Visceral Wonder & Other Comments on Judging Bonsai

pineThis is one that I kept coming back to (see Michael Plishka's visceral wonder comment below). It's a Southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis) that belongs to Greg Brenden (an earlier smaller iteration in a different pot was shown at the 2010 U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition). The show booklet says the pot is by Ron Lang, but Ron told me that his wife Sharon made it and that he created the rough finish (see below). There were several trees in Lang pots at the exhibition. This photo and the close up below, are borrowed from Bonsai Penjing & More.

Yesterday’s post on judging bonsai provoked some thoughtful comments. Rather than digging myself in any deeper, I’ll let the commenters speak for themselves.

But first, I’d like to reiterate my view that the Artisans Cup was a major breakthrough in American and Western bonsai (here, here and here express this view). My hat if off to Ryan, the artists and everyone else involved, including the six judges, who are all highly accomplished bonsai artists and teachers, and key players in the propagation and development of the art of bonsai.

Colin Lewis’ (and others’ comments) are below the photo.


This close up of the pine above shows off the textures of the tree, the pot, the lichen and the moss.

We’ll start with Colin Lewis who was one of the judges. BTW: I’ve had a long term business relationship with Colin and often rely on his knowledge and judgement:
“As a judge at scores of bonsai events and one honored to join the other judges at the Artisans Cup, I can assure you that all judges agree the rubric used was the most efficient, most equitable and most accurate system of multiple judging possible. Any “intuitive” system you refer to leads to subjectivity, whereas in the points system each exhibit must be assessed independently based entirely on its own merits. The disparity of scores reflects the diversity of the judges, which was intentional in order to have as broad a spectrum of opinion as possible. And it worked, right?”

More comments below the photo.

konnor-pine-artisans-cupThe other third place finisher. When I (and several others) posted the winners last week, no one knew that there was a tie for third. It's a Japanese white pine that belongs to Konnor Jensen. I borrowed the photo from Michael Hagedorn's Crataegus Bonsai.

Carolyn (no last name given) writes
“It would be like judging between a Picasso and a Rembrandt – Both are superb, so which is better? Personal choice…….”
I would go a little further and say that both stand on their own and I’m not sure much is gained by making that choice.

More comments below the photo.


Here's another cascading bonsai that caught my attention. It's a Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga martebsiana) that belongs to Anthony Fajarillo. I borrowed the photo from Scott Lee.

Here’s what Michael Plishka wrote:
“I’ve often wondered about scoring systems and how they may reward doing things “by the book”, but may not reward evoked visceral wonder.

I am reminded of the work by Architect/Mathematician Christopher Alexander, especially, ‘The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 – The Phenomenon of Life’.

He believes that there are certain designs that elevate people, make them feel more alive, and they have common traits that he elucidates in his book. He also bemoans the fact that structures showcasing the architectural trends du jour are the ones that get lauded and awarded, even though they are not very uplifting or inspiring…” (continued below the fold)

Continue reading Visceral Wonder & Other Comments on Judging Bonsai

Judging Bonsai at the Cup: The Limits of the Point System


Eric Schikowski’s collected Mountain Hemlock was one of my favorites. It was also Peter Warren's first choice. I borrowed this photo and the one below from Eric Shrader's PHUTU blog.

I was going to give the Cup a rest for awhile until I ran across this thorough, thoughtful and thought provoking article on Eric Shrader’s PHUTU (one of the best blogs I’ve had the good fortune to stumble upon lately).

We’ll start with a disclaimer two disclaimers: First, what follows takes nothing away from the winners. All four (third place was a tie) are great bonsai and worthy of accolades. Second, the opinions below are mine and not Eric Shrader’s.

The PHUTU post is about judging bonsai in general and specifically at the Artisans Cup. Rather than repeat everything Eric has to say, I’ll just add a couple remarks and encourage you to visit PHUTU.

The most striking thing I came away with is, each of the six judges had their own top ranked tree and NONE of these placed in the top four finishers.*

This may be a once-in-a-lifetime statistical anomaly, but even if it is, it doesn’t erase the suspision that the point system, though useful as a learning tool, doesn’t always work if you want to find the most interesting, beautiful, unusual, or worthy bonsai (or medium or small or non-coniferous bonsai in this case).

It’s possible that no judging system really works, or at least would satisfy skeptics. However there may be a more intuitive system that just might produce better results than the point system (we’ll save this for tomorrow’s post).


Here's another one that was in my intuitive top tier. It's Doug Paul's Doug fir that was Colin Lewis' first choice.

