The Art of Bonsai: A Q&A With William Valavanis

This week the Abbeville Blog celebrates the release of Dr. Jonathan Singer’s gorgeous new photography volume, Fine Bonsai: Art and Nature. The book is the product of an unprecedented photographic campaign in which Singer was granted access to the most respected public and private bonsai collections in Japan and the United States. It is currently the only place where many of these trees can be seen by the public.

Singer’s method and style, as displayed also in Botanica Magnifica, his previous volume for Abbeville, are unmistakably his own. As Newsworks reported earlier this fall: “Singer works very quickly, meticulously lighting and composing his shots, but letting his subjects hang loose….As soon as he sets up the shot, he clicks the shutter exactly once. With no backups and no second thoughts.” The approach, he says, helps him “find the soul of the plant, quickly.”

William N. Valavanis is a renowned American master of the art of bonsai and the author of the text for the volume. This week Valavanis was kind enough to answer a few questions for Abbeville Press about his collaboration with Dr. Singer and the art he has cherished for fifty years.

William Valavanis

Q. When and how did you develop a passion for bonsai?

A. I have been studying bonsai since I was 11 years old in 1963. Next year I will be celebrating the half-century mark of continuous bonsai study. My passion for scholarly information and sharing with the world has lead me to numerous foreign countries, writing six books and publishing International BONSAI for thirty-four years.

Originally a family friend introduced bonsai to my mother, but she was not immediately drawn to the art because at that time there were no “indoor bonsai.” She was an avid rose and tuberous begonia grower and took my two brothers and me to many nurseries. So I was introduced to ornamental horticulture as a young child, 50 years ago. I purchased a tree and pot and shaped it into a bonsai shape; it promptly died, but I persevered and continued experimenting and shaping bonsai.

Q. You studied under bonsai master Yuji Yushimura. What was the training like? What methods have you adapted to your own teaching?

A. I had a thirty-year study relationship with Yuji Yoshimura. After graduation from high school I went to SUNY Farmingdale to study ornamental horticulture. During that time I began workshops with Yuji Yoshimura, who lived nearby. During my summer break at college I traveled to Japan to study bonsai with Kyuzo Murata and saikei with Toshio Kawamoto. Upon graduation from college I returned back to Japan to become a bonsai apprentice to Kakutaro Komuro and continue studies with Toshio Kawamoto. Additionally I studied the ShoFu School of ikebana flower arranging. When I returned home from Japan I attended and graduated from Cornell University, where I studied floriculture and ornamental horticulture.

Then I moved in with Yuji Yoshimura and taught classes with him in Westchester County, New York. He was an unusual perfectionist and bonsai scholar who shared his lifelong love and knowledge of bonsai with me. He encouraged me to share and to take what he taught me to build and form a foundation for my future in the worldwide bonsai community. In order to reach a greater number of people I began publishing International BONSAI with the assistance of Yuji Yoshimura.

Q. Can you describe your process of collaboration with the photographer of Fine Bonsai, Dr. Singer? Was it difficult to attach words to such striking images?

A. Jonathan Singer contacted me several times about his book project. He needed an introduction to the Japanese bonsai world, and since I was familiar with the Japanese bonsai artists I put my forty-year relationship on the line in order to obtain permission to have Dr. Singer photograph the bonsai. Not one person has photographed at all the bonsai gardens where I introduced Dr. Singer.

I guided Dr. Singer as to what a good bonsai was and also allowed his creative talents to shine by photographing trees which interested him in his own unique style. The Japanese bonsai artists were amazed at what he can do with lighting. They have never seen photographs like that before.

Having been familiar with masterpiece bonsai for my entire life, it was a joy to write the descriptive articles for each of the some 300 bonsai featured in Fine Bonsai. But, it was a challenge to come up with different information on each tree, which was both interesting and educational. Much of this information is presented in Fine Bonsai for the first time in English and makes for scholarly bonsai study.

Q. Do you have a favorite image in the book? What makes it so compelling for you?

A. I personally do not have a favorite image in Fine Bonsai, I like most of the bonsai. Research interests me and a tremendous amount went into the comprehensive individual articles for each bonsai.

Q. How do you explain the aesthetic appeal of bonsai? What do you believe is the value of sustaining this ancient art?

A. Bonsai is a living horticultural art form which does not appeal to everyone. Both creativity and imagination are necessary to fully understand and appreciate the decades of work which went into creating the masterpieces, as well as Dr. Singer’s magical eye which often looks at things differently from others.

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