Jun Llaga from the Philippines is the headliner for the national convention of the South African Bonsai Association in 2017. The convention takes place from 16 to 19 September 2017 in Port Elizabeth. Willem Pretorius interviewed Mr. Llaga to find out more about his passion for bonsai
It’s great to have you as a demonstrator at our national convention this year. Will this be your first visit to Africa?
Yes. I am proud and happy that my first visit in Africa would be as a bonsai demonstrator.
2) You seem to have bridged the cultural divide in bonsai between different countries and your work is appreciated in different parts. What do you think about the different approaches to bonsai and is there one you prefer?
I am grateful that my works are recognized by bonsai enthusiasts from different nationalities. That signals the connectivity between cultures. I would say that aggressive bonsai clubs, activities, shows, and social media are the instruments in the resurgence of bonsai interests worldwide. I regard this era as the period of renaissance for bonsai. Many bonsai styles, philosophies, approaches, methods, and patterns are out in the market and thus, increasing awareness and recognition. However, I consider the surge as a result of bonsai diversity – the exposure to traditional, naturalist approaches, the cultural influences, the environmental effects and the artistic capacity of bonsai artists. That and all is called Bonsai Diversity.
The approaches to bonsai creation are diverse depending on PACE.
• Preferences. There is a design preference in bonsai, the traditionalist, and naturalist or something in between.
• Artistic Capacity. Bonsai should be evocative and poetic just like any other art form. It should have rhythm and flow. It should not be rigid and not linear.
• Environment. Understand the composition of the tree in the region. Study the natural conditions of the region.
I follow PACE when I make my bonsai. And then, I inject my own personal mantra which is to recreate uniqueness while applying the naturalistic approach, mixing with cultural and personal influences.
I design bonsai based on the combination of all of these types, leaning towards the natural composition, combined with movements. I regard my work as an art form with rhythm and flow. All elements are non-linear and do not follow one rigid design. I opt for a flexible, innovative look, crafted according to the style of available material.
3) Looking at the trees and innovative displays in your country, what is the main features that makes it different from other parts of the world?
The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,000 islands and sandwiched by the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea. It is a country frequently experiencing intense tropical depressions and typhoons. Ironically, it is also known for its white beaches and long coastal areas. Its mountain ranges are diverse and deep. These unique landscape features create the most vivid and inspiring scenery where I get motivation for my creations.
The trees, found in the rocky cliff formations along the coastline, with its deformed and rugged features, stunted by a continuous barrage of winds and seasonal typhoons, are perfect to be depicted in the bonsai work. It leaves a mental imprint which I want to share. It inspires me to visually recreate the scene on a smaller scale. It moves me to gather my wire, trim my material, get my best pot and put myself to work.
4) How would you describe your bonsai philosophy?
No two trees are the same. And therefore, I would rather have ten bonsai each with unique character, than to have a thousand bonsai that look the same.
5) What is your favorite bonsai quote?
“The object is to not to make the tree to look like bonsai, but to make bonsai