artisans-cup

Three's a Crowd

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We are all in the midst of the repotting season and it seems to take quite a toll on our personal and social time as we descend into a furious frenzy of cutting, sifting, chop-sticking, and mossing.  However, it also happens to be the best time of year to work on many trees that haven’t been repotted. Such is the case for many of our conifers that are just starting to wake up. It is sort of a lull between deciduous and conifers for me. The weather has really wreaked havoc in the system, both my schedule and that of the trees. We are all a bit confused. Things seem to be settling down and on their way to a splendid spring.

The push right now is to get my conifers pruned, if they were not last fall, so that all of the energy can be maximized and focused in the areas desired. This process also balances out the strength of the tree. One tree that I worked on recently is a largish Engelmann Spruce. Many of you are familiar with this tree. It has been seen at our shows once or twice as well as being shown at the Artisan’s Cup in 2015, National Show in New York in 2016, and the Natives Exhibit at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in 2017. Yep, that tree. It sure has been well travelled. It is also the tree that I, or we, styled together about a dozen years ago, when Boon got me into a Golden State workshop with none other Masahiko Kimura, and his young Jedi apprentice, Ryan Neil (Note the essential shell necklace –vintage Neil). What a fortuitous meeting, with my two teachers and Mr. Kimura. But since this tree spent most of last year up in Federal Way at the Natives exhibit, it was time to take stock and prune out any dead tips, cut back where I could and generally reacquaint myself with the tree.

Tree as collected by Randy Knight, 2004

Tree as collected by Randy Knight, 2004

 Golden State workshop with Mr. Kimura and Ryan Neil, 2006

 Golden State workshop with Mr. Kimura and Ryan Neil, 2006

Repotted and ready to go for the workshop

Repotted and ready to go for the workshop

Mr. Kimura, Ryan, Myself, Boon.

Mr. Kimura, Ryan, Myself, Boon.

 
 Final Result

 Final Result

 

When I exhibited the tree at the Artisan’s Cup, it was a last-minute replacement for a tree that dropped out at the last minute from California. As such, it was some really late nights getting it ready for the show. It was already somewhat wired and cutting in. So I reworked the tree and told myself that most of the wire could stay, though I cut out much of the heavier wire for aesthetic reasons and everything held pretty well. But then it was on to New York the next year, with a partial de-wiring, and adding back some detail wire. I worked on it a whole day with Ryan to get the first branch just right as a model to follow and learned much. I finished the tree myself, but I was dissatisfied with the results. There was this sort of gnawing discomfort that it just wasn’t giving the impression that I wanted. However, I was still very proud of the achievement because it was very full and much more developed than most collected spruces. Maybe too much so. The crown was almost a solid helmet of foliage with not quite enough separation between elements. It has fabulous dead wood, but the foliage was rather boring. Still wondering what the future of the tree was, I sent it to New York and back, and then to Pacific for the 2017 season.

Artisan’s Cup 2015

Artisan’s Cup 2015

2016

2016

Fast forward to our current pruning session. As I began looking for back buds to prune back too, I realized there weren’t many. Much fewer than I expected. I think this was partly due to the reduced amount of light at the Museum and less fertilizer during the season (per my instruction, at the time). But as I began to look at the branches, I think there was another big contributing factor. And that is, overcrowding. There were just too many branches to support. The tree grows like a juggernaut, but all of that energy was being dissipated into more and more branches. This is a very good problem to have. It took a good dozen years to get here, but now I realize that it was time to reassess and start thinning things out. While pruning this tree I was very committed to the rule of two. Only allow two branches at any intersection. It could be the trunk and a branch, two larger or two smaller branches, or a large and small combination. But two is going to be it and I was going to be ruthless about it. It was then that I discovered that I had junctures of three and four branches all over the tree. In my desire to maximize the foliage mass for consecutive shows I had inadvertently sacrificed the structural quality of the tree. I was so focused on the creation of nice foliage pads that I didn’t fully reexamine the tree each time I touched it. It is very common to leave three shoots on the end of branch for fullness before a show. But since I had stacked all these shows up in a row, after four years, those shoots turned into ramified branches, which I hadn’t questioned. I also discovered that this was a major factor contributing to wire cutting in at an astronomical rate. Spruce are known for wire marking rapidly and this tree is no exception. The stronger the bend, the more it cuts in. That is very predictable on spruce.

