The First National Bonsai Exhibition – A Cinderella Story?

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

This last weekend, America experienced its first National Bonsai Exhibit in Rochester, New York. Few would disagree that this event was historic and that it certainly was the first step of many needed to raise the level of bonsai in this country to a level comparable to that of other countries. It was a needed step to raise the perception of American Bonsai, not only in the eyes of other countries, but also in the eyes of many Americans themselves. Fewer still would disagree that, like all roses, it had a few thorns that will serve to remind us that even the sweetest fragrance is not without flaw and that there is always room for improvement.

Thorns aside, the story of American Bonsai and the long awaited exhibition is one of rags to riches, of underdogs, of paupers, princes, hand servants, and of a few people daring to dream. In my opinion, it is a Cinderella story, in fact, the First National Exhibition is filled with Cinderella stories, just a few of which I will mention here.

American bonsai has long been considered the redheaded stepchild of world bonsai. Often ridiculed, chastised, and belittled by wicked stepsisters, it was never given the credit it deserved. Dressed in rags, it seemed impossible that American bonsai could ever climb out of the bucket of hobbyists and take a serious place on the world bonsai scene. Strangely, sometimes its own artists were its worst enemies, often catering to those looking overseas instead of at home for inspiration and fertilizing the excuses of distance, logistics and finance often put forth in debate against a successful national exhibit. The few real artists here found it difficult to support themselves, often lowering their own standards in order to meet the expectations imposed upon them by clubs and shows that demanded Japanese or European bonsai and artists.

There were no national quality shows as there were in Europe and Asia, just a few regional shows, good in quality, but limited in scope. There was lots of talk, many excuses, and generally a whole lot of doing nothing. We wore the rags, pretended everything was okay, and continued saying that our efforts were just as good as any other efforts in the world, even though the few in the know said differently and even when such contests such as the North American vs Europe Photo Contest here at AoB plainly showed otherwise.

Then one day the bonsai fairy godmother, in the form of William Valavanis (sorry Bill), paid American bonsai a visit, he brought the skill, the drive, the contacts, and the magic needed to make such a historic event happen.

Turning his staff into horsemen, a moving van into a magic carriage, and using the internet as a wand, he dressed American bonsai in the finest clothing, draped it with the jewels of display, brushed it with promotion, and brought it all together in a place the size of a castle glowing with its own historical background. By accident or design, American bonsai was brought back to health, energized, and renewed in no less a location than a hospital!

This is the stuff fairy tales are made of.

  

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

Against all odds, contrary to what many said, in spite of what many claimed to be impossible, with a dream, some organization, and a dash of magic, Cinderella went to the ball.

What many said could not be done, would never work, could not draw trees from the far reaches of this huge country, was done, did work, and did draw. Valavanis and his team hosted the ball and Cinderella arrived in all her glory, American bonsai danced throughout the weekend, captivating all who watched, charming all who came from America as well as from many countries around the world. Beauty, grace, and magic all combined to make the impossible possible.

The weekend ended, the clock struck midnight, Cinderella left, but she left changed, leaving behind a glass slipper of hope in all our hearts, hope that the next national Exhibit on Father’s Day weekend in 2010 brings even more inspiration, motivation, and satisfaction for all of us.

And yet, the cynics are already talking of too many trees in too small of an area, of gurneys and stretchers, of poor lighting, and of knowing a friend of a friend of an uncle, twice removed, that has better trees than were exhibited, but the magic of the weekend cannot be dismissed. There are huge debates raging about award winners, judges, conspiracies, the wicked stepsisters can not believe Cinderella’s foot fits the glass slipper and are demanding that it be tried again.

Sometimes bonsai people complain of the thorns so much that they cannot remember the color of the rose. For those who may have missed it, the color of this rose was success.

From rags to riches, America’s Cinderella is the National Bonsai Exhibit, we have danced at the ball of world bonsai, maybe our steps were a bit off, maybe our gown was a bit dated, but we danced, America has arrived.

Hidden inside this amazing Cinderella story is another story, no less fascinating, no less amazing, no less magical…

  

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

Imagine a man, active on a couple Internet forums; a quite, unassuming man who posts his trees regularly and often receives less than favorable critique by his peers. Envision a nice person, not taken to posting negative comments and not one to get involved in heated debates or attacks, instead ignoring them, taking no sides. A Cinderella taking the slights and innuendos of the wicked stepsisters graciously, never letting such deter him, but instead just enjoying bonsai and posting his trees in open forums and entering them in contests.

