AoB: What is your recollection of your earliest encounter with bonsai? How did you feel about it? Was that first impression the defining moment in your pursuit of bonsai, or did it take more than that to get you involved?
Hans van Meer: I can remember my first bewildered impression with bonsai vividly. My wife gave me my first bonsai as a birthday gift, in January 1990. It was an Ulmus parvifolia from China, styled like an octopus, with only some neatly trimmed round foliage pads at the end of the thin long branches. That evening, after my party, when the last guests were gone, I watered and had my first real good look at the tree. That first time I looked closely at the roots that grabbed into the moss covered ground, combined with the smell of a wet forest right there in my living room, did it for me. I was sold for life. Looking back at this first bonsai now, I know it wasn’t really any good, but this little tree and my lovely wife that gave it to me, changed my life for good!
AoB: The Dutch have a long and distinguished history of artists and artwork dating back hundreds of years. Do you have any insights as to how the Dutch culture has enabled this artistic flourishing?
Hans van Meer: Yes we do have a great history in art and crafts. We had a long golden period in which the Dutch as a nation really flourished, and more and more people became wealthy and important, and (just like they do now) wanted to show it to their neighbours and the rest of the world. So architecture, gardening, fashion, and arts became a big industry. The painters especially were in demand and we all know where that led to.
To this day it is quite normal if you choose to become an artist, and/or go to one of the many art schools we still have. There is government funding for all kinds of arts, for schooling and artist alike.
AoB: Did you go to art school or have any other form of artistic education?
Hans van Meer: From childhood on I was always drawing everything I saw and dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. There are no specific schools for cartoonists so I was sent to a school to study and learn several graphic directions (mostly advertising related) for a period of 2 years. I was told that when I had successfully completed this, I could go to every art school I wanted.
Well, I spent two years learning things of little or no interest to me, but I passed with good marks. So relieved, I finally went to apply for art school, and even today I can feel the disappointment I felt then when I found out that the level of the school I had been to was not high enough to allow me into any proper art school in Holland. Because of misinformation about which school to go to, my dream of studying art was crushed for me.
Four long years later I left that wrong school very disappointed and started to look for a job, luckily I came across a very interesting advertisement in a newspaper. The Royal Delftware Factory “De Porceleyne Fles” (The Porcelain Jar) in Delft, was looking for new young artists to study and learn through internship the art of delftware painting. If you made it through this apprenticeship successfully there was an opportunity to enter an art school they worked with.
You can imagine that I was one of the first to apply for their scholarship. I had to show my work and do several tests (including drawing and painting a tree), and I was “over the moon” to find out that out of more than a thousand that applied, I was selected along with some twenty other boys and girls to study and work there.
This Delftware factory originally founded in 1653 was located in a beautiful old Jugendstil building in the old city of Delft. Everything in that place was breathing history and it was very special to realize that you were working in a place where artists had been doing the same work as you for hundreds of years. Sometimes you were asked to paint a special piece that was not made very often anymore, then you had to walk through this old building and search for an almost forgotten stockroom where the old examples were kept. When you finally found the right place and went in there, you were literally thrown back in time, on dusty shelves hundreds of different plates and vases were kept for posterity. When I finally found the one I needed and discovered that it was painted by one of my colleagues somewhere in the early eighteen hundreds, I knew that I was learning and doing something special.
I was very proud to finish my long apprenticeship in the top three of the 17 boys and girls that were left and was very excited when I was called into the director’s office to receive my diploma and contract. We first talked about my bright future in the factory and then arrived at the subject of attending the art school. He told me that he was sad to inform me that I had to first attend evening school for 2 years more because my earlier education was not up to the level of that art school. I was devastated, again I was misinformed and mislead. For all that time I worked and studied so hard for the absolute minimum wage, earning them tons of money and then this.
I shook his hand and said goodbye to my colleagues and friends and never went back again. That was the last time I ever learned anything from anybody. Two days later I found a job paving streets, earning in a week what I was making before in a month. I found out that it was much easier to meet a nice girl when I could actually buy her a drink instead of only telling her that I was an artist! (laughing)
AoB: You are self-taught, how did you go about learning bonsai and who or what were of influence in this process?
