In my last post I wrote a review of Michael Hagedorn’s Post-Dated; The Schooling of an Irreverant Bonsai Monk, a book I consider to be an important and unique contribution to English language bonsai literature. You could say that Post-Dated is in fact literature, as distinguished from the how-to genre that most bonsai books fall into.
In addition to being a very accomplished writer, Michael Hagedorn is a first rate bonsai artist. His work appeared in the Kokufu show in Tokyo (Kokufu is the pre-eminent bonsai show in Japan) in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and Mr. Suzuki (Michael’s teacher) honored him with the opportunity to wire two trees that went on to win a Kokufu Prize and a Prime Minister Award.
This interview is in two installments. Stay posted for part 2.
Post-Dated is a title that the reader will only understand on finishing the book. The last chapter gives a clue to it’s choice.
What do you think is the most important thing you learned in Japan?
I came to believe that bonsai was unlike any of the other creative expressions I’d explored before. It was not modern art. It was not individualistic. It assumed collaboration: by default, with other artists, through time. It was collaboration with a living thing. It was collaboration with a tradition. This was all new to me and, honestly, disorienting. But I came to love it and find a lot of excitement and joy in being a part of that larger surround. I guess anything where we feel part of something larger is a valuable thing, and studying bonsai in Japan was that for me. And I think all bonsai activity has that potential. There, here, anywhere.
Can you say something about Japanese and North American bonsai; the relationship and how it is evolving?
There will probably always be a parent/child relationship there. In that sense Japan is the parent of any country that is interested in bonsai, as China was to Japan long ago—and ‘overtaking’ Japan is unlikely. Bonsai work in Japan is probably evolving faster than is generally known. They are very inventive, and seem to have the best balance of holding on to things that worked well and keeping an eye out for some new way. For a traditional art this attitude works better than our ‘throw out everything with the dishwater and start again’ impulse. And so I see their work progressing steadily whereas our progression is more erratic and dependent on individuality more than community. But I’m generalizing too much. The bonsai community in North America is coalescing, and that is very positive.
Do you think a distinctly N. American style is developing?
I do not see this, unless one can call a group of individual styles a group style. I don’t. There is an impatience I think for us to see this sort of thing. We are used to being leaders in so many fields—medical, university, technology, etc.—that it is almost a reflexive that we should assume a singular voice in bonsai too. But our work in a ‘tradition’ does not seem as strong as our work outside of one. Perhaps it’s our social structure, or maybe what we value: eclecticism.
Would you like to go back to Japan and study some more. Perhaps with another teacher?
I will be returning to study with my master, Shinji Suzuki. In bonsai one does not generally study with more than one teacher, that is, if you have studied at length with that person. A month here and there has been done by many people, Europeans in particular. But once you start calling a teacher ‘master,’ things change. That is a very special relationship that is broken by studying elsewhere. Your master becomes responsible for your welfare, and you can see how that sort of thing can get confusing for a culture centered on relationship hierarchies. Who is responsible for so and so when they are studying with everyone? So they prefer to keep it simple.
Tell us about your teaching these days. What do you enjoy about it? What don’t you enjoy? Are you working mostly with more advanced
students? Beginners? A mix?
Ah, it’s a wonderful challenge. I like the diversity of people who seem drawn to bonsai. And it is gratifying to see students get excited about taking things to another level. I’d say the only hard part is teaching in a workshop type of situation where the concept of a ‘good tree’ is difficult to teach. It is almost like trying to understand Michelangelo’s ‘David’ from photos. I was thirteen when I saw the ‘David’ in Italy and discovered that it was huge. He had made his David be a giant, the real Goliath. I would have never gotten that by looking at a photo, but it hits you in the gut when you’re there. Not book knowledge. Likewise, we can’t really learn the essential points of bonsai from reading, and we can’t learn what a good tree is by seeing a photo or talking about it—we have to see it in person. So I’ve been changing my style of teaching a bit. I prefer to be teaching the way I learned at my master’s place, by standing in front of a good tree. I think this is the best way to learn. We learn ten times as fast. So I am working on gathering a ‘teaching’ collection so that I can teach from my backyard.
I work with both beginners and advanced students. Some of the advanced students end up becoming beginners again, as my techniques are new to those who began bonsai by reading about it. There tends to be a lot of starting over with my students.
Stay posted for part 2.