William N. Valavanis, owner and founder of the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester, New York, has been involved with bonsai for 40 years. In addition to being a bonsai artist and teacher, Mr. Valavanis is also publisher of International BONSAI magazine; an independent publication he began twenty-five years ago (and still going strong).
The depth and breadth of Mr. Valavanis' experience is impressive by any standard. Aside from the early Issei and Nisei (first and second generation Japanese-American) bonsai pioneers in the U.S., few artists in this country come close to matching his time in and dedication to the endeavor. Also, rumor has it that virtually no one can match his approach and enthusiasm to bonsai; called "energetic," or even "frenetic" by some, Mr. Valavanis is purported to be a tireless worker, be it on his bonsai or his magazine.
In any event, William N. Valavanis is an interesting and important figure in the bonsai community and I was quite happy when he agreed to be interviewed for Andy Rutledge. Few enthusiasts began their endeavor as early in their lives as he and few have been as successful. Given his unusual beginnings and his current and long-time involvement, I was anxious to try and get to know Mr. Valavanis better. Though this is not a short interview, I'm sure you will see that when it comes to the opinions and insights he can share, we barely scratch the surface…
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Andy Rutledge: I understand that your interest in bonsai began at a very early age. How did that happen?
William N. Valavanis: My mother was a gardener and grew prize winning tuberous begonias and roses. I was always in the garden with her, helping when I could. When I was 12 years old my mother's gardening buddy, Lorraine Opitz, decided we should go to a bonsai demonstration at the D. Hill Nursery, in Dundee, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. So, my mother dragged me along to see the demo. My mom and Lorraine decided it was too much work to protect the trees' interests, but I didn't. I had lots of small plants in pots.
When exploring the dunes along Lake Michigan I came across a stand of Austrian pines. Below them I found a tremendous amount of young "seedlings". So I collected a bunch, brought them home and potted them individually into three-inch pots. They all died and I discovered that they were not pine seedlings, but rather club moss!
Once, my mother's prize roses died during a harsh, cold winter. My father replaced the entire rose bed and I distinctly remember that he paid $75 for the entire lot. I thought he was crazy, how could anyone spend $75 for plants!
"I even skipped my high school graduation to attend the second American Bonsai Society Symposium in Philadelphia, PA."
Later on when I was 16 my family moved to Charleston, WV, where I continued my bonsai hobby in high school. Soon, teachers wanted one so I began to sell my extra specimens. It was there that I began lecturing to over 100 garden clubs in the area. I did not charge for my programs then, but the ladies had to provide transportation, since I was not old enough to drive.
When we moved to Rochester, NY I continued my search for bonsai, exhibiting and lecturing. I even skipped my high school graduation to attend the second American Bonsai Society Symposium in Philadelphia, PA. Since I had a back injury from falling out of a tree, I was not allowed to go to gym class. So I spent time in the library going through books and magazine articles on bonsai. In the gardening section of the New York Times I read that the Bonsai Society of Greater New York held meetings at the State University of New York at Farmingdale, Long Island. Well, I discovered that the same university also had an excellent horticulture program. So I had to go there. What could be better than a college that had a bonsai society meeting there—and on top of that, Long Island is a horticultural treasure chest, with long established nurseries.
AR: That all certainly sounds like strong foundations for enthusiasm. How was it that your enthusiasm was maintained from then into adulthood?
WNV: My parents and family friends always supported my endeavors; well I only really had one—two if you count my Greek Orthodox Church activities. Now that I am older I still only have three activities in my life (family, church and bonsai). I simply don't have time for more …or the desire. My father and others wanted me to widen my scope for the future, because you can't make a living at bonsai. They told me not to put all my eggs in one basket. You should have heard my high school counselors too! It is a good thing I did not listen to them…
AR: Right! Good for you and many others.
WNV: The more involved I got with bonsai, the more I discovered I did not know, and wanted to learn more and more. One thing lead to another and it keeps going that way. For example, right now I am working on the magazine, which highlights Wisteria. I strive for accuracy so every time there is a reference to something horticultural or botanical, out come my reference books, one after another and soon I have a mess all over, just to find the correct botanical name or reference! This is not an isolated case, this happens every time I put a magazine together, now 100 times! Each article is checked and rechecked for the correct and most up to date information. My library is rather complete in both English and Japanese bonsai texts, in addition to horticultural references as well. And I use them all.
By the way, now that I look back, perhaps my father was correct; you can't make a living at bonsai…
AR: Was there any single event that cemented your enthusiasm for bonsai?
WNV: I do not think there was any single event that cemented my enthusiasm for bonsai. I had a hobby that I enjoyed and wanted to learn more about it. Also I tried to do the best job that I could. So in the search for excellence and knowledge of bonsai I just kept on going. Yuji Yoshimura, however, encouraged me to promote bonsai and to continue his work.