Hans van Meer: Well, you could say I’m a bit of a rebel (my wife calls it stubborn), and although that can be very handy in real life, it can also be a burden, because I don’t like to ask or be told how to do things for very long. But on the other hand, this also means that if you do need to show or teach me how to do something, you only have to show me once. From there on I observe how others do their work and learn from that. If I’m really interested or it is a difficult subject or one I really like, I will get my hands on everything available, to learn as much as possible, as fast as possible. In that way, I have become a real sucker for all kinds of trivial facts.
Throughout my whole working life and in sports it has been like this. I have done work ranging from being an animal keeper in the zoo to being a personal instructor in a gym. I changed from being an owner of several building companies to being a D.J in nightclubs, all without any formal teaching what so ever. I’m a bit like that “Nike” advertisement, I “just do it” (laughing). Mind you though, not everything I tried has been successful, far from it, but I always give it my best in my own way. I don’t like to fail in anything I try.
When I started to get hooked on bonsai, I actually started to learn the basic techniques of bonsai from those progressive picture stories in “Bonsai Today”, that I read over and over again. I started to apply those techniques to my own trees and learned what was useful for the species I worked with in my part of the world in the early days. This trial and error approach was and is for me the perfect teacher. I learned everything I know today, from analyzing every bit of bonsai information I could get my hands, eyes, and ears on. Be it through books, the web or looking at other bonsai. I can look for hours on end at the work of my bonsai colleagues when I’m at a show like the “Ginkgo Award” to discover why their bonsai work, or even better why they don’t work for me. I love to learn what made other artists do what they did, and how they did it, from analyzing their work. You can learn a lot from looking at others work. I learned of styles and received inspiration from studying the Kokufu and other bonsai albums I collected from day one. In those early days, I was also very fortunate to be asked By Ed de Groot the owner of Edo Bonsai in Boskoop (NL) to work on his (for those days) good imported Pine trees. He gave me a free hand in selecting which trees I would like to style for him, and I could even take them home with me to work on. In this way, I gained a lot of experience and he made more money when he sold those bonsai later on.
During that same period, I became friends with Danny Use and his lovely wife Ingrid owners of the famous “Ginkgo Bonsai” in Belgium. He asked me if I would like to work on his trees someday, and I asked when may I start?! Soon afterwards, whenever I had some free time I drove up and down to Belgium or stayed there for a few days as a guest. Danny allowed me to work on almost any pre-bonsai I wanted to work on, never saying much and only checking the final end result. After some time, he even allowed me to work on his top bonsai in his beautiful bonsai museum, working next to people like Hotsumi Terakawa who was also maintaining Danny’s fast-growing collection of top bonsai.
Staying at Danny’s place I got to know and befriended so many famous bonsai people, it was sometimes overwhelming. Danny’s unconditional trust in my abilities to work on his top bonsai without any real experience gave me an enormous boost of self-confidence that has proved to be priceless for me. For that, I will always be grateful. My fondest bonsai memories are of that period when on a warm and long summer night we were both working on trees in his studio with doors open, only stopping for a beer every now and then. These magical relaxed bonsai sessions could last way into the early morning hours. The long and very convertible silences that fell in the middle of the conversations and work of two like-minded people doing what they do best are deeply embedded my memory.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) Yamadori
AoB: You mainly seem to work on collected material, Why?
Hans van Meer: I like to work with a blank canvas and have total freedom to go in any direction or style I choose. I also love the challenge of working with and overcoming all those happy and beautiful accidents that mother nature throws at me in collected material.