Here’s a quote by Walter Pall, one of the judges at the Cup. Borrowed from PHUTU’s comments:
“I agree to most everything you are saying. Modern Bonsai has finally fully arrived in America. In this style it is most important to impress the viewer with whatever means. The monster conifers have the most talent for this. Quiet, more classical and zenny trees should be there but will by definition not score high. Loud scores high. You don’t have to like it, just understand.”

*”Peter Warren awarded top marks to Eric Schikowski’s collected Mountain Hemlock. David Degroot awarded the high score to two trees: The large Japanese Black Pine from the Pacific Bonsai Museum and Jim Gremel’s field-grown ‘Kishu’ Chinese juniper. Colin Lewis gave top prize to Doug Paul’s collected Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir. Walter Pall was most impressed by Bob Shimon’s collected coast redwood. And Boon picked Eric Schikowski’s collected mountain hemlock.” Lifted directly from Phutu.

Bonsai Drawings, Expertly Rendered & Beautiful


This drawing is by Michele Andolfo, as are the others in this post.

All the drawings shown here are from a program Michele Andolfo led in Quebec this year. You can view more of these expertly rendered and beautiful drawings and the bonsai material that inspired them here. It’s a click worth making; taking the time to tune into Michele’s vision of what each tree might become, can help you envision what your own trees might become.

Michele’s Andolfo Bonsai Studio is in Italy. But judging by the news on his website, he travels and teaches far and wide.


Here's an example of a drawing and the tree that inspired it. Here's you link to view photos of all the trees (and some others) that go with the drawings shown here.















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Elandan, Beyond Bonsai


Just another great photo at Elandan Gardens, where water, earth and sky come together in one of the most brilliant bonsai backdrops you'll ever see.

Yesterday, it was Dan Robinson’s bonsai. Today it’s Dan and Diane Robinson’s exquisite Elandan Gardens.

All the photos shown here are from Elandan’s website and Dan’s facebook feed.






















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Dan Robinson, Bonsai Pioneer


Close up of Dan Robinson's Mountain hemlock, taken on my cell at the Artisans Cup.

Last weekend I finally had the pleasure of meeting Dan and Diane Robinson. It was at the Artisans Cup so I also had the pleasure of viewing and photographing Dan’s entry, the Mountain hemlock shown here (above and below).

We’ve been featuring Dan Robinson’s bonsai and we’ve been selling and enjoying Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees for a long time (the second printing of Will Hiltz’ brilliant book about Dan and his trees just came out). Now that I’ve met Dan and actually seen one of his trees in person, it’s time to do it again. Today we’ll feature Dan’s bonsai. Tomorrow his (and Diane’s) Elandan Gardens.



The whole tree and most of its amazing driftwood stand. Also shot at the Artisans Cup, but this time when the lights were on (the exhibition room was almost completely dark, with only spotlights on each tree). This photo and several of the photos below are from facebook.



Looks like another Mountain hemlock.


B1GNARLYHORN1Korean hornbeam from Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees. We could have picked any one of over a hundred trees as wild and beautiful as this one (the rich fall color doesn't hurt either).



One of Dan’s many ancient Ponderosa pines. This photo was taken at Elandan Gardens by Jonas Dupuich (Bonsai Tonight).



Freshly carved redwood.





Photo and text from Elandan Garden's website.


dantree"Can't keep Dan out of the trees. He is carving on a Hollywood juniper he is using in the NWFlower and Garden show in Feb 2016. The theme is America the Beautiful." From facebook.



Another Mountain hemlock. From Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees.



The famous book. A must for any serious bonsai lover. The second printing is now available at Stone Lantern.

A Collection of Famous Bonsai in a Lovely Outdoor Setting


Atlas cedar with shadows at the Pacific Bonsai Museum WHOOPS Let's make that the National Bonsai Museum in Wash DC. From the John Naka collection. Photo by Jonas Dupuich (Bonsai Tonight).

By now most of you have been flooded with great photos from the Artisans Cup (with more to come). What you may not have seen are photos from Cup sponsored tours to the Pacific Bonsai Museum with its collection of famous bonsai in a lovely outdoor setting.

All the photos below (with the exception of the 5 styles) were taken by my childhood friend Michael Wells.




The photos of the tree and the plaques tell the whole story. All the trees at the Pacific Museum had similar plaques, though we didn't get photos of most of them.



We've featured this famous Chinese hackberry by Ben Oki before, though this photo gives us a different view.



This looks like a Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). Sorry, no plaque; so we don't know who donated (or sold) it to the museum.






This'll give you some idea of the Museum's wonderful outdoor setting. The tree is a Sierra juniper that was recently purchased from Ryan Neil.



We showed a closeup of this multi-hued Trident forest the other day. Unfortunately, I don't remember who donated (or sold) it to the Museum.



Root-over-rock Trident maple with mushroom.