AR: How did you meet Yuji Yoshimura?
WNV: In September 1969 my parents drove me to college on Long Island. Well, Tarrytown, NY was on the way and Yuji Yoshimura lived there, so we HAD to make a stop to meet the master. It was a wonderful visit and the beginning of a relationship, sometimes turbulent, which lasted until his death on Christmas Eve in 1997. When leaving his nursery he mentioned that there was a bonsai picnic meeting near Farmingdale, so we had to stop there too.
William N. Valavanis and Yuji Yoshimura in 1969.
We eventually ended up at college. But at the picnic I met wonderful people who ended up being long-time close friends. They picked me up and took me to the monthly meetings in the Bronx …bonsai displays and nurseries too. I even went with them to classes at Yuji Yoshimura's nursery when it was in Tarrytown. He always came to the monthly meetings in the Bronx, where I learned a lot.
It was at that September picnic meeting that I met Joe Burke, a noted bonsai propagator and astute horticulturist. Most weekends were either spent with him at nurseries, exhibits or in his propagation garden …or else going back to Rochester to tend to my bonsai and business. I established my first business "The House of Bonsai" in 1966 and continued it through my high school and college days until I changed the name to the International Bonsai Arboretum.
AR: What was special about Yuji Yoshimura?
WNV: Yuji Yoshimura was a very special, talented and unique individual artist who specialized in bonsai. He also drew and played music. He was most concerned about expanding classical bonsai art and the future. He spent hours upon hours preparing for programs that no one ever knew anything about. He wanted to present the best job he could.
Many people criticized him for not having a decent bonsai collection. He was not concerned about such material things. He wanted his students to have a better collection than he had. Also, the good bonsai he created had to be sold so he could live. If you stop and think back, he was one of a handful, perhaps the only (?) professional bonsai artist who lived ONLY on his bonsai income in the US. Yes, there were others, but most also worked Japanese gardens, were retired or had other sources of income.
Yuji Yoshimura had a strict upbringing by his father. This was evident in his teaching and view of classical bonsai art. For example, if the plant would not make a decent bonsai, he would tell you that and not waste time on such material. He only wanted to create the finest bonsai possible. He had very strong viewpoints on his design and would not budge. He was stubborn too.
If one of his students was really, sincerely interested in bonsai, Mr. Yoshimura would bend over backwards to assist, encourage and challenge them to improve their design, skill and appreciation for the art. In his later years, Mr. Yoshimura tried many new things; some worked, some did not. To many, it seemed like he was trying so hard to be different that he ceased being good. However, he never really strayed far from his training in classical bonsai art.
AR: Sounds like a wonderful teacher. But you had others, right? How did you get to study in Japan …and with whom did you study?
WNV: When my family moved to Rochester, New York in 1968 our local bonsai society had Lynn Perry Alstadt for a program and workshop. It was with her that I had my first "formal" workshop, although I had been growing bonsai for five years prior. She encouraged me to study in Japan. Through her teacher, Kyuzo Murata of Kyuka-en Bonsai Garden, she arranged for me to spend the summer of 1970, between college semesters, living and studying with him in Omiya Bonsai Village, Japan. Mr. Murata introduced me to the Japanese bonsai world that summer and that is when I first met Saburo Kato and Hiroshi Takeyama, also in Omiya Bonsai Village. During the summer Mr. Murata's assistants took me to other bonsai gardens in the Tokyo area and also to Nikko and other cultural areas.
During that summer Yuji Yoshimura also wrote introductions to other bonsai gardens, including his father's Kofu-en Bonsai Garden in Tokyo. During the summer, I also began intensive classes in bonsai and saikei with Toshio Kawamoto.
Then Mr. Murata arranged for me to travel by myself to visit Tokoname, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Shikoku Island to meet and see the most prominent bonsai artists at that time. That is when I met Mr. Yamaki, the donor of the "Hiroshima Survivor Bonsai," now at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC. During that trip I also spent a few days at Expo 70, the Worlds Fair in Osaka, Japan, where the Nippon Bonsai Society presented their longest display of bonsai and suiseki. The display lasted from March to October.
In September I returned home to graduate from S.U.N.Y. Farmingdale. When I graduated in May 1971 I returned back to Japan and began living and studying with a younger bonsai artist in Omiya Bonsai Village, Kakutaro Komuro, Shoto-en Bonsai Garden. Mr. Komuro was a student of Motosuke Hamano, Toju-en Bonsai Garden, who was also the teacher of Masahiko Kimura. Mr. Komuro was a specialist in Japanese five-needle pine bonsai, especially the cultivar, 'Zuisho', which was very, very popular and expensive at that time. Although Mr. Murata's bonsai were beautiful ancient masterpieces, I found the training of younger material that Mr. Komuro had to be closer to what we had in America at that time. Of course, Mr. Komuro also had masterpiece bonsai, including one of the oldest Zuisho bonsai.