I started working on imported material like most in Holland because of the lack of suitable yamadori, but I gradually lost interest because working on the pre-styled imported material was pushing me too much into the ‘traditional’ bonsai direction. This was a direction that somebody else had already chosen and started for me when working on this kind of material. It is just too restricted and not fulfilling enough for me working on material such as this. I was jumping over the most magical part of bonsai styling, in which you discover the soul of your material. Don’t get me wrong, I do love beautiful traditionally styled bonsai and I have some very nice ones in my own collection, but styling them from imported material is just not my thing. I just don’t get the same bonding with the material and end result that I get from working on yamadori. Even better than this is working on material you collected yourself and nurtured for years until it is strong enough for its’ first styling. This for me personally is the most fulfilling way of doing bonsai, and although, I have to wait for a long time to see the result of the way I choose to do bonsai, I do enjoy every moment of it. Doing bonsai in this way makes it very personal for me. When I find, collect, and take care of my own tree, I get to know it all the way through. The tree becomes a part of me, a part I use when I style the tree, and then I become a part of the tree.
AoB: Do you believe there is a difference in bonsai styles?
Hans van Meer: A big difference, yes, although it is all bonsai. It is sometimes like comparing apples with pears, and I think that this is wonderful. It is some of the more “classical” Japanese bonsai followers that seem to have problems with anything other than their own style preference. They judge other styles with their strict rules first, and maybe then they look to see if the bonsai is actually pretty or not. You can hear it when walking around any good show, or read it on any forum. They dissect even the best bonsai into little pieces to find mistakes first before they actually decide if they like it.
This in itself is a good thing when you look at a ‘traditional Japanese’ styled bonsai where the need for perfection is the highest in any bonsai style, but useless when looking at a good bonsai from an artist that works in a completely different style and is not striving for true perfection, but just for beauty. It is a shame to see that ‘traditional Japanese’ styled bonsai are still considered as the only real thing by many, yet most of the bonsai that is shown in, for example, the famous “Ginkgo Award” is yamadori material that is not traditionally styled. These bonsai are standing side by side with all the other styles, not being less or more…just different.
I am always amazed at the high standard of the traditionally styled bonsai of the Italians. I think that they and a handful of other European artist are making wonderful traditional bonsai and I admire their work immensely because to do this style successfully is by no means easy (not even if you know and follow all the rules!). If you take in to account how much good imported material is sold in Europe in this last decade, and you compare this with the small amount of really good ones you see at the top shows, you know just how difficult this style really is. I do recognize this as a fact, but I also believe that it is about time that other styles are recognized as being just as difficult and beautiful when done successfully.
I have found out through my discussions on the web that this is not about to happen soon. Some are almost afraid to even consider any other approach to bonsai than their own, the one with all the rules to hold on to. Some are even so stuck in their pursuit of the Japanese style that they create perfect pines and junipers out of a buxus or oak because the styling of a deciduous tree requires a lot more intuition and free thinking than they are used to. If you look at all the wonderful bonsai and penjing that are created outside of Japan in many different styles, I think that you sell yourself and your own bonsai short if you only just look at the beauty of one bonsai style. Admire all good bonsai no matter in what style they are formed, and give credit to whoever makes a good bonsai even if it is not your own style. Bonsai art can only grow if we start looking at the bigger picture of bonsai.
AoB: You also teach bonsai. How do you teach your students?
Hans van Meer: (laughing) With my hands and feet. Because I had always worked instinctively, I ran into all kinds of trouble later on when I had to explain to someone why I was doing certain things. If I ever wanted to explain my thoughts on bonsai successfully, I actually had to analyze my own work to find out the answers to those very questions. It was fun to find out from myself how and why I was doing things the way I did (laughing).
How I teach depends on the level of the student that I am teaching. When I’m teaching a novice, I start right at the beginning and try to teach them all the basic rules (guidelines) and techniques in a hands-on manner. For example; when I’m explaining to someone the principle of the famous “stick in your face” front branch rule, I will go and stand in front of that person while sticking my stretched arm out right in front off their face. Then I ask them, what colour are my eyes’ They have to move their head to be able to see this. And then I say, annoying isn’t it? It might not be sophisticated but they will never forget it.
You should not make it too difficult for the newbies with all kinds of foreign words and useless information they don’t need at first. Let them enjoy and learn while they are actually doing bonsai themselves. Let them decide their own pace of learning, and the level they want to practice bonsai in. Whatever you do, don’t force your own styling opinions onto there virgin minds. Don’t spoil their own imagination. With the more experienced bonsaist, I will try to explain and teach all the important things that come after you have learned the basic rules. I teach things such as open or negative space, rhythm, balance, movement, visual speed, and other important principles that make the difference between a bonsai and a good bonsai.
