Interview with John Callaway

John Callaway Bonsai ArtistWelcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

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John Callaway is a past president of the Greater Louisville Bonsai Society and a current member of the Bonsai Society of Greater Cincinnati. He’s been practicing bonsai since 2002, and studied with Boon Manakitivipart and joined the Cincinnati Advanced Study Group mentored by Ted Matson.

Here is my phone call with John Callaway:

BGP: Hey John this is Gary from The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

Yes, Gary how are you?

BGP: Pretty good, how are you doing?

Not to bad.

BGP: Thanks for coming onto the podcast with me.

Sure glad to do it.

BGP: You studied bonsai under Boon Manakitivipart. Is that how you say his last name?

Manakitivipart, yes.

BGP: Tell us about that experience, but first of all, for the audience, tell us who Boon is. I know who he is, of course, but some of the listeners might not know, so tell us a little about him.

Sure thing. Boon is a professional bonsai artist in the bay area of California. He’s been doing bonsai for many, many years. He studied under a couple of different teachers in Japan. He started a club, I think they’re coming up on their 15th year anniversary in the bay area where the emphasis is on quality trees and producing a really high quality show in January. One of the things that he offers is an intensive program and that’s three days of full twelve hours days of studying nothing but bonsai and the art of bonsai and producing high quality trees. So it’s 3 days, 3 times a year for 3 years if you wanted to complete the full session.

BGP: So, you went and took this course with him?

Yes I met Boon down at Brussel’s bonsai just outside of Memphis around 2004. He was there doing a demo for their annual rendezvous. So I talked with him about the intensive program and asked if that might be something that might be for me in progressing my trees and my hobby for bonsai and he said “Yes of course”. I asked him when and where I should start and he recommended the repotting sessions. And so I completely ignored that and started in summer. But I did end up going through the complete nine sessions and graduated in October 2009 and actually went back one final time after that as well. And after going through it I would highly recommend it, starting with the repotting session, would be the way to go.

BGP: What do you think you got most from going through that with Boon and learning from him?

I think it’s really figuring out how to keep trees healthy and also how to improve their styling. You can’t really work on unhealthy trees. Well, you can except that their going to continue to decline and you may have wasted some effort. So, really the emphasis is on healthy trees and then appropriate techniques for styling.

BGP: So the health of the tree comes before pruning and styling and wiring and all of that.


BGP: What good does it do to work on a bonsai if it’s going to die?


BGP: That being the case, what would you say is a common cause of killing a tree?

A lot of times, around in the Kentucky area at least, I see a lot of really poor soil. Bad soil, poorly draining soil, really creates a bad environment for the tree. Water doesn’t let enough oxygen or nutrients to really let the tree grow and thrive.

BGP: What kind of soil do you use? What is your mix?

I’ve been using akadama, lava and pumice for, pretty much, even since 2004.

BGP: After you went through his course you joined an advanced bonsai study group. What does an advanced bonsai study group cover that’s not covered elsewhere?

That was out of the Cincinnati club. They put together an advanced study group and that was just a way to continue working at that higher level without having to travel all across the United States. So we started off with Sochin as the teacher for that study group and he had to step down after about a year and then we finished out with Ted Matson. So that was just another way to continue to get a weekend or so in to continue working on high quality trees.

BGP: It sound like you’ve spent a good amount of time studying bonsai and being taught be experts. For the person who’s entering bonsai for the first time, how much studying and how much getting around experts, how much of that do they need to do to be able to just get started? Because I don’t want to give people the impression that bonsai is something that’s out of their reach.

For me personally, bonsai is a hobby that quickly became an obsession. You don’t have to make it a true obsession to be able to produce quality trees. For new people just starting out, I highly recommend finding and joining a local club. Local clubs are good to help you get into the community and get some advice from people that may have experienced things that you might find and trip over in your immediate future. Maybe they can give you advice on what soils work best for your area, what diseases and insects might be something to look out for. They can tell you perhaps what kind of species would be something easy to start with in your particular area. And a lot of clubs, typically, bring in at least one or two masters a year to really expose you to newer techniques.

BGP: You talked in your email about the Bonsai Study Group, do you own that website?

Bonsai Study Group dot com was started…a couple of us started that a number of years ago. I and a gentleman named Wayne Pickland run that. It’s out of South Carolina. We’ve been running that for the past couple of years.