Bonsai dealers and collectors often visited us and occasionally I would purchase trees, shape them then sell them to Japanese bonsai hobbyists, with Mr. Komuro's approval and support of course. Unlike other Japanese bonsai apprentices, I was allowed one, sometimes two days a week "off," and they were spent in Tokyo, continuing my studies with Toshio Kawamoto. However, my eyes were opened to other Japanese culture and I began to study the Shofu School of Ikebana. Before I left Japan I was awarded a Master's teaching certificate, but have never used it. I studied ikebana to learn discipline and to begin to understand Japanese design and culture. Also, with Mr. Kawamoto's American assistant, Tom Yamamoto (originally from Hawaii) I began to study bonsai chrysanthemum culture with Tameji Nakajima in Tokyo. Also, unlike nearly all Japanese apprentices, I learned from many people. This is not done normally; Japanese apprentices only have one teacher. But I was an American and wanted to learn many things, the best from each teacher…
Other small outings were spent visiting other bonsai artists in the Tokyo area then I headed south, back through Kyoto to Shikoku Island. During that trip I met Hiroyoshi Yamaji, Sansho-en Bonsai Garden near Takamatsu, and also traveled to Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku Island to meet Daizo Iwasaki, Takasago-an Bonsai Garden. It was Mr. Iwasaki's assistant who arranged for me to climb Mt. Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain in southern and western Japan. This is where the most famous Japanese five-needle pines grow naturally, as well as Shimpaku junipers.
When I returned home I continued my bonsai business, The House of Bonsai, which I established in 1966 when we lived in Charleston, West Virginia. Then one day, my pine teacher, Joseph Burke called to wish me a Happy New Year and suggested that I return back to school. So in a two week period, I applied, was accepted, found a dorm room and began studies at Cornell University in the department of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture. During those two years at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I continued business and teaching in Rochester and also around the country. Normally I would make four trips to Ithaca a week, living in the dorm during the week. When I graduated in January, I immediately moved in with Yuji Yoshimura and began to study with him and teach his introductory and intermediate bonsai courses.
After I left Yoshimura's garden I continued to travel to Japan for several week periods. Once, in a ten-month period I went to Japan three times, Australia twice, England and Hong Kong. In Japan I traveled around the country and spent considerable time with Mikio Oshima, Meiju-en Bonsai Garden in Okayama. Additionally, I visited and studied at many, many bonsai exhibitions throughout the country. It is funny, even now, 34 years later; some of the old time Japanese bonsai artists still refer to me as "Murata's Boy". In total I have made over 40 trips to Japan… and am anxious to return in a few short weeks again, this time leading a trip with 20 people.
"In the art of classical bonsai, only about 150 years old, the only important element is beauty.
AR: Okay, so in other words you have very little training or experience (laughs). You mention learning from or working with so many Japanese artists, …I know from my own experience that this is generally frowned upon in Japan. How did you get away with it and not make anyone mad?
WNV: Well, I probably did make some mad, but I was serious, perhaps too serious, and wanted to learn as much as I could in my short time in Japan and in contact with the Japanese bonsai world.
Once, over 30 years ago I continually went to Mansei-en bonsai garden of Saburo Kato. His son, Hatsuji Kato has asked me a few weeks earlier to help translate and host English speaking visitors to his garden, which I did with no problem, happily. Afterwards, I asked Mr. Kato if I could watch him work. He said fine.
This continued on for several weeks, almost daily. Then one day I asked Mr. Kato if I may watch him again. He said no, so I politely thanked him and turned to leave his garden. On my way out I happened to see Hatsuji Kato. He asked where I was going and I said, "Your father said I could not watch him any more." I asked him if he knew why, and he said, "Oh, you watch too hard…" However that was a long time ago and I am now welcome at Mansei-en. In fact, I recently compiled and edited Saburo Kato's book on Forest, Rock and Ezo Spruce Bonsai for the National Bonsai Foundation.
AR: After you graduated from Cornell, how long did you live or work with Mr. Yoshimura.
WNV: After I graduated from Cornell I lived and studied with Mr. Yoshimura for six months. It was time for me to leave when he kept hiding my chair… We had two chairs in the kitchen. After cleaning the floor I put the two chairs back into position and proceeded into the greenhouse or nursery. When I went through the kitchen again, my chair was missing. His was still there. So, I replaced my chair, only to find it "missing" again. After three or four times I finally got the hint that he wanted to be alone again… So I returned home to Rochester. However, I continued a close relationship with him for the next 20 years until he passed away on Christmas Eve.
After I left living with him, I actually felt closer to him than before. I had left his care and continued on my own. Then he would correct my mistakes and help me to grow stronger in my design, horticulture and bonsai outlooks. Now that I look back—did not know it then—this was his way, or perhaps the Japanese way of strict training.
