This is the story of a Kevin Willson bonsai collaboration stretching back nearly fifteen years, bear with me….
We all want to live in a perfect world. Trouble is we all have a different opinion of how that world should appear and therein lies the entire history of human conflict. Lock two blokes in a room and sooner or later there WILL be a punch up. Our modern world has become, possibly, more divided than at any time in our brief history and it’s a deeply unpleasant place to be for those of us who remember what we would call better times.
Personally, I doubt things were better in the past but they were certainly simpler for many folk. The coming of the internet, not a bad thing in itself, has caused a great deal of this unpleasantness. It’s not that there is anything wrong with computers being linked up but there is not much good in the human heart. In the past we all had to concern ourselves with staying alive, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads and hopefully trying to avoid the icy cold grasp of disease. But, in today’s prosperous society it seems all we have time for is arguing and fighting.
When I started bonsai all I wanted was some cute little trees. Once I got inside the bonsai community I found a lot of strange things going on. There were a lot of good folk going about the task quietly but I also came across a lot of competitive folk. I saw a lot of ugly politics and a lot of harm being created between different groups, factions and individuals. I won’t go into detail but the things I have witnessed over the years are to quote a very overused word these days ‘shocking’.
Bonsai has the power to change our lives. It can permeate down into our very souls and the discipline of the work we have to do and the patience we need to exercise can make us a better individual. However much like money, guns, alcohol, knives and any number of other things bonsai is neutral and it can be a positive or negative influence upon us. I know it sounds strange but I have seen people turned into ugly, competitive green eyed monsters by bonsai and the harm they do is irreparable to some gentler folk and usually themselves too.
Anti-mimesis is a philosophical position who’s most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life“. Wilde holds that anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy”.
At a stretch, the presentation of our lives on social media might be called art. Our daily lives neatly packaged into attractive photos and sound bites carefully manicured to make us look good and interesting. This content is what we might call a stylised or ideal representation of our largely hum-drum lives, an artistic version of the actuality. The trouble is those of us who are a bit ‘simple’ in the head buy into this harmless re-engineering of the facts and quickly feel a little dissatisfied with our own lot in life.
I was a bit like that, sick of my day to day job and yearning for a better life. Someone stupidly said ‘If you can dream it you can have it”. What a crock, I often dream I can fly but last time I launched myself from a great height all I did was knock myself out cold and snapped both arms in half. I’m an old fart now and one thing I have learned is that opportunity presents itself wearing overalls. Dreaming gets you nowhere but combine a good idea with hard work and you have a winning combination.
I have been blathering on about this for years now and, much to my surprise, some folk have actually benefited. It’s very humbling when one of these folk call me up or write to say thank you. Who knew! It’s nice to pass on a little encouragement, I would never have stepped out into what I do today had it not been for the encouragement of others. In particular, my late wife Tina and my sorely missed best mate Blacky to name just two. People working together can be a powerful thing.
I never really intended to turn my bonsai hobby into a business. It’s my character to do everything to extremes, that’s how I ended up with broken arms. I think I might have an addictive personality. I once heard a little ditty that said “Bonsai trees are like potato crisps, you can’t just have one”. I can remove the ‘Bonsai trees’ bit and put in just about anything. I was raised as a bit of a collector starting off with Brook Bond tea cards. Since then I have obsessed over everything from knives to American cars, fossils, motorcycles, houses, cacti, military medals, stamps, koi carp, hand grenades, vinyl albums to antique farm tools and Roman brooches. My dad always told me you get out what you put in and I believe him so put everything into everything I do, whether that’s drinking beer or cutting my lawn. Once I decide to do something it’s getting done come hell or high water.
Trouble is these days I have become a victim of my own success. I have put everything into bonsai for over thirty years now. At the beginning, all I wanted was a collection of good ‘Bonsai’. Later on I figured out bonsai was not really a ‘thing’ more of a process. To date, I feel I have never really owned a bonsai tree or come close to mastering the process. Pretty much everyone these days knows that Kaizen represents the idea of continual gradual improvement but it’s a hard row to hoe and can be very dissatisfying, always reaching for better. But, as a strategy for business it’s worked out pretty good.
Over the years I have sold all the best trees I have owned, it goes with the territory. Most of the stuff I have now that I might call my own is not the best, but my collection means a lot to me and I could not possibly care less what anyone else thinks. Sadly due to the pressure of business I get less time to work on bonsai trees now than at any time in the past but thank goodness I know a few good folk.