Dropped keys? This photo offers a peek into a piece of the tour and the museum's outdoor setting (I'm in this one, though that's just my shirt sticking out, not my belly). The large Trident maple bonsai, is one of the Museum's originals (plaque just below).





The 5 main bonsai styles from the Museum website.


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Bonsai U.S.A. & Beyond

DanHinoki1-1Picasso's (aka Dan Robinson's) now famous wild and wonderful Hinoki. It's from Will Hiltz' most excellent book, Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees, about Dan's life and work. BTW, it's just back in print and available at Stone Lantern.

Back from the west coast very late last night and swamped with catch up so, we’ll borrow from our vast archival store once again. This one originally appeared July 4th, 2013. Independence Day. It seems appropriate for our post Artisans Cup recovery period as some of the trees are by artists who displayed at the Cup and one is by Ryan Neil himself.

Because the original text was about Independence Day and on the silly side, I’m going to dispense with it and go right to the photos.


Might as well feature another Hinoki while we're at it, though this one is certainly a contrast in types with the one above. World-class Hinoki aren't very common, but this muscle-bound powerhouse by Suthin Sukosolvisit certainly rates. If you know Suthin, you know that he is famous for his Shohin bonsai, but judging by this tree and many others, he should be famous for bonsai, period. Here's the original Bark post.

Michael Hagedorn reworked this magnificent collected Sierra juniper (grafted with Shimpaku) in a half-day refinement session at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, way back in 2009. BTW: Michael's Crataegus Bonsai blog is one of our all-time favorites (for his knowledge, his bonsai, and his writing). Here's the original Bark post (including the before photo).


While we're in the Northwest, we might as well stay there long enough to feature a Ryan Neil bonsai. In this case, the photo is not so great, but the tree is. It's a collected Lodgepole pine. Here's the original Bark post.


This wildly expressive Wisteria is from Bill Valavanis‘ great book Classical Bonsai Art (out of print). It belongs to Robert Blankfield, who originally styled it at a workshop with Bill. Here's the original Bark post.


Let's stick with Bill for a minute (the tree is not his, but the exhibition and the book are his doing). This one's a Nia buxifolia that belongs to Michael Sullivan of Florida. It won the Finest Tropical Bonsai at the 2012 U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition. Here's the original Bark post.


Nick 'Larch Master' Lenz has collected and styled so many great Larches that it's easy to overlook the fact that he also has collected and styled so many great trees that aren't larches. This distinctive humpbacked apple is a pretty good example of one of those other trees. It's from his Bonsai from the Wild, the ultimate book on collecting, especially collecting here in the U.S. Here's the original Bark post.


Time for an immigrant. This worthy old Korean yew (Taxus cuspidata, usually called Japanese yew) was donated to the Pacific Bonsai Museum by Mr. Su Hyung Yoo of Korea. It's one of 248 fine bonsai that are featured in the 3rd U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition Album and in my opinion, one of the best. Here's the original Bark post.


This rare beauty is the other immigrant. It’s a Nikko Nyohozan Satsuki Azalea that belongs to The Kennett Collection. It originally belonged to Kunio Kobayashi of Japan, one of the world's most renowned bonsai artists. Like many of the other trees in this post, it's featured in the 3rd U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition Album. Here's the original Bark post.
This sweet California native is the tree that graced the cover of the very last issue of Bonsai Today (issue 108). It's a Sierra juniper that belongs to Boon Manakitivipart one of North America’s most influential bonsai artists and teachers. Here's the original Bark post.


Sheer power displayed by another California native. This photo of a now famous California juniper (Juniperus californica) is originally from a chapter by Ernie Kuo in our Masters’ Series Juniper Bonsai book (back in print in November, 2015) that’s titled ‘Two Studies.’ Here's the original Bark post.



Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees. An indisputably wild and wonderful bonsai book, full of inspiration for anyone who loves bonsai.

A Simple Bonsai Wiring Lesson


Flying home today from the SF part of my Portland trip (Artisans Cup) and time is compressed, so I’ll borrow a little something from Mary Miller’s Bonsai Banter:

I was searching for Collin Lewis’ website. While browsing, I discovered Colin on giving a video lesson. The ‘Bonsai Wiring Essentials’ is listed as free. I watched the entire program.”

“Colin is a talented author and speaker, as well as bonsai artist. His easy going, clear instructions will answer all of your questions about wiring your bonsai.

Best wire and tools? Copper or aluminum and the difference? How long to leave it on? Mistakes to avoid. It’s an excellent program.