AR: So Bill, what, in your opinion, makes a good bonsai?
WNV: I have been trained by Japanese bonsai artists in classical bonsai art. I do not merely "copy" and do as I am told. I listen to everything, think about it, combine it with my own views, background and ideas and come up with my own interpretation of classical bonsai art. Since I view bonsai as a horticultural art form, NOT "miniature trees"—I have never thought of bonsai as miniature trees—I think a good bonsai must, first of all, have excellent design.
I think bonsai without good basic design is just a potted plant or bonsai in training. In addition to good basic design the plant must be healthy. Other important aspects of a good bonsai are the variety of plant being trained, history and any other unusual characteristics. However, the design is most important. The design of classical bonsai is dependent on trunk line, eye movement, silhouette, surface roots, branch placement, color, container selection, flowers/fruit and more.
I grow, train, enjoy and teach classical bonsai. In the art of classical bonsai, only about 150 years old, the only important element is beauty. Period. Although it might be interesting to know the history, variety of species trained, the container and who actually pruned and designed the bonsai, the true beauty is the only important element in classical bonsai.
AR: How has your ikebana training affected your approach to bonsai - if at all?
WNV: I initially studied ikebana because I wanted to learn more about Japanese design as it applied to living objects. Many of the forms used in ikebana are very similar to bonsai styles. By the way, did you know that the English names used for bonsai styles were originally translated and established by Yuji Yoshimura and Mrs. Halford? Nearly everyone in the West uses his terminology, but he never received the proper credit he so rightly deserved.
AR: I had no idea…
WNV: Several years ago for our local bonsai society I did a program on the similarities of bonsai and ikebana. It was well received and quite interesting too.
During my studies of ikebana I learned a lot about the strict principles of flower arranging, Japanese style and its background.
AR: You mentioned studying at many bonsai exhibitions in Japan. I take it you believe that careful study of display is important for bonsai students?
WNV: I think it is very important to study exhibitions. Most people, including those in Japan just look at the pretty trees on the tables. It takes me several times to go through an exhibit to carefully study it; perhaps I'm a slow learner… First time around is the "Wow" factor; you are stuck with the beauty, design and layout of the show. Then I'll go around and just look at the trees, their design, training, health and beauty of foliage/flower/fruit. Then another go through with only studying the container, perhaps with the stand. The final study concentrates on the accessories and total aesthetic impact the display presents. Sometimes I'll even look at the label to see if it is correct, or perhaps discover the owner too—to see what the artist is currently displaying or doing in the art.
Of course, these are my own personal ways of studying exhibitions, usually in Japan or fine quality like Boon's show in CA. For many US exhibitions, this process is generally not necessary because most do not put that much effort into the tree and display, too bad about that.
A view from the 2003 40-Year Commemorative Exhibit.
AR: Mmm, that's one of my areas of interest, too… What is your assessment of the "art" of bonsai in the U.S.?
WNV: The art of bonsai has come a long way during the past 30 or 40 years or so in the US. Not many people can say that. Sure many people say that it has increased, but they only have a limited 15-20 year exposure to the art. It's like the internet with all the authorities, giving out information and advice, who have a very limited amount of experience; mostly in their own back yards or home without ever even going to a show or traveled to see a quality bonsai.
In the past, most in the US were just trying to keep the trees alive, then they succeeded and wanted more. So then the emphasis was on the design of the trees and containers. Now it seems that there is a great amount of interest in the display and appreciation as a fine art form. This can be easily tracked through looking at old bonsai periodicals from the US—I have them all…
Yes, there still are the beginners …there will always be beginners, we need them!—who must be encouraged and educated. Practically speaking as a businessman, the beginners are where the bulk of the sales are, especially when teaching. The beginners need tools, supplies, books, etc. Once the beginners get some experience they begin to purchase more expensive plant material, containers, tools, etc. Finally, when these people think they know something they progress to display tables, accessories and stones.
In the past, very little was presented on viewing stones and bonsai display. Now there is a strong interest in these two areas especially.
But, we must always encourage the beginners. We have no future without them. As you know, most of the "old timers" are getting old, dying and not becoming too active in organized activities. Not especially because of lack of interest, but because of health problems and sometimes financially.
As far as "art" is involved, that debate has, and probably will go on forever. "Been there, done that". Several years ago Mr. Yoshimura wrote a multi-part article in International BONSAI on "Is Bonsai An Art?” It was well received. Unfortunately, most of the people debating this question were not seriously involved in the art at that time and did not read his results.
Also, as far as exhibiting bonsai in art galleries, "been there, done that too." Bonsai have been displayed in art galleries for decades here in the US. Not often, but it has been done with good results. I think there was an article in an old ABS magazine on a display in Seattle, WA and another in New Orleans, LA. When I co-chaired an old ABS symposium at Cornell University, we had a bonsai exhibition at the Johnson Museum of Art, with other Japanese art. It was wonderful and was also covered in an old ABS magazine. I think it was 1979. There are many, many more such examples. About 25 years ago I also had bonsai exhibitions in the Memorial Art Gallery, here in Rochester, New York too.