You are imagining a man named Mike Page.

Mike page entered the Art of Bonsai Awards this year. There was nothing special about this year, Mike has always entered AoB contests and in fact, he often submits more entries in our contests than any other single person. Low score, high score, win, lose, draw, he never changes, we can count on Mike to be one of the first people entering any of our contests, and we can count on him entering a lot.

Mike was in for a surprise, this year the bonsai fairy godmother decided to visit AoB in the form of a sponsor. One of Mike’s trees was selected as the winner of the National Bonsai Exhibit Sponsor Award featured in our contest. Almost instantly, the stepsisters (myself included) started complaining that Cinderella was not worthy, others were prettier, more deserving, that the bonsai fairy godmother had finally went blind as a bat in a tanning bed. It was demanded that the glass pot be tried on again, it just could not fit that Black Pines foot. Certainly, this was a lark, a mistake soon to be corrected, right? RIGHT?

Ah, the magic of it all… As the prize, Mike’s Black Pine was exhibited at the First National Bonsai Exhibit; an honor only received by a select few.

Cinderella went to the ball.

She danced in a corner, hid between other dancers, tucked in the middle of the maze that made up the display isles. At the ball with many of the very best trees from America, some were sure she was out of place, they claimed her rags were showing and that she was beneath the real bonsai displayed. However, while the princes were passing by, they were stopped in their tracks when they caught a glimpse of her. They pulled her out; they danced, they fell in love while the stepsisters whispered their disgust.

Cinderella not only danced at the ball, she won the love of the princes!

One of many entries of the Art of Bonsai Awards was selected as the winner of the National Bonsai Exhibit’s Sponsor Award, winning the honor to be displayed at the historical First National Bonsai Exhibit, and then surprised us all by winning there as well!

Ah, the underdog story, the rags to riches story, stuff of fairy tales, stories for children because we, as adults, know better.

There are other such stories intertwined in this historic exhibit, indeed, AoB itself found itself dancing at the ball, after years of the stepsisters saying how unworthy we were, but that’s another story, the point here has been made, the National Exhibit was not only historical, it was magical.

Against all odds, in spite of the wicked stepsisters, the First National Bonsai Exhibit has happened, Cinderella danced at the ball. The next exhibit will not be so difficult, the path has been blazed, and William Valavanis will be remembered as the man who pulled it all together.

He did it!

America is no longer without a National Exhibit, that milestone has been reached, now we can improve upon, build upon, and lean on the foundation that was built this year by Valavanis and his team, by all those who exhibited their bonsai, by the sponsors, donors, patrons, judges, artists, and all those who came to be part of it. We should all be proud and we should all be honored, after all, when is the next time we will have a chance to be part of the First National Bonsai exhibit here in America? Especially with stories such as these, stories deserving to be told to our grandchildren and to theirs…

Magical indeed.

  

The Awards Banquet

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Exhibition Judges Peter Warren, Pedro Morales, and Seiji Morimae
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey

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Chase Rosade, Dan Robinson, Solita Rosade, and friends
Photograph by Will Heath

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Warren Hill and friends
Photograph by Will Heath

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Pedro Morales and friends
Photograph by Will Heath

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Mike Pollock, Colin Lewis, Marty Schmalenberg, and friends
Photograph by Will Heath

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James Daly, Guy Guidry, Candy Shirey, Will Heath, Paul Stokes, Rob Kempinski, Kim Mazzatto, and friends
Photograph by Chris Guidry

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Guy Guidry, Candy Shirey
Photograph by Will Heath

The Exhibit

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

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Photograph by Paul Stokes

For an official report on this historic event and more pictures, see Bill Valavanis’s post at http://internetbonsaiclub.org/index.php … ic=24246.0
Addition photographs can be seen on Candy Shirey’s flickr page at
http://www.knowledgeofbonsai.org/rob_kempinski/http://www.flickr.com/photos/candyjshirey Rob Kempinski has some great photographs and a well written review on his blog at http://robert-kempinski.ofbonsai.org/

All photographs were taken by AoB editors, who were granted exclusive permission to photograph in all areas of the exhibit, including the exhibit room. Individual pictures of the trees are withheld, pending publication in the exhibit book, in order to help fund this years exhibit.

First published 10/14/08
Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved.

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About Will Heath

Will Heath is a bonsai author, critic, literati, and humorist intent on dragging bonsai into the realm of fine art.
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