VERN SMITH :: In the USA, all styles bonsai growing equally well. From Classical, Natural, Deadwood until Tanuki. All free to be creative.

Long ago, American world of bonsai is greatly influenced by the classical Japanese style. But after 30 years have passed, now the natural style more enjoy doing. Just as is happening in Europe and many other countries.

“Everything is well developed in our country. A more recent modern/abstract influence can also be seen, with lots of deadwood dominating the tree. Also, I have seen a few Tanuki in shows, and I’m sure I’ve seen some that I didn’t know were Tanuki!,” said Vern Smith on BursaBonsai.com. “Anyway … in the end we are all just creating illusions in Bonsai,” he added.

To find out more about the world of bonsai America, here’s my interview with Vern Smith, one of the American bonsai artist who studied bonsai at the sensei Johnny Uchida.

:: Vern Smith in his studio ::

:: Vern Smith in his studio ::

In your observations, as to what bonsai trend in US today?
The American tradition is definitely born from the classical Japanese Bonsai tradition, but the trees I have seen over the last 30 years or so are heavily influenced by a more natural style as well. A more recent modern/abstract influence can also be seen, with lots of deadwood dominating the tree.

Are there differences in trend due to geography and local tree species that they have?
Absolutely. In California, we are close to many juniper species, which lend themselves well to natural, modern and abstract styling. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the mild climate gives us a long growing season that can bring out the best in a wide variety of plant species. The variety of plant stock lends itself to many Bonsai styles.

How the behavior of bonsai enthusiasts in the US? Do they feel more proud and prestigious with tree species imported, or trying to popularize US native species?
There is a fair amount of imported trees –I would say primarily Japanese Black Pines (Kuro-matsu) and Azaleas– that you see in shows. However, the majority are native or popularized stock that are traditionally found in nurseries and Yamadori.

Do you agree if we say the bonsai trend in the US is very strong oriented to Japan?
As I stated before, the American Bonsai experience is rooted in the classical Japanese Bonsai tradition, as introduced by Issei and Nisei over 60 years ago. For many Americans, the Japanese School of Bonsai has been the only one. In my personal experience, most clubs in California follow Japanese traditions and aesthetics in the creation, showing and appreciation of Bonsai. However, with the advent of the internet, more information regarding other Bonsai styles, trends and practices from all over the world of Bonsai is available instantaneously. I know that, at a personal level, this has had a profound impact on my understanding and appreciation of Bonsai. The varying traditions and styling concepts from all over the world complement and expand our knowledge.

:: EVERGREEN BONSAI AWARD for Finest Evergreen Bonsai San Jose Juniper (Juniper Chinensis ‘San Jose’) Heigh : 29 inches. Container: Chinese. Owner: ANTHONY J ALARIO (Rhode Island) ::

for Finest Evergreen Bonsai
San Jose Juniper (Juniper Chinensis ‘San Jose’)
Heigh : 29 inches. Container: Chinese.
Owner: ANTHONY J ALARIO (Rhode Island) ::

USA is one of the biggest targets for Japan and Taiwan for export bonsai …. whether your native species such as Coast Redwood, Juniper San Jose, Juniper Rocky Mountain, Juniper California and Juniper Sierra still less attractive? Not cultivated? Besides that I have mentioned, you have any native species?
I would say that the majority of trees I’m seeing in collections and shows are trees that are grown or collected in this country. In the shows I see annually, primarily in Northern California, Junipers, pines and maples dominate. However, there still is a good variety of trees in most shows. One local club in the Bay Area next year will be promoting an “All American” show, with no imported trees allowed. The purpose is to encourage quality trees of native stock.

Does Tanuki are also a lot of fans? Please tell us a little bit about this Tanuki in US?
I have seen a few Tanuki in shows, and I’m sure I’ve seen some that I didn’t know were Tanuki! There are a lot of opportunities for finding deadwood for Tanuki in the deserts and scrub lands where juniper is prevalent, as well as the ones we create (unfortunately) when our collected tree doesn’t make it! A friend of mine who is a Sensei of a local club had a Tanuki in his club’s show that was very well made. It took me a little bit to recognize that it was, indeed, a Tanuki. When I complimented him on his work, revealing that I knew it was a Tanuki, he looked a little sheepish, and then smiled. Some people create more of an illusion than others, but, in the end, we are all just creating illusions in Bonsai.

:: ABS NOTRH AMERICAN AWARD for Finest North American Native species Bonsai Coast Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens) Heigh: 38 inches. Continer: Chinese. Owner: ROBERT SIMON (California) ::

for Finest North American Native species Bonsai
Coast Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens)
Heigh: 38 inches. Continer: Chinese.
Owner: ROBERT SIMON (California) ::

Please tell us about who you are? What city you live in now? Since when did you get involved in bonsai? What your profession before retiring from? What is your philosophy in making bonsai? You prefer classical bonsai art, natural, modern or etc …
My first contact with Bonsai was when I was three, when I met a man from Japan who lived down the street from me who would eventually become a Sensei – my Sensei – Johnny Uchida. I received a Bonsai Kit for Christmas when I was 9, and I took my first Bonsai Class, from Johnny, when I was 19. I have been kicking around the world of bonsai for over 30 years since that class, taking more classes, seeing many Bonsai shows, developing trees, losing trees, and, when I’m lucky, creating art with my trees. I consider myself a student, and I always will.