AR: What conventions or practices in the bonsai community from Japan, or elsewhere, would you like to see become more common in the U.S. …Or do you like how things are here now?
WNV: I think exhibitions are one of the best ways to introduce more people to our beloved art and to improve the status of the art. It is interesting in Japan that there are two categories of exhibitions: professional and amateur. Mostly we are exposed to the professional exhibitions from Japan. The same tree may be exhibited in both the professional and amateur show, only under different names.
Also, it is important to realize that rarely, rarely, does a single artist create a bonsai. Most are created by several generations of artists.
AR: Surely! This is part of the reason that I can't understand the average American enthusiast's preoccupation with "who" owns or styles a tree when it comes time to show it. Do you see any trouble with how nearly every judged exhibit in the U.S. sets its entry criteria?
WNV: I see no problem with just having a show to exhibit fine bonsai, no matter where they came from. Actually, Andy, when most local and regional bonsai societies have shows, most are NOT judged, and most do NOT have the owner's names displayed. This is primarily done for security reasons. There are very few bonsai shows in the United States that are judged.
Then one might ask, who will judge. I don't even want to begin to discuss that. Many years ago, I think in 1969, and yes, I was there, ABS had a "judging school" and even published a point score guidebook for that reason. Unfortunately, that did not last, as many people did not like the idea of telling others what they thought of their art. "Who is he to tell me my art is no good?"
I think it would be beneficial to just have an exhibition to display fine-quality bonsai, period. If you want to award some prizes, fine, but not like in a county fair with blue, red, and white ribbons.
Another view of the 2003 40-Year Commemorative Exhibit.
By the way, as mentioned, I have been to many exhibitions in Japan …the Japanese local club shows have undeveloped specimens, just as the U.S. shows do, really. However, most US visitors rarely see these small shows, but they do exist.
I distinctly remember once when I visited a bonsai farmer (WNV aside: Yes, that is what they are called) on Shikoku Island, the home of Shikoku Japanese five-needle pines. This farmer was a collector of old pines from the mountains. He showed me an empty bench where a large sinuous style pine once lived. He told me the story how he collected the tree, returning to the lowland and getting it established. Then, after he got it healthy and vigorous began to train it. Once it looked presentable, a famous bonsai master artist from Omiya purchased it, took it to his garden, wired it, shaped it and displayed it winning a major award. He even showed me the photo. Although he was proud of his original work, he was disappointed that he got no credit for the decades of work performed only to make the Omiya bonsai artist look good.
You see, many years are required to create a masterpiece. Most of the "finished" developed bonsai in the US would be considered "pre-bonsai" material in Japan to work on to create distinctive, creative specimens. There is nothing wrong with this; this is how the bonsai world works, both in Japan and the US …perhaps Europe too. Unfortunately, many people who do not understand this have the strongest voices.
AR: I think it is good to realize that we average enthusiasts here in the U.S. only get to see the "great" bonsai from Japan rather than all of the mediocre and awful ones. This is largely because there are a couple of grand shows that feature some of the best bonsai in the world …and publications only want to show the best. Do you lament the fact that there is no "official" national show here? Do you believe that our nation's size precludes such an event or events?
WNV: YES, I have wanted to promote or organize a U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition for many years. In my opinion, the United States is behind other countries in doing this, but I understand that our nation is much larger in area than most of the others. Many years ago I drove from Rochester to Memphis with Harry Tomlinson from England. When we arrived in Memphis, 1,021 miles, Harry thought and said, "If I drove 1,000 miles from my home I would end up in Moscow!" True, this country is large, but I think we could overcome that problem. However I am not certain if owners would spend the funds and time necessary to transport their art to such an exhibition.
For years I have been trying to encourage a U.S. National Exhibition, and the best location I believe is in Washington, DC, at the U.S., National Arboretum. The staff liked the idea, but it was not practical. Now, having said that and the World Bonsai Convention to be held in Washington, DC, next year, I suggested it again. I would be honored if asked to exhibit a tree.
People in other countries take a real pride in their art and are willing to spend a few bucks and time to share with others, even if just to exhibit their trees with no prizes or monetary awards. Just for the art of it. I do not think North Americans are quite as serious as those in other countries.
Although the size of our country is a factor, perhaps with the right promotion a true U.S. National Bonsai exhibit could take place. Ideally every few years would be a great interval for such a serious undertaking. And, in order to stage such an event, I truly think each exhibitor should PAY to exhibit a tree. This is kind of unheard of here in the United States, but common in Japan, with some exhibits costing nearly $1,000 to enter—not counting the handler who actually brings and care for the tree. A modest entrance fee should be charged to offset the cost of production of such an event. If it cannot be done correctly, I do not think it should even be attempted.