The best example of this happened last November during the now famous “Burrs” bonsai weekend in the U.K. organized by my good friend Tony Tickle (UK). More than 30 men from as far away as Spain were locked away for a whole weekend, with top material, in a beautiful old bunkhouse, in the middle of nowhere, with a pub just across the road.
Terry foster, Morten Albek, and I were working together with beginners and good artist alike. All those guys and girls from different countries and cultures, working on their own and each other’s trees, in perfect harmony for two long days and nights. It was absolutely brilliant. No egos, just bonsai. This is what the ideal bonsai workshop should be like. No fuss about rules or traditions, just totally relaxed freestyling with the material, only learning how to work with the tree and the intuitive part of your brain.
The outcome of many of the trees that were worked on in that weekend was amazing. I am looking forward to the next edition in November where I will be working together with Enrico Savini from Italy who has a more traditional way off styling his wonderful bonsai than I do. I bet you though, that there will be no clashes of styles there. Only merging of what works best to create a thing of beauty. This is the way I believe modern bonsai should be practised to become true individual art. It should not matter if your bonsai is styled strictly traditional or with a mixture of every style if necessary. It is only the end result that counts when judging if it is a good bonsai or not, and hey, even old traditions have to start somewhere, don’t they?
AoB: Who do you think has the best yamadori material in Europe, worldwide?
Hans van Meer: This is a difficult question. There are many areas in the mountains of Europe that have amazing yamadori material and I only have been to a few of them. But I have heard that good material can be found almost anywhere in Europe. Anywhere but Holland that is (laughing). There are still many places to find yamadori in Europe and I think it is not that much different in the States. I have heard from colleagues that have been to the U.S that they have the best material in the world. But just like here, you have to look for it and make an effort to collect them, that’s all there is to it!
AoB: You have collected trees in Austria, Germany, and other countries; you are a true international collector. Speaking from your personal experience, have you seen a decline in the number of collectable trees in the wild over the years?
Hans van Meer: No, not really. The people that collect here are mostly pros or knowledgeable collectors that know what they are doing and where they can or can not collect. The fines you can get when collecting in places where you are not allowed to are enormous in some of the European countries. Protected areas are a big “no-no” for collecting trees in Europe. Overall I can say that most of the collectors in Europe act in a responsible way when collecting these wonderful trees. Like they should.
AoB: When you style a previously un-styled collected tree, what is the most important thing in your mind, regarding the future shape. Is it something you have in mind from day one, or change your vision as you go forward?
Hans van Meer: Mostly (like in real life) my first idea is the right one and will stick in my mind. Even during collecting of a yamadori, I’m subconsciously looking at the possibilities of its’ future in the movement, branches and overall first impression. My wife who knows this, often asks me what can be made of the tree before we even start digging it out. Then with the help of my hands I say, it can be made into this, and if I remove this, and do that, it can become this or that. After the tree is safely in my garden I often make a quick drawing of these original ideas of the future bonsai, to capture those early thoughts like some sort of blueprint for my mind, to save those important intuitive thoughts, before common sense and reasoning take over. I might not even look at these sketches for years, but drawing my ideas will embed them deeply into my brain, like a mental picture. When I come across these drawings later on in the life of my bonsai, they almost always end up looking like those first ideas I had when I saw the tree for the first time.
AoB: What are your main sources of inspiration?
Hans van Meer: I let the tree inspire me, its’ movements and rhythm. Its’ bark and foliage. The overall feeling I get from looking at the tree transforms into an idea for a bonsai in my mind. This idea can become anything from a traditionally styled bonsai to a free styled bonsai, what ever feels best for that particular tree.
AoB: Is there anything about the international bonsai community that you wish could be changed?
Hans van Meer: Yes! Just like in real life I would like to see the end of all the bickering and arguing, especially on the web forums. We are dealing with bonsai here, and there must be more suitable hobbies you can find if you really enjoy those kinds of things. Believe me, the bonsai community is growing so fast, and there are so many friendly people out there willing to communicate or work with, that these bullies will become an outcast within the next couple of years no matter how good they are. I think that something as beautiful and precious as bonsai should be a safe haven, away from this kind of nasty behaviour and problems. Especially in the world we live in today. Just think about it!