When folks are new to bonsai, they generally fall into two camps. Pruners and Waterers. The Pruners are people who will readily prune their trees down to a stump without blinking an eye. The can leave the tree rather weak and unresponsive until it builds it’s strength back up. Waterers are content to nurture their trees slowly over time. They would prefer to go through a long prayer ritual to the bonsai gods before they are ready to cut off a single shoot. I definitely fell into the former camp and have learned to balance my approach. But this spruce had had enough of nurturing. Now was the time to prune. It was DAMN hard. I spent a lot of time growing those branches. And mostly, they were good branches. I had to weigh many factors. I was not going to keep three, sometimes four, branches at one juncture. So, what to do? Do I keep the two shorter ones? Do I keep a long and short? Do I keep the one on the right or left? So, here is my little hierarchy to make those decisions.

One, keep the branches with live buds. This is so hilariously obvious yet is the one I get caught on all the time. If you have elongating species, like the spruce, and you pinched it the previous season, you won’t necessarily have buds on the tips. Plus, there can be insect damage, overall weakness, etc.… So always check to see if there is a bud. Next, do I need the length? Sometimes I do. At other times, I want to compact and keep it short. In that case, I like to keep a long and short branch. It looks more natural and develops more elegantly. Thirdly, where are the adjacent branches growing? By pruning, will I make a hole, which may actually be desirable for some negative space, or is there a better branch available to take its place? In all cases for this spruce, there was always something available nearby. And finally, can I improve the structure of the tree? Can I eliminate flaws like crossing branches? For a show, I may wire things into position to fill a hole that I would never keep long term, or so I thought, four years ago.

 
 
Freshly pruned but unstyled, 2018

Freshly pruned but unstyled, 2018

 

Now that the job is done, I have a renewed fondness for the tree and vision for the future. It was quite harrowing at first, but now I see a tree once again. Good trees are intimidating, old and large even more so. By pruning, it got older and more tree like, and I now feel as though I can bring it to fulfill the potential it has had all along. The tree looks great and I would have to show you the garbage can full of branches to prove that I pruned anything. Please note how the apex is slowly being moved to the right and that the back branch is finally peeking around the right side. I left all of the wire that was not cutting into branches on the tree to help hold it for this next growing season, but come fall, I am really looking forward to completely de-wiring the tree and restyling it from scratch. I just did not have time now, with preparations under way for our spring show. It is now set up to grow vigorously through this next year and build up strength for a good styling session. There will likely be much more pruning at that time. But at least for now, the strength is balanced and many structural flaws are eliminated. Remember, three’s a crowd.

Scott Elser

The Artisans Cup

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Wow! Did that just really happen? With a resounding note, Ryan and Chelsea Neil have reinvigorated American bonsai. What we saw last month was the seminal point of bonsai here in America. We finally have a voice. We now have expression and a shared vision for the future.

Kudos go to Ryan, Chelsea, and their whole team for presenting trees in such a refreshing manner. I just loved it. The attention was solidly focused on the trees, and not the trappings. I spent three days on the floor and never got tired of it. I doubt this will become the de facto standard for exhibits, simply because it takes so much technical prowess and financial investment to pull it off, but it will influence all exhibits for years to come. I know that other exhibits have done something with dark lit rooms, but nothing like this. This was throwing out the rules and see what we can create. Every time the Neils made a leap of faith they stuck the landing with near perfection. Well done.

