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BRAT Artisan Competition Initiative by Lesley Haw

Stefann Pretorius needs no introduction in the South African Bonsai community. Recently appointed as Vice President of BRAT, Stefann initiated the Artisans Competition for senior bonsai artist to compete. Traditionally there has been one competition, the New Talent Competition, which is for new members who have less than 10 years’ experience with bonsai. This left a huge gap for those artists who had surpassed the 10 years, having honed, and strengthened their skills and techniques. “Many who admired the new talent guys in the competition commented how if only they could do again, wouldn’t it be good” said Stefann. “Now we are taking it to the next level, giving the artists a clean canvas. They can do whatever they want to, with whatever species” This free reign showcases the skills and techniques all these artists have acquired and perfected. By having a blank canvas, the audience, or viewers, are treated to an array of styles, species, compositions as well as interpretations.

The first Competition saw four of the affiliated BRAT Club have representatives. Suikerbos Bonsai Kai represented by Richard Wright and Hannes Fritz, Midway Bonsai Kai represented Jonathan Cain, Eastern Bonsai Kai represented by Fred Oudmayer and Lynne Reynolds and finally Brandon Rode and Johan Els represented Pretoria Bonsai Kai. Hennie Reynecke of Midway was unable to attend due to illness.

The competition is based on a “working” competition, each representative is working with raw material to achieve within in the 3-hour time span a finished presentable bonsai. The participants provide their own material and are also required to pot the final composition. Brandon and Johan, however, did state that due to time constraints on their side, their material had only been received that morning. It was these two participants who, in my opinion, demonstrated the spirit of the artisans. They not only showed talent working with the raw material, but skill when the final product was presented.

I was completely impressed with Brandon’s final presentation, as truthfully his raw material when he started was nothing, if not ugly. What was presented was nothing short of magnificent. His tree for me, a bonsai that is serene, calm, dignified and majestic. All of that from material that had two long gangly branches.

What made this extra special is all the attending club members participated in the judging of the trees. Their vote counting 50% of the final score. The format for judging was the Judge’s score was tallied and then ranked. The public vote / club members vote was tallied and ranked and then the 2 ranks were added together and then ranked to determine the final ranking.

As there are not restrictions as to what an artisans can do in the 3 hours, this freedom gives an insight into just how far the artisans not only can push their techniques but show their aptitude and engineering of the styles and compositions. This is also evident in the choice of species used by the artisans, and how they can get the best characters of the species to show.

Jonathan Cain presented and extraordinary rock composition, together with portulacaria afra. A composition he and Denise told me they had seen when traveling. The technique Jonathan applied to “cement” the rocks is one I haven’t seen a lot of. Jonathan went out, dug, and gathered a heap of ant hill sand, put it with water in a bucket and used this as his cement to hold his rocks. This cement dried rock hard, organic, economical, and readily available.

All the artisans demonstrated mastery of a range of techniques, as Richard Wright manipulated muck to finesse his striking Penjing forest. To say this was a large slab would be shy, it was an extra-large slab, made of pristine white marble. The contrast with the Elms, moss and stone was remarkable.

Ultimately there must be a winner and the winner voted is, Richard Wright, and second, shared by Hannes Fritz and Jonathan Cain.

It was a remarkable achievement by Stefann to create a platform for such full-fledged bonsai artists to not only demonstrate their capabilities, but I believe inspire a bunch of other members to try new techniques and to work to a level of expertise. To be able to create such a platform on a national level would be a spectacular exhibition of the wealth of South African talent.

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