BGP: So what are you trying to do with that website?

It’s kinda of a continuation of learning and growing a bonsai community and to keep it really focused on quality. We try to keep the bickering and the politics to a minimum there and really focus on learning and growing and sharing.

BGP: that’s cool. It’s a really nice website by the way. I really like it…. In this episode I wanted to get you to see if you would be willing to talk a little bit about wiring and I want to try to address the beginners and then also talk a little bit to the seasoned bonsai enthusiasts. So can you tell us what you feel are the fundamentals of bonsai wiring?

Sure, and this kind of ties into having worked with Boon. Umm, I’m not sure if he’s self proclaimed but at least a number of his students call him the wire nazi. Working with Boon in particular and really all the teachers that have come through the area, really focus on clean effective wiring. And that’s, I think, the primary thing to keep in mind. If you go clean and effective then the tree will benefit and you’ll continue to grow your skills well. What I mean by that is choosing the appropriate length of wire to using the appropriate diameter of wire, making sure that you’re anchored to a branch of similar size and that you can apply force and bend it without worrying about the bend coming out or the branch moving back into position.

BGP: What are some of the best lessons that you’ve learned about bonsai wiring?

I’d say working with complex branch structures and figuring out and putting together the puzzle pieces to put together wiring. So as you’re applying wire you want to work from the bottom of the tree to the top of the tree because as you apply the wire you’ll be moving the branches down and perhaps out of the way of the upper branches as you apply the wire those as well. So as you’re applying the wire, start with the bottom branches, the larger branches. Take the wire out if your going to continue on out to the tips of the branches you might want to switch gauges somewhere in the middle so you don’t want to apply heavy wire all the way out to the delicate tips of branches. Maybe you want to stop wiring about one and a half to two turns past a fork in the branch and that will serve as an anchor to apply smaller wire to continue out.

BGP: How do you minimize scarring?

Just kind of keep an eye on the branches so if they grow…and it’s really a matter of practice applying the wire with just enough pressure so that you see just a tiny bit of a gap and you’re consistent on your pitch and your angle of the wire. And then you don’t have to worry about maybe it’s cutting into one location vs not at another location. If you’re consistent on your pitch and your spacing then you should be able to see any problem areas in the future.

BGP: Tell us about your personal collection. What kind of trees do you have? How many do you have? What are your favorites?

I’m actually down to about 40 trees now and am trying to get down closer to 30 trees.

BGP: Why are you downsizing?

My wife and I had a baby boy and time is at a premium. The number of trees needs to get fewer so that I can manage what I have. I think that 30 is about where I need to be for the time that I have to devote to them. And it also helps me to focus on quality, maintaining and progressing the trees that I have. If you spread yourself to thin you really are doing yourself and your trees a disservice.

BGP: What are your favorite trees to work with?

I’ve always been fascinated by Black Pines. I have quite a number of…a large collection of Black Pines. I’ve got….I guess my second favorite would be Shimpaku Juniper. I have a lot of Shimpakus as well. And then some Japanese Maples and Tridents.

BGP: Where do you mainly get your material for bonsai?

I try to stick to dedicated bonsai nurseries. Although sometimes some of the regular landscape nurseries around here will carry some Japanese Maples but usually they’ve been grafted rather high.

BGP: So they have a big knot in them?

Yes, and I’ve found that if you start off with the best material you can find, then you’re going to have a leg up on producing better quality bonsai. So any dedicated bonsai nursery, I’m going to support them and they’ll help me find some quality materials.

BGP: What advice would you give to bonsai artists who are just getting started?

I would say, what seemed to work for me at least, was finding one or two species that you really enjoy and try to learn as much as you can about those. If you’re the type of person that can focus just on a species or two. I found that by focusing on black pine for the first several years that I was involved in Bonsai, I was really able to learn all about the species and learn how to apply some of the same techniques to other trees. Understanding the Black Pines are really strong and have a secondary growth characteristic, keeping that in mind, perhaps with the Japanese Maples isn’t quite as strong but I can maybe transition those same techniques to differing species.

BGP: This has been really interesting but that’s all we have time for today, but I really want to thank you for coming on to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

Glad to do it.

BGP: And I really appreciate it.

All right, thank you.

BGP: Talk to you later, bye.