AoB: You are an active participant on a few Bonsai Internet forums, what would you say is the greatest weakness of this online community and the greatest strengths?
Hans van Meer: About 2 years ago I bought my first computer and one of the first things I did was surfing the web for everything that had to do with bonsai. One of the first related things I came across was the BonsaiTalk forum, so I immediately joined them. I first read all the old post and then followed the ongoing discussions. With the help of my wife (because I had never written any English before), I joined in some of the discussions to say my bit, and it took off from there.
At first, I had to get used to the fact that computer talk is not the same as talking face to face with a person. Words are very easily misunderstood when you can’t see the facial expressions that normally go along with them, especially when there is a cultural and language barrier. So I had to learn and am still learning to write proper English myself, to say my bit in matters I feel strongly about.
My views on bonsai, and especially on bonsai teaching, seemed to be so far off from what some of the more experienced bonsaist and stubborn newbies were preaching online, that we sometimes ended up in pretty heavy debates. Now I don’t feel the need so much anymore to join in debates that I know right from the start will end up unresolved and in anger, because some people are so fixed on their beliefs, and will defend them no matter what, without even trying to listen to anyone or anything. They will even go right up to the point where it gets personal and nasty.
This way I found out that the Internet bonsai community is a really good impression of the living real bonsai scene I have been a part of here in Europe for the last decade. Most of the people I meet are nice and some became friends, some are not so nice and some just mean trouble. Some know what they are talking about and some will always think that they know what they are talking about. If you combine these human factors with the anonymity of the web, you know where the greatest weakness of the online community lies.
I have come across unbelievable Internet bullies on all the European and International forums. Just like in real life. Such a shame! This (unfortunately) human behaviour is so far from what bonsai means to me, that I sometimes wonder how they end up loving and doing the same thing that I do with such pleasure.
The positive side of the online community outweighs these incidents by far. I meet the nicest and warmest people from all around the world on the web that have the same passion for bonsai like me. At first, I was overwhelmed with the sincere interests they showed in what I had to say and show. This made me decide to help where ever I can. I wrote some articles about bonsai care and styling. I even opened my own bonsai site where you can see most of my work evolve through progressive stories and photos. We are starting to work on my own bonsai web blog on the Knowledge of Bonsai Forum (www.knowledgeofbonsai.org), where people can see my work from week to week.
If it weren’t for these enthusiastic people I had met on the international forums, these things would never have been started by me or for me. To me, it also was a real eye-opener to see all the different approaches and styles the international bonsai community has to offer. There is so much more high-class bonsai out there to discover from places I had never even heard of before. Unbelievable! Every time I see such a stunning bonsai made out of a species of tree I never heard of I realize just how unique bonsai is as an art form. It is so much more now than only a Japanese art form, it has become truly an international art form. It is about time we acknowledge and embraces this fact.
AoB: You won first place in the Dutch Bonsai Federation Show (NBV) in 1996 with a “Chamaecyparis obtusa nana” that you created from garden centre material and which was previously styled at your first demonstration.
You Later, in 1997 won the Best of Show award in the Dutch Bonsai Federation Show (NBV) with a Shohin “potentilla fruticosa”. Later that same year you entered the same trees into the first edition of the Ginkgo Awards in Belgium, which was honoured by being published in the commemorative book.
Considering that these two trees were created from stock found at a garden centre and then first was styled as an example at a demonstration, it seems to add value not only to demonstrations but also to nursery centre stock in particular.
Years later it seems that you now work mainly with collected trees, have you given up completely on stock such as the “Chamaecyparis obtusa nana” and the “Potentilla fruticosa” or do you still browse the nurseries? Why?