I live in Fremont, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I currently work in local government. As I get closer to retirement, I have begun to teach Bonsai myself, and I am looking forward to continuing teaching as a new career. Teaching has made me a much better artist, because it keeps me engaged and keeps me on my toes!

I personally believe that Bonsai is 90% art, and, as such, it evolves. I am seeing incredible work from all over the world, and it is impossible for me to pick a “style” that I like best. I am moved by individual trees. They either “speak to me” or they don’t. I will often buy a tree, not truly knowing why. It may sit in my yard for 5, 10 15 years, and then its beauty unfolds to me, not because the tree changed, but because I finally let it speak to me, its true essence understood, and then I can get to work.

In both creating and viewing Bonsai, I am looking for the essence of the tree, a balance of what is seen and what is not. Like any form of art, what a particular Bonsai tree says to you is very dependent on what you bring to the experience. Whether it is your first or thirtieth Bonsai show, you will bring your life experiences with you, along with your preconceptions, and your subjective point of view. No matter what they are, they will all be correct, because this is your experience. In the end, what is more important is what you take away. We all “like what we like”, and no one has the right to tell you that your taste is not correct. However, if we can lift the veil of our preconceptions for just a few moments as we view a work of art –a Bonsai– then the art itself, unfiltered and unfettered, can be expressed, and we can see the essence of the objet d’ art.

:: Vern Smith with yamadori Juniperus ::

:: Vern Smith with yamadori Juniperus ::

Central to my approach to bonsai is the concept of Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi derives from a Buddhist concept, relating to the transient nature of all things – the acceptance of impermanence. Leonard Koren, in his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, defines Wabi Sabi as an artistic and philosophical aesthetic where beauty is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

Bonsai, by its very nature, fits the concept of something that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. As such, when we see and create Bonsai through the concept of Wabi Sabi, we understand its transient nature, its ongoing change that is never complete, and, perhaps most importantly, the seeming imperfection or “flaws” in a tree.

Personally, I see the “imperfection”, whether inherent or created, as perfection itself. As Bonsai artists, we are both the creative agent and the cognitive recipient. To me, that is the key to Wabi Sabi as it relates to Bonsai (and, for that matter, life) in general –the imperfection is the dynamic counter-balance point upon which the entire tree pivots upon as a work of art. A particular jin, a seemingly asymmetric imbalance of the placement of a branch, a knotty burl– they all can work as a critical focal point that frames and defines Wabi Sabi in the context of that particular Bonsai itself.

Bonsai is unique in that the art is always evolving, that both the canvas and the paint are fluid. The tree we see before us in the moment is not the tree it was yesterday nor the tree it will be tomorrow. We learn –by truly seeing – the essence of the Bonsai, in that very moment. And we recognize that we will never see that very same tree again. :::: iwan@bursabonsai.com



  1. James says:

    I has been recommended this article by my own cousin. You are usually wonderful Vern! Thank you!

  2. Dean Sanders says:

    Great! I am gonna use your articles to make my bonsai look natural and better.

  3. Jubah Hitam says:

    I think Tanuki are fake!

    • Vern Smith says:

      I have never created a Tanuki, and I look at them as something you would do for fun, not necessarily for shows.

  4. Bonsai Line says:

    Tanuki is like a dandy girl who coy. Lol … As long as you know, Vern you are really the master!

  5. Count Martin says:

    Wonderful story, wonderful interview, wonderful person. Thanks you master Vern Smith.

    • Vern Smith says:

      Thank you so much for your very kind words…I am enjoying learning a little more every day!

  6. Cak Nonot says:

    I just want to mention I’m newbie to bonsai and truly like your articles, your ideas and philosophies. Thank for sharing Vern

  7. Tengku Hanif says:

    Great write-up, I am a big believer in placing comments on sites to inform the web writers know that they have added some thing advantageous to the world wide bonsai! thx

    • Vern Smith says:

      Thank you…the internet has become such a valuable resource for Bonsai artists all over the world. I have learned a great deal!

  8. 男 バッグ says:

    I am amazed at your understanding of Wabi Sabi.

    • Vern Smith says:

      Thank you…when I learned the concept of Wabi Sabi, it really helped me to find balance in my Bonsai, as well as my personal life.

  9. Donna E says:

    I have found your concept of Wabi Sabi instrumental in the development of a tree. Once you have identified this key feature, everything falls into place. Thank you for this insight.

    • Vern Smith says:

      I’m happy this concept is helpful. It may take time for the tree to “speak” to you, but the moment it does, it is inspirational!

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