He has another Craftsy program ‘Bonsai Design Techniques.’ This includes 7 HD video lessons with anytime, anywhere access, downloadable class materials, including bonsai design exercises, hours of close-up instruction, answers from Colin in the virtual classroom. Well worth the 39.99 price! “

Even though I’ve only viewed the intro, knowing Colin I’ve no doubt that it’s very good and I’m confident to recommend it. And thank you Mary Miller for the tip.





Again here’s Mary Miller: Colin Lewis “has another Craftsy program Bonsai Design Techniques.’ This includes 7 HD video lessons with anytime, anywhere access, downloadable class materials, including bonsai design exercises, hours of close-up instruction, answers from Colin in the virtual classroom. Well worth the 39.99 price! “

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A Breakthrough U.S. Bonsai Event & Credit Where Credit Is Due


Ryan Neil's massive Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii). This (pick your adjective) tree was not part of the bonsai display area, but rather sat alone in an inner lobby that you passed through on the way out of the display area. There's no way that you can appreciate just how massive it is, and though I didn't think to pace it off at the time, by memory (a risky proposition at best), I'd reckon that it must be about six or seven feet (approx 2 meters) across.

A thanks and a tribute to Ryan Neil and friends for the just completed Artisans Cup.

I don’t know Ryan Neil personally, though I did have a moment with him on Friday evening. But then so did everyone else; he stood at the entrance and welcomed each of us (and there were a lot of us) with a handshake or hug and a few words. A nice touch.

Of course it wasn’t all Ryan. His wife Chelsea and numerous volunteers played a big part (I was taken with how friendly and helpful everyone was, which in part at least, reflects Ryan’s attitude). But still, the amount of inspiration, skill and hard work that he put into a truly remarkable exhibition, was obvious. More below the photo…



Moving in a little closer. You might notice the shadow.

The sheer numbers of people attending was unlike any previous U.S. bonsai event. The exhibition floor was packed from beginning to end (one evening and two full days). So much so that on Sunday afternoon the fire marshal insisted that the flow of people into the exhibition be slowed.

No doubt part of the Cup’s popularity had to do with the downtown museum venue, still, much if not most of the credit has to go to Ryan’s tireless efforts in preparing and carrying out the event (well, even the venue really, securing a first rate urban museum was major coup).

Another reason for the success has to be Ryan’s (and other’s) pre-show publicity. It was professional and at times brilliant (check out this video).

Thank you Ryan and friends for a great weekend and beyond that, a breakthrough U.S. bonsai event.



Closer still. The soil appears to be held by a large bowl of deadwood.



Fifteen year old Ryan (not that long ago either). Photo borrowed from Ryan's Bonsai Mirai.

The Winners & the Wonderful & Well-Organized Chaos & Delights of the Artisans Cup


The winner (captured by my cellphone camera amidst the push and pull of ten thousand museum visitors). It's a Rocky mountain juniper that belongs to Randy Knight.

Up early to catch a plane and still reeling from the wonderful and well organized chaos and delights of the Cup. The people, the venue, Portland, old friends. And of course the truly amazing bonsai.

I’ll apologize up front for any mistakes in attribution and failures to link. I haven’t had time to begin to sort through the hundreds of photos of trees people and places, but we have start somewhere and that somewhere will be the winners.

There were only four prizes: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and best companion. I won’t go into the difficulty (absurdity?) of picking winners when every tree in the show was a winner, but nevertheless… (editorial below).

All the photos shown here were taken by my cellphone camera.


Second place. A Sierra juniper that belongs to Tim Priest (it seems fitting that a priest would win during the Pope's visit).


thirdThird place. Another Rocky mountain juniper. It belongs to Amy Blanton.


compThe winning companion. Like the winning tree, it belongs to Randy Knight.



First place tree up close.

Editorial: One reason we bother to judge and award prizes is because we humans seem to like to have winners (and by extension, losers).

There is some value to judging; having to do with detailed explorations and explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of any bonsai. This can be a learning experience for anyone involved (particularly the judges). Beyond that tradition seems to demand that we do it.

Conversely and in most cases at least (and this one for sure) there is no such thing as a best tree (and second best and so forth). There are simply too many outstanding bonsai and the range of styles, species, sizes, detail, ages, pots, everything makes this an impossible endeavor.

One thing that did strike me (and others) is the winner is certainly one of the most powerful trees in its sheer size and ability to command attention (if you had to pick a winner, it would be hard to ignore). It is also a very good bonsai in other regards. To a lesser extent, sheer size and power is true of the second place tree and of course, it and the third place tree are also outstanding bonsai in other regards.

Another reason prizes are open to question is that we often don’t know who styled a winning tree. We simply know who owns it.

Anyway, the Artisans Cup was phenomenal. I and others will be talking about it for years. Hats off to Ryan and Chelsea Neil and all the rest of the people whose hard work and devotion made this wonderful event possible.

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