Two years ago at Kokufu-ten in Tokyo, I met Vaclav Novák who gave me a collection of Czech bonsai magazines. One article really impressed me. It was about a large yew styled by Marc Nöelanders. I didn’t know anything about him, but his face and the tree he styled stuck in my head. A couple of months ago, I saw the same face in 'The Tops' Weekend brochure and booked myself in. At the workshop, I learned that Marc is a bonsai artist from Belgium, who practiced bonsai for 30 years. He had many prominent mentors who include John Naka, Saburo Kato and Masahiko Kimura among others. Marc said that he learned from many, but developed his own way of doing bonsai. He is one of the founders of Bonsai Association Belgium and the initiator of Noelanders Trophy, which is an important annual event in Europe.
On the day I attended 'The Tops' Weekend, Marc Nöelanders conducted two workshops and one demonstration. To me, he came across as professional, honest and talented. He explained his design for each tree and the reasons for choosing a particular design. He gave clear instructions to the workshop participants on what to do during the workshop time. He spent adequate time with each workshop participant. Most image panels in this post show the trees from the workshops. Left image in each panel shows the tree at the beginning of the workshop, centre image shows the tree design suggested by Marc and the right image of the panel shows the tree at the end of the workshop.
While talking about the trees, Marc emphasized the importance of sketching the final design of a bonsai tree. He said that determining the front of the tree and the angle of trunk inclination is 60% of bonsai design. Identifying the main branch and determining appropriate position of the apex in relation to it, is quite important too (apex should incline towards the main branch). He drew designs for each tree in the workshop. His drawings are good considering how little time he takes to do them (see images in this post). He mentioned that he runs bonsai drawing workshops where the speed of drawing is given importance. He even gave useful tips about conducting workshops and demonstrations. One of them was: work fast and talk less at the beginning of the demonstration, once the scope of work is gauged, demonstrator can talk more.
As the workshops went on, Marc talked about his time as a journeyman in Omiya. At the beginning he was asked to do only weeding and watering. After that he was allowed to remove wire. Then he graduated to wiring inexpensive trees. Only later, he was trusted with wiring and styling more important trees. Marc said that wiring occupies 60-70% of the time spent on bonsai. It is not unusual to spend one or two days wiring one tree. He also mentioned that, apprentices in Japan get little feedback from the master and learn a lot from more experienced apprentices.
Marc also talked at length about bonsai in Europe. He told that at first, when bonsai gained popularity, England was ahead of other countries. Then the focus shifted to Germany. After that, there was a prolonged period when Italy was the place of bonsai excellence. Though overtime, bonsai in Italy had become too competitive, political and commercial, with some Italian bonsai artists acting like celebrities. At present however, Spain holds the top spot in European bonsai. Apparently, Spanish conifers collected from the mountains feature old bark, beautiful dead wood and short needles.
Right now, the standard of bonsai in Europe is quite high and in another ten years Europe might supersede Japan. However, one must also consider China, where bonsai is driven rapidly by the new wealth. At present, there are estimated 30,000 to 40,000 bonsai enthusiasts in Europe. This makes Europe a good market for bonsai and some entrepreneurs seize the opportunity. One such business is the trade in yamadori. In most cases, the trees are collected illegally and a significant proportion of them die. In Italy, people put name tags on trees still growing in the mountains to claim them. The trees are sold from photographs before they are dug out. In Switzerland, larger trees are lifted from remote areas by helicopter. A yamadori can cost €2,000-3,000, however it can go up to €15,000.
Yamadori trade also allows a bonsai artist to ‘cheat’ by swapping multiple freshly dug up yamadori for a bonsai that’s been worked on for many years. Minor changes can make such tree a prize winning bonsai. Thus, fame and prestige are achieved without the long years of work. On the other hand, some wealthy novices buy expensive yamadori just to kill them due to incompetence in bonsai basics. Marc pointed out that beginners should practice on nursery trees, which are more challenging and less likely to die. Once you have good basic skills, styling a good quality yamadori is relatively easy.
Marc talked about Bonsai prices in Europe and North America as well. For a modest bonsai you are expected to pay €2,000-3,000, but really good trees start from € 5,000 and go all the way to €75,000. Prices between €15,000 and €35,000 are not unusual.
The day ended with a demonstration by Marc Nöelanders. To me, it was the most impressive part of the day. The tree was a Juniperus procumbens grown in the ground and in the pot for less than 10 years. The duration of the demonstration was a little over 3 hours. In this time, Marc removed 60% of the branches, created jins and shari, wired the whole tree and styled it. He worked very fast. Below are the images showing the progress of the demonstration.
1 – The tree in its initial state;
2 – Some of the longest branches removed;
3 – The front of the tree and the angle of trunk inclination are identified;
4 – A rough sketch of possible design options;
5 – More unnecessary branches removed;
6 – Jins and dead wood created;
7 – Lower branches are wired and positioned;
8 – The tree is wired and styled at the end of demonstration.Marc said that this tree should undergo further refinement in a training pot for another 2-3 years before it is ready for an exhibition. After the demonstration, the tree was put up for an auction. In its initial state it was valued at AU$600, however after it has been styled by Marc it was sold at the auction for AU$3500. Marc Nöelanders added three-thousand-dollar-value to this tree in about three hours – pretty impressive!