AR: As to the prospect of a national show, do you believe that a national organization, like perhaps ABS, should be the ones to run such an event or do you believe that an individual or small independent group would do better? Why?
WNV: The logistics of a true national exhibition are huge. Bonsai organizations are good, and I really think the National Bonsai Foundation or the American Bonsai Society is in the perfect position to run such an exhibition. But, to organize this takes time, money and talent. I really think it is too much of a job and too important to give to volunteers. They have a life and jobs that require time. It is not fair to ask them to give up their time to do this. Their job and family will generally come first, which is understandable. So I do not think a national organization could do this on a volunteer level.
I think, ideally, an individual or small independent group would be better. I learned this the hard way twenty-five years ago when I began to publish International BONSAI. Back then there was the ABS Bonsai Journal, Bonsai magazine (BCI) and the Bonsai Bulletin (Bonsai Society of Greater New York). I was the editor of the Bonsai Bulletin for a year and found it difficult to please everyone. So I saw the opportunity to combine all three publications into one color, quality magazine, with each organization having a few pages for club news. Well, after I proposed the idea to all three organizations, they about killed me! So, I did it myself and now after twenty-five years I am so glad I did. Instant decisions can be made and followed. I take the responsibility of publishing seriously. There is no one to blame if something goes wrong. If I don't do a good job, people will not renew. This would not be the case with organizations, especially non-profit societies.
If an individual or small group were to attempt to run a national exhibition, I think they could do it. All the responsibility would come down to them; they could make decisions and run with them, not having to answer back to someone or get permission to do things. Also, since they would be responsible, I am sure they would do a superb job since they would not have to get authority to do minor things. But these are just my thoughts as of today.
One example of how an individual, and not volunteers, can pull off such a widespread and successful exhibition is the Ginkgo Exhibition in Belgium. It is well organized, run and accepted by the entire European bonsai community. It is sponsored by Danny Use, a prominent bonsai artist, leader and proprietor of his own bonsai business, Bonsai Center Ginkgo. It has teamed up with Bonsai Europe magazine and publish a superb full color exhibition album commemorating the event. I think last year was the fourth successful exhibition.
The bonsai community in North America needs such an event!
AR: What sort of training or education do you advocate for beginners in bonsai; let's say "avid" beginners?
WNV: If one is seriously interested in learning about bonsai, I strongly suggest they join a club to see what is available out there and to make local contacts. Also they should read as much as possible in books and magazines (WNV aside:Especially one published in Rochester, NY). Take as many workshops and classes with as many different instructors. Exposure is very important. Also I would, and do, attend as many bonsai conventions, symposia and meetings as possible. You can learn from everyone—although much of what you will learn is what NOT to do, but it is important to find out.
It is very difficult to do bonsai seriously by yourself in your own back yard. You will make mistakes, everyone does, but you will not know you are making mistakes. Yes, you might enjoy your small trees and true, that is the most important aspect in this art form. But, if you want to progress and raise your level of understanding and skill, you must really get out there and see what is going on. Artists need to broaden their exposure to the art. Although there may be differences in styling, a wide exposure is very beneficial.
AR: I know that you offer instruction at your facility; would you or have you ever considered offering an ongoing apprentice program? …Or have you already done so?
WNV: Yes, I have many students coming to my garden for instruction. One has come continuously for over 25 years, every weekend in spring and autumn for classes.
Yes, I have had many inquiries for apprentices from around the world who want to learn my techniques and philosophy on classical bonsai art. BUT, most are NOT serious. Really, all they want to to is to learn a little and go out to make money—or try to make money is a better wording for it. I generally tell them that you cannot make a living at this in the United States at this time.
Andy, how many people do you think are making a living at bonsai ONLY in the US? You can count them on ONE hand. Oh, I am not talking about those who have a nursery and do bonsai "on the side"; retired people who have other sources of income, those who have income, or family support, those who do gardens or other activities. I mean those who's only source of income is bonsai; those whose life depends on bonsai to live. Very, very few.
Now, I did take a formal apprentice about 15 years ago. Harry Tomlinson's son, Corin. I kind of did this, learning from my Japanese teachers. The best bonsai masters in Japan usually take other bonsai master's sons as apprentices. They kind of want to keep their secrets "in house." That way masters can trade secrets and techniques among each other.
So I accepted Corin because his father established Greenwood Bonsai Studio in Nottingham, England. It is a successful full service bonsai business and I know would continue. I really don't want to waste my time training someone who will not continue. I graduated from Farmingdale with two friends in Ornamental Horticulture. Now one is a Catholic priest and the other ended up a NY State trooper. Corin spent about three years with me. He was enrolled in Merrist Wood College in their horticulture department.
