella to shade her. And to think the thing is now treasured or hated in Toronto...

AoB: Your reputation is as something of a hermit. Is this isolation from society real, or imaginary? Do you feel that your apparent independence from mainstream thought has aided in your interpretation and representation of the bonsai art form?

Nick Lenz:No. I am just old and getting less capable each year, closer to death. I wish time in which to loaf a little and contemplate the glories of the Lord, the beauties of nature in every detail, but those damn, parasitic bureaucrats and Repugnican [sic] greed mongers won't leave us alone. Ah, to escape to a dugout on the far Western prairie where they would not bother to find me. Wind. I could chase it.

AoB: Your history seems to be one of blending various streams of art together. Do you feel your other artistic pursuits have influenced your practice of bonsai?

Nick Lenz: Of course.

AoB: Some of your work has been termed "confrontational". There seems to be a movement toward this sort of "art as a statement" direction in many art forms. Is it your belief that art must be thought-provoking to carry weight and value; to appeal to our jaded tastes?

Nick Lenz: No, just interesting enough to stop and look at or listen to. Early 20th century opera is quite arresting.

AoB: Much of your work has been with native species, and long term development of them for bonsai. Will you publish the body of information and work you have amassed, in this respect, as a definitive guide?

Nick Lenz: Well, Wayne of Rock Beacon (ed: Stone Lantern) is busy, when not on vacation, messing up the expansion of my book, but I would much rather write an actual, but, to avoid libel suits, fictitious story book titled COLLECTING WITH CRUST AND OTHER MISFITS. When you have written the pertinent, it is written. Time for geriatric fun that totally contradicts the preface of the factual book.

AoB: You are an avid woodsman and collector of wild trees, do you have any stories about collecting you would like to share with us?

Nick Lenz: Not at this time.

AoB: Whilst your styling and artistic cues may have been non-traditional, do you find you stick largely to the traditional horticultural and balance considerations of bonsai? Are there any particular bonsai myths you would like to single out for demolition?

Nick Lenz: Bonsai should be serene. How unAmerican!

AoB: Bonsai, properly maintained, should outlive any of us. What would you like to see happen to good bonsai... yours and others? Should they go into public collections, or should they pass into private hands?

Nick Lenz: Ahem, ahem, I prefer to place them with select students of some capability, because they will be cherished... as compared to an arboretum, which, on bureaucratic whim, may ignore and even kill them. Some trees are just too exquisite in their degree of environmental torture, however, to be sequestered from the public. Pacific Rim does a very good job at keeping them, thanks to the brilliance of easy-going David DeGroot.

AoB: What would you like to see happen in bonsai, at least in the US, to raise its profile and effective standing in the world?

Nick Lenz: A ban on all TV commercials and fake governmental news reports and incessant lies from the government.

AoB: How are the "Bonsai Broads" going? Is it a joke that has run its course, or is there more where that came from?

Nick Lenz: I looked at them the other night and laughed a lot - they are a parody of an average BCI club. They are also a parody of Adirondack life by the permanent, wealthy residents. As I have become much more cynical during the Bush administration, I do not believe I could continue them as fun-loving Nordic battleaxes.

AoB: Bonsai forums on the internet have become a repository for information, both good and bad. Many beginners and experienced artists alike frequent some, but your presence is noticeably missed. What are your feelings on the relatively recent growth of these bonsai forums on the Internet?

Nick Lenz: If you have the time, fine. I spend most of my time, including evening beer drinking and student answering computer time, when not trying to manage the crippled woman and her evil insurance company and her staff, teaching bonsai or actually creating them. I would much rather attend an adventurous field trip than a convention party. I would rather sleep than promote myself on the internet.
I usually think that forums are very good for students who wish to learn, Zorts with political ambitions, religious fundamentalists who have misplaced God, and potential cat lovers.

AoB: Stone Lantern Publishing is set to release a long awaited new edition of your book, 'Bonsai from the Wild'. Has the book changed much from the original? After all this time, what brought about the decision to reprint?

Nick Lenz: It was made a long time ago. Rock Beacon is just slow. Be patient. They will probably drop it again to do a treatise on cabbage bonsai as temple offerings in Sri Lanka. Anything for a buck.

AoB: What advice would you offer to those hoping to get a book published?

Nick Lenz: Uh, the answer that came to mind was too rude to state. Of course, knowing what you are doing always helps.

AoB: Where do you feel bonsai falls short in today's world and what do you think its strengths are?

Nick Lenz: Where does the world fall short on human compassion? What is happening to the Sequoias now?

AoB: What is the most critical piece of advice you would offer today's beginner?

Nick Lenz: Experiment to the fullest and start a compost pile.

Baby Egg Hatching
Sculpture by Nick Lenz

AoB: Nick, do you believe the color of the underwear you have on at the time influences the direction and styling of the tree you are working on?

Nick Lenz: No. My long johns always cover my briefs and they are always as white as the pure driven snow in a big city industrial area.

AoB: It is rumored that the Black Flies have driven you totally mad and that many have mistaken you for Bigfoot as you run howling through the woods. Any truth to this?

Nick Lenz: Absolutely not. But I do always finish my outdoor work by April 25 (2 weeks earlier in these times of Exxon/Mobil's global cooling). Then I am free to prowl all the aisles of the local WalMart (WALMART) to examine all the junk they have for sale and giggle a lot.

This takes about 2 months at which we are into air-conditioning season. Meanwhile, the illegal migrant workers swat the black flies and water the bonsai and clip anything they like, which is really the secret to my peculiar styling. Their children get to play with the pseudo-mudcritters and hang festive dump-discard plastic baby dolls in the trees and drink all the pure N Leverett water they like (I should charge them for this to keep them indentured).

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