After my first eight years of growing bonsai trees I had a good grip of the horticulture but the rest eluded me. However, as the old saying goes “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear”. In spring 1999 I walked into the garden of Kevin Willson and my life changed forever. Now I know Kevin is a rum cove but over the years I have come to admire and respect the man beneath the brusque exterior. Nobody was happier than me when he returned from Spain and set up shop in our part of the world. As Kevin is a regular visitor here I have had the privilege to get to know him a bit better and am every bit as inspired to press on as I was that first day.
It was more than a decade ago that Mr W left our rainy clime and set up in sunny Spain. I felt sad but had work to do so moved on. However, before he left I took the opportunity to visit his Essex base one last time and ultimately left with this amazing scots pine. What an amazing deal he did me too, on the drive home I felt like the luckiest bloke alive, what a score. Now that tree has been sitting in the same spot in my garden for about thirteen years. One August aided by my good friend Bob we bare rooted the tree. After that, it went off like a little firework. Once a year I have hard pruned the foliage and every three years it gets a re-pot because it lifts itself out of its pot by an inch or two. But apart from that, I have done nothing.
I like to do styling of scots pines after the end of September here in Blighty. The thickening of branches will have finished and the trees are settling in for the winter. That means wire can stay on for the longest time possible thus aiding the branch set. For the last couple of years my super compact pine with it’s thick, self-supporting ramification and dense foliage has chased me through my dreams. I know this is an important tree but I simply do not get the time to do the work required. I have considered selling it. I have considered flying in another artist. I even made a part work plan to finish it over a few seasons.
Finally this year, buoyed up by the encouragement of those around me who’s opinion I value and respect I made the discussion to give the tree to my long time mentor. I reluctantly loaded my charge into the van with a bunch of other lesser stuff. Kevin was not expecting the tree, i just dropped it on him but being a consummate professional he accepted the commission with grace. As I left for the day I was VERY uneasy, I felt like a kid going to Uni’ and spending my first night out in the big bad world all alone.
I gave Kevin carte blanche simply because…
A. I trusted his appreciation of just how important this pine was to me. I knew full well he would pull off too many needles but it’s got the internal energy of a hand grenade so no real worries there.
B. I also took comfort in the fact that he knew I would show it to the world and not a one of us want’s to look like a numpty in that respect.
I didn’t expect to see the tree for a few months and was a little concerned when I got a call a couple of weeks later. Stuart and I went, with not a little trepidation on my part, to pick it up a few days ago. I made nervous jokes about just how much of my carefully cultivated foliage would be piled up in the corner but the fact that after all those years my pine might look good was exciting. I had not felt that nervous since the first time I took a girl to a posh restaurant.
Upon arrival I was pleased to know Kevin had been stressing over this as much as I had. You always get the impression that a professional does what they do with ease but I know that’s just not true. Creating a bonsai tree from raw material is a series of important decisions, each one based on the last one, start off wrong and it’ll all go wonky. Work between professionals is never easy, like a chef cooking for a chef or being a barbers barber.
In the end I made the right call. I did ask Kevin to leave me with the deadwood work to do, i’ll get this done over the coming months. For now I am thrilled with my new tree after all these years. There is a little pang of sadness I didn’t do it myself and the subsequent loss of street cred’, but to be honest it’s MUCH better being a collaboration between mutually deferential artists. As I get older I realise life is not about what you own but the connections we make. If we can make those connections using our beloved bonsai trees, they, we and the world around us will be the better for it. I’m so glad I left my ego at the door.
I suggest that you cut off the top-left portion of the deadwood and shorten the rest.
You are an inspiration to me and I’m sure many others. I am in awe of your imagination and ability to see what may elude the rest of us! Then to watch you use your extensive knowledge and skill to transform what you may call an ugly tree into a flowing natural looking work of art! Truly amazing and thank you.
I’m not a fan of the bigger lumps of wood that you like so much, but what a tree!
You were absolutely right to leave the ego at the door and let Kevin work his magic, though to be fair, I’ve seen the miracles you have worked on various trees over the years so I was a little surprised you didn’t have a crack at it.
I owe almost everything I know about Bonsai primarily to you and Kaizen Bonsai with a few other things picked up from various Bonsai enthusiasts down here in the South West.
My only regret is not coming to Bonsai sooner and having more time to act as a custodian to the trees that I have collected over the last few years.
I love all my trees, from the small Chinese Elm (first purchase) to the variagated privet my wife bought on my retirement back in March,