Most of you reading this article put considerable time, effort and talent into making this great event happen. Whether showing up a day early to build the great rhomboid erector set for the displays, ushering folks through the exhibit, or manning the swag tables, you put in a ton of hours, all for the love of bonsai. A few of you even spent days, months, and years preparing trees, stands, and accents for the exhibit. Twelve to be exact. That’s 17% of the entire exhibit developed, owned, and maintained by the good ol’ BSOP. Not only that, but outstanding BSOP member Randy Knight took home the top prize for not only the top tree but also the best accent planting. Way to go Randy!!!! Way to go BSOP!!! All of this speaks volumes to the artistic excellence that BSOP has been pursuing for so many years. We sit at the very epicenter of the emerging American bonsai movement and it shows.

We might be able to just blame some of this on proximity. It seems natural to say that, of course there were more trees from Portland because it took place here. Well to that I say, true, it’s a lot easier to submit trees to the show without needing a cross-country trek, but all that stops at the jurying process. All of those BSOP trees had to make it through the scrutiny of Mike and Ryan before they could ever make that trip across town. (I was probably the closest exhibitor at roughly 15 minutes away, as opposed to say, the 3,000 miles from New York) It also means that they beat out the other 230 or so entries that were submitted for inclusion. So congratulations Portland, on a job well done. Most of you were at the show and/or have seen tons of photos. What I show here is just a reminder of all the great trees from the BSOP.

I think that the one thing that stuck out most to me artistically besides the general presentation, and where this show really made its mark noticeable, was in the display stands that were utilized. What we were saw were many different styles from traditional Japanese and Chinese designs to fusions with contemporary furniture motifs. I think that all but one were wooden (Remember the metal trolley under the giant climbing hydrangea?). Some were rustic, like Lee Cheatle’s fence boards – how did he find those chunky, weathered boards the exact length needed? Some stands were missing parts – Randy’s winning tree sat on a table missing itsfourth leg, with the magic of 80 pounds of ballast keeping everything steady. Many were crafted locally in Portland or in Seattle, with forms yet unseen in bonsai – cantilevers, early American touches, and such. Credit BSOP member Jan Hettick with TWO stands in the show that went uncredited at the show – her wonderful stand for Eileen Knox’s Scots Pine and the lovely Bloodwood stand she made for my own Engelmann Spruce. Bob Laws also made a great stand for his display. I thought his whole display was very well conceived and executed. It had its own unique personality, speaking strongly, but softly. I even got into the act making a live edge stand for my Ponderosa.

This was the real coming out party for American species of bonsai. Sure, we have seen Redwoods, Ponderosas, and California Junipers for years. But this show is the first one were natives dominated the scene and more importantly, showed mature development. We still have a long ways to go, but everything is clearly on track. I have watched Randy’s winning Rocky Mountain Juniper for several years, including times when it didn’t go into other shows. The rapidity of its development is just shocking. But it came with persistent, expert care and technique, lots of fertilizer, and lots of sun. But nothing that you can’t actually do. I can’t wait for the release of the online catalog with judges’ audio comments on every tree. I am most anxious to hear insights into my own trees and how I might improve them. I am already reexamining a tree from the show and how to redesign it. The show is over and now it’s time to get back to work. There is a lot to do before the next one!

Scott

Grand Prize Winner, Rocky Mountain Juniper – Randy Knight.

Grand Prize Winner, Rocky Mountain Juniper – Randy Knight.

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  Best Accent – Randy Knight

Best Accent – Randy Knight

European Birch – Dennis Vojtilla

European Birch – Dennis Vojtilla

Chinese Elm – Robert Wofford

Chinese Elm – Robert Wofford

Ponderosa Pine – Lee Cheatle

Ponderosa Pine – Lee Cheatle

Japanese Maple – Dennis Vojtilla

Japanese Maple – Dennis Vojtilla

Engelmann Spruce – Scott Elser

Engelmann Spruce – Scott Elser

European Beech - Scott Elser

European Beech - Scott Elser

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  Ponderosa Pine – Scott Elser

Ponderosa Pine – Scott Elser

Coastal Redwood - Randy Knight

Coastal Redwood - Randy Knight

Southwestern White Pine – Greg Brenden

Southwestern White Pine – Greg Brenden

Scots Pine – Eileen Knox

Scots Pine – Eileen Knox

Shimpaku Juniper – Bob Laws

Shimpaku Juniper – Bob Laws