As part of their training, students must take practical training. Through Ohio State University they placed Corin with me. He lived in our home, became a member of our family and studied with me, nearly 24 hours a day. He traveled with me across the country and assisted in the daily activities of my garden and also helped teach. In fact, I gave him tests and much of his formal training was recorded in an article in our magazine. One of his research projects in propagation, a requirement from Merrist Wood College, ended up as a feature article in the magazine.
I am always on the lookout for serious students who want to learn for the sake of learning and improving themselves, not for making money, unfortunately. I discourage many people who just want to make money. A few months ago a horticulture student called and wanted to train with me. I explained that one should not expect to make a living at this. They said, "What if I study really, really, hard, and get good at it?" I said there are plenty of skilled bonsai artists throughout the world who can't make a living—why are you different? They simply don't understand.
AR: Right. Surely there are some specific cultural reasons between Japan and the U.S. to easily account for this situation, like the lack of market and art community infrastructure for bonsai, but do you see any way that this could change for the U.S. in the future? How might that be accomplished, if at all?
WNV: As I mentioned before, it is very difficult to make living with bonsai only currently in the U.S. I am not sure how to change this. We need more people in the art. With additional people there will be a larger market for bonsai, supplies and instruction. One of the best ways to increase the number of hobbyists is through bonsai organizations, both on a local and national level. That is why I think it is extremely important for bonsai professionals to support bonsai organizations and their activities. Most professional do, but many do not.
The vending area at bonsai conventions is an excellent example. Yes, we need the vendors, but we also need their support with registration, the exhibits and money raising activities. With vendors supporting organizations even more I believe we can increase the number of bonsai hobbyists.
AR: What sort of support are you talking about? What should vendors and/or artists do to help organizations grow the community?
WNV: I think vendors and artists should support organizations by donating product for their fund raising activities. Also, I think it is very important for vendors to attend as many of the educational programs as possible and also to participate in the social functions as well. This is an excellent way to support organizations. Usually, vendors just show up at a convention to sell their wares then leave, not spending time with the registrants. During the social activities it is an excellent time to mingle with each other and share information. This is an excellent way for bonsai artists to become aware of each other to widen their exposure to others.
Building the bonsai community from scratch, as it is in the U.S., is a combination of both professionals and hobbyists. We must work together to promote and expand the art. Once we get additional people involved they will begin to spend a greater amount of money so more professionals will be needed or those established will become more busy.
As we continue to increase the number of bonsai hobbyists we must not forget about the people already here. Their needs must be maintained and increased with additional purchases of more developed and expensive material, supplies and education on a higher level. The more experienced hobbyists will require more and better material. The bonsai organizations will hopefully create more of an interest and develop it to a higher level.
I am attempting to do this and my business has three distinct areas: teaching locally and internationally, publishing International BONSAI magazine and maintaining my bonsai garden which supplies students and clients with the necessary material to create, maintain and enjoy bonsai. All three are interlocked and cannot really be separated.
"For the record, I have never tried to reproduce large trees on a small scale for bonsai. I see the artistry in bonsai, not the miniaturization. There is a difference—they are not the same."
AR: It's hard to believe of a man so young as yourself, but you've been in bonsai for 40 years now. What are the most significant positive and negative changes in U.S. or international bonsai community/endeavor/trees you've noticed since the 60's and 70's?
WNV: The bonsai world in the U.S. has changed since the 1960's and 1970's. Just look through the old ABS and BCI magazines. Look at what they were talking about and especially the old photos of the bonsai way back then.
It is also very similar to the development and refinement of bonsai in Japan. I have many, many books, magazines, albums and other published Japanese material from the 1800's up to today. If you look at old Japanese exhibition albums from around the 1930's and compare them with the present, you would not believe the difference. Well, the difference is very similar to what happened in the U.S. between the 1960's and today. Bonsai is rapidly becoming more and more refined, both in Japan and the U.S. In fact, the Japanese bonsai are becoming very stylized and more "art like" rather than "tree like". Classical bonsai is highly refined and much of it is not "tree like". Many people, especially beginners and intermediate level hobbyists in the U.S. are more concerned in creating bonsai to look "tree like". They do that so much that often artistry and design is lost.
AR: Yes, this is often the subject of heated debate among enthusiasts. It seems to be a "given" that bonsai is an activity of reproducing large tree on a small scale. There are many who don't appreciate what role artistry and its conventions play in bonsai. How do you explain this to your students?
WNV: For the record, I have never tried to reproduce large trees on a small scale for bonsai. I see the artistry in bonsai, not the miniaturization. There is a difference—they are not the same. Remember beauty is man-perceived. This is the difference between those trying to create miniature trees and those trying to create art. This is, perhaps, the reason why many people, especially those who frequent the Internet, keep bad-mouthing classical Japanese bonsai as "cookie-cutter" bonsai. They are more concerned on how their potted plants emulate large trees growing in nature and often, very often, forget about the basic artistic principles.