Hans van Meer: You must realize that in the early ’90’s when I started to work on those 2 mentioned trees you are referring to, that there was hardly any good imported material available back then. It became a real enjoyable treasure hunt wandering through all the many nurseries around the village of “Boskoop”, a renowned large area in Holland where hundreds of field growers are situated. At first, these growers looked at me like I was some kind of lunatic, crawling around on my knees, looking underneath the canopy of the trees and scraping away the topsoil layer to look at the roots. Their reactions often were priceless, when I wanted to buy the (in their eyes) ugliest ones from their fields. I often heard “I have better ones than this you know!”.
Later on, when I had explained what I was doing with the material and what I was looking for, some of them gave me the opportunity to buy some of their old “Mother plants”. These plants were used for many decades only to provide cuttings for new stock. They almost had Yamadori like qualities, short branches and compact roots. So they were the best material to work on in these early days.
The “Chamaecyparis obtusa” varieties I collected there were great to work on. Three of those early “Chamaecyparis obtusa” are still a proud part of my bonsai collection today. As a consequence of this lack of material, the first demos I did were all done on nursery material. The downside to this was the material the organizing club gave me to work on was most of the time not really suitable to create anything good from. But on the other hand, it trained my imagination and technique a lot. Looking back at this period now, these were very valuable lessons that laid the foundation for my own style and direction in bonsai.
Good nursery material is a perfect and inexpensive way to come to grips with what bonsai is and to learn all the necessary basic techniques. Think about this, If you first learn how to create a reasonable or even good bonsai out of normal garden or nursery material, imagine what you can do later on with really good imported or yamadori material. There will be no end to what you can create then. I think that this new tendency to start to work immediately on often expensive good material is a false one that will prove to be counterproductive in the end. Later in your bonsai life, you can always buy better material to work on, but you can never buy your imagination or technique. But of course, there is a limit to the usability of these nursery materials for bonsai. They most often just lack the features that are so important in a successful bonsai design. Things like signs of age, sharp movements, Deadwood, etc. are almost impossible to find on regular nursery stock. This means you have to create them artificially, while if you work with good yamadori or important material, all these important features are there to choose from and emphasize.
It is not that I don’t want to work anymore on good nursery material, it is just too hard to find over here.
AoB: The Netherlands does not seem to offer much diversity regarding collectable bonsai material. Where do you acquire yours?
Hans van Meer: I often say, I live in the wrong place to do bonsai (laughing). There is almost no good yamadori to be found in The Netherlands. We have no mountains or old forests. Over hundreds of years, almost 2/3 of the landmass that Holland is now, is made up of reclaimed land from the sea by brilliant engineers with the help of our now world-famous windmills. These new grounds were mostly used for agricultural purposes and trees were always scarce in these areas, so there are hardly any suitable circumstances for trees to evolve into old and usable yamadori in The Netherlands. I live only a 5 minutes walk away from the sea, and several meters below the water level. Where my house stands now, not so long ago it was sea, so no old trees to be found here.
In all those years of searching in Holland, I was lucky enough to find some good “Crataegus” yamadori along our coastline that I’m still working on today. At the first “Ginkgo award” in ’96 I met my now close English friends Tony Tickle, Mick Sullivan, and Terry Foster, and they kindly invited me to come to the U.K to go on a collecting trip with them. The long 12-hour car trip alone up there was an adventure in itself for me, but the anticipation of the trip to those beautiful collecting places the next day was a real thrill. Nothing ever will compare to the overwhelming experience I had when I collected my first yamadori, an old Taxus full of beautiful deadwood. This tree is still in my collection today!
That first collecting experience was so significant for me that it marks the real start of my bonsai life. I went back several times to the U.K to collect yamadori with them, and some of these early collected trees from the U.K. and Wales I have already shown in many shows, including the prestigious “Gingko award”.
During the last years, around the month of May, I have travelled with my wife and friends all the way up to Austria, Italy or Switzerland. We rent a nice mountain cabin for a week or so, and from there we just start to drive around and stop and walk. Just to discover the surrounding mountain area. These short trips high up in those beautiful mountains are a very uplifting experience for the all of us. All the stress from our hectic city lives just seems to fade away there. But, mind you, while we are walking and climbing those mighty mountains and enjoying all that wonderful scenery, we are also looking for signs of possible yamadori. I am very lucky that my wife shows such an interest in my bonsai, and over the years she developed a keen eye for good material and places they might grow. A lot of my collected yamadori were discovered by her.