Remember Andy, that just because a tree grows in a certain shape does NOT make it good. It is man who determines what is pleasing and good design, not the tree itself.
So you see that bonsai is becoming more refined in the U.S. Also there is an increased number of bonsai conventions. In the past, there was one or perhaps two conventions a year in the U.S. Now, there are plenty. Two years ago I attended over 15 conventions in one year in the U.S., and that was not counting my lecture tours. I personally, think the smaller regional conventions are great! They can bring "the word" to the local people. Note that I did not say societies. They rarely support conventions. I can remember many conventions held in large cities with a large local bonsai organization membership—who only had a hand full of members in attendance. Yes, they had plenty of attendees, but they were from out of the area. So it is not really reasonable to count on the support of local members when considering the registration for conventions.
Look at what has happened to the membership of some of the larger organizations, they are rapidly declining. Perhaps they have offered all they could, and their members want more. Or, perhaps the members are finding other interests. True, many of the workers and long-time members are getting older and are slowing down. The patriarchs of the bonsai world are getting old, both in the U.S. and Japan. Yes, more are coming along, but organizations need workers and many of these newer members do not want to do too much work.
My philosophy on this is explained to my beginning students later when they become hooked on bonsai. First they must understand how to keep the plant alive, then with some artistic shape. Then, if they continue, and they all do not, I begin to explain classical bonsai art and its artistic requirements. My best advanced students understand my concept and continue to create and maintain their own collections of classical bonsai art. We work well together, and although we often have differences in minor design, which is good, we generally agree.
WNV and his sons.
AR: Bill, the year is 2024: What would you like to see yourself doing and what would your ideal picture of the American bonsai community and its activities be?
WNV: In the year 2024, I'll be 73 years old and probably dead. I'd like a nice warm place to rest. You know, Andy, I hate the cold, and go dormant at 70F. Really, I do not like to go outdoors in the cold. People ask why I live in such a cold harsh climate. Last week it was -13F. As of today we have had 66 inches of snow—last year to date we had 85 inches so we behind. I live in this area because of the central location to both the Midwest and east coast. If you buy a bonsai from me, you know it is winter hardy!
Anyway, if I live until the year 2024 I hope my two sons will be healthy and happy in their chosen occupations …and I really, really, hope it is NOT bonsai. Next I would like to continue the same activities that I am now doing, health permitting.
As far as the American bonsai community goes, it would be wonderful to see ABS as the leading bonsai organization in North America. Also, and more important, I would love to see BCI and WBFF merge into one dynamic and financially stable organization. I really do not quite understand why these two organizations exist. Yes, I do. One was started by the Japanese and the other was started by Californians. Since both organizations are international in scope and have the same goals, they really should merge and each bring their strong points to work together to really create a world organization representing everyone. It would be wonderful if an announcement could be made at next year's World Bonsai Convention in Washington, D.C., to announce the merger… One can only wish.
AR: Bill, why is bonsai so near and dear to your heart?
WNV: The art of classical bonsai is what I do, period. Of course, I have my family, which I am also responsible for and enjoy.
I enjoy living things, especially plants and caring for them. To keep them around longer and have them look good is a challenge, which I enjoy. My life has been devoted to classical bonsai art for a long time now. I enjoy sharing my talent, knowledge, and artistry with others so more can understand my concept of classical bonsai. The spirit or feeling for classical bonsai is tremendous in my mind. I simply cannot get enough and my mind keeps searching for more. For example, I have made more than 40 trips to Japan. In a couple of weeks I am taking 20 people there for another tour. I am just as excited now as I was over 30 years ago when I went for the first time. And now, I am familiar with Japan and where to go and what to see, which was not the case 30 years ago. I want to learn more, see more and enjoy the process so I can share it with more people. You see I discovered I could reach more people through my magazine as an extension of my teaching activities.
AR: Thanks so much for your time. Any parting words?
WNV: Thanks Andy for the opportunity to answer your questions, even though some were difficult and I may get in trouble for some of the answers. However, my answers are honest and truthful, based on my 40 years of active bonsai participation in North America and my contacts around the world as of today, January 21, 2004. As always, I continue to learn and my thoughts and viewpoints may change in the future, but basically, my goals will not; to promote the international horticultural and artistic expression of classical bonsai art around the world.
I wish bonsai fanciers in the northern hemisphere a good growing season and our friends in the southern hemisphere a good and warm winter season.
This site is a response to several websites being removed from the Web, depriving enthusiasts of consequential and enspiring articles and galleries.
The articles that appear here were once featured in The Bonsai Enthusiast Journal, Bonsai Today Online Journal, and Bonsai Village.net.
Additional articles will appear here periodically, as I have time to prepare
and publish them.