I remember one particular occasion we had just made the long climb up a mountain along a small and rocky road, and we decided to take a breather there and to look around and enjoy the wonderful scenery. I took the opportunity to relive my self of some of the water I had drunk (if you know what I mean). I was just about to start when my wife said, you might want to lift up your left foot. I stopped (which is not so easy) and looked down, I was standing on a lovely small “Scott’s pine” that was half buried in the tall grass. This small pine is coming along nicely in my garden now and is known as the “pee pine”. Although I also travelled great distances up and down from Holland to Italy and Switzerland just to buy top yamadori from bonsai colleagues, most of the material I work on today was collected by myself. For me collecting and working on my own material is the best way to do bonsai. But more material a bit more close to home would be nice.
AoB: The demonstration mentioned above made you realize that you really enjoyed teaching, and have you done many demonstrations since?
Hans van Meer: I do love to teach and give demonstrations, but I mostly enjoy working one on one with people during a workshop. I have done many across the whole of Europe, but I still find it amazing that people are really interested in my ideas about bonsai. Through this wonderful art, I have been able to visit beautiful places and meet the most fantastic people. I can not begin to tell you how excited and honoured I am to be one of the demonstrators at this year “Ginkgo Award”. Bonsai has been so good to me!
AoB: Many people have stated that demonstrations are designed to fail as far as the tree is concerned, they have spoken out against the “Instant Bonsai” created at such, and said that these demonstrations give the wrong ideas about bonsai and the time it should take. What are your thoughts on this subject?
Hans van Meer: I think it is up to the demonstrator to explain what he is going to do and what kind of demonstration it is going to be. Whether it is a club demo where the emphasis is on teaching techniques and possibility in styling or a 3-hour show demo on stage at a big event. It is up to us, the demonstrators, to explain everything right from the start, so that there can be no misunderstandings in the public about what we are doing to the material, and if they should do it in a similar way.
People should also understand that any good bonsai teacher knows what he is doing and knows exactly how far he can go in one session. A lot of the trees I have demonstrated on in the past are still very healthy and still a part of my own collection today. If I’m asked to do a demo that is specifically based on learning techniques and how to shape a future bonsai, then that is what I will be trying to do to the best of my abilities. On the other hand, if I’m asked to show how I create a tree in my own style and manner, I will try to show you how I go about doing that to the best of my abilities. And if this has to be done in just 3 hours, no problem.
I will explain to the audience that what I’m about to show is normally done over a much longer time span. But is, for the sake of being able to show this whole process to you brought down to a time span of only a few hours. This should never be done at home where there should be no time limits on safely styling your future bonsai. It is never advisable to do this in a shorter time frame, without the proper knowledge and experience. What you see in those 3 hours is the result of a lot of practice and “know how”. A good demonstrator will stop long before the critical stage of the tree’s health is reached.
I think people that go on about instant bonsai are doubting the capability of the experienced demonstrator and are insulting the intelligence of the public if they say that this is the normal time frame to style a future bonsai in. So-called instant bonsai are the results of years of practising and talent and should be (if done right) enjoyed and appreciated for the accomplishment it really is. It is not that easy you know. If it was, everybody else would be doing it successfully by now.
AoB: What would your ideal demonstration be like if you could design and plan every demonstration that you give?
Hans van Meer: A good piece of interesting material, with a lot of problems to solve, so that I can show as many techniques as possible while styling the tree. The audience should be able to walk around me and be able to look up close at what I’m am doing and to ask questions while I’m doing it.
AoB: You have been involved as an entrant in many world-class shows. What advice would you give those who are currently planning a National American Show of the same calibre?
Hans van Meer: To be honest, and here is that ‘stubborn’ mentality again, just go for it. Just like “Danny Use” the organizer of the now world famous “Gingko award ” did.
I still remember the long and late discussion I had with Danny and his wife Ingrid, one late night back in 1996. We started to talk about the lack of good bonsai shows in Europe and how that could be improved. From there we discussed if it could be done in his bonsai centre and if there should be any money prizes to make it more interesting for the pros that had to travel from all over Europe to his place in Belgium. I tried hard to convince him that a good commemorative book would be more than enough to do just that. I wanted to show my own bonsai in a bonsai book you see (laughing). Much later that night, when Danny walked my wife and me to the car, he said to me with a smile, thank you Mister van Meer for giving me yet another reason to lie awake about at night. The “Ginkgo Award” seed was planted.
Danny, the wonderful dream chaser that he is, did not take long to decide that he would indeed stage this European bonsai show at his place, and it took off from there.
I fondly remember the long travels Danny, and I together with my old bonsai friend Carlos van de Vaart made criss-cross through England, visiting all the U.K. bonsai masters to convince them personally to be a part of this new show. At Colin Lewis’ place, we met Salvatore Liporace and his (then) assistant Marco Invernizzi, who were doing a workshop there. We were able to talk to them as well. From there they spread the word around in Italy for Danny’s “Ginkgo” show. We drove all the way up North to Harry Tomlinson’s place and all the way down South again to visit Dan Barton.
Meanwhile, Danny’s wife Ingrid sent a long list, with Telephone numbers, of Spanish bonsai pros to my wife who is half Spanish. My wife with the kind help of my mother-in-law just randomly started to phone bonsai masters and clubs in Spain to convince them to come to show their bonsai and to collect telephone numbers of others that might be interested to come. Ingrid and other volunteers did the same with other countries. Soon the whole of the European bonsai community was buzzing with anticipation.
I do know that the U.S is so much larger than Europe, but don’t forget that some of the participants of the “Ginkgo Award” have to travel for days as well to get to the show, and are even willing to ship their precious bonsai by plane just to be able to show them in this great event. Mind you though, the “Ginkgo Award” would not have ever been staged, if not for the army of devoted volunteers that are helping Danny and Ingrid for weeks at a time, doing all kinds of work and devoting very long hours preparing the show for us to admire.
So, there lies your first work if you want to organize something similar in the U.S. Finding volunteers to help you. You could stage a Northern show and 2 years later a Southern or Middle America show. I think if volunteers are spoken to in person by phone, mail, or the Internet, with serious American bonsaist asking what their thoughts are on the subject of staging a big U.S show, and ask their help by eventually showing there best work in the show, I know it could be done. There is no other reason not to be able to stage “The Best Bonsai In the U.S Show.”
If you look at all the “Ginkgo Award” books that are printed now, you can clearly see what a flight European bonsai has made during that period. I firmly believe that this amazing show Danny Use created has played a large part in that rise in quality. I know for sure that a similar thing is bound to happen as well in the U.S. if they manage to stage a show of this calibre. Seeing good bonsai is making good bonsai I think. Look at all the big events that are organized and staged in the U.S for years now, don’t tell me that it is not possible to organize a successful big bonsai event.
A good “Dutch” saying goes: where there is a will, there is a way!
AoB: What advice would you give to Americans who will be facing the challenge of entering a national show for the first time?
Hans van Meer: Details, details and details! I am still amazed to see (even with the pros) that bonsai are brought in to a show with dirty or too oily pots, ugly tables that are too small, too big, or the wrong shape or colour, all kinds of insects crawling around the foliage, and ants walking around the tables.
Always Remove all, malformed or discoloured leaves and brown needles. Terrible scrolls or accent plants can ruin the appearance of your bonsai no matter how good it is, and the worst thing in my book is that some bonsaist actually apply there jin seal and moss at the venue just before the show opens. This even happens on bonsai that cost more than a small town car, and have been worked on for years. If you worked on a bonsai for so many years and you are proud to finally show it, you would think you could take some time to work on the last simple details that make the difference in your presentation. These final preparations should be the fun part of the work you are proud of to show. It is the “icing on the cake”. If you fail to do this, all your hard work will have been for nothing.
AoB: In your opinion who do you feel are the people today moving bonsai ahead, contributing to the community, or changing the art?
Hans van Meer: If we are willing to really commit and stay open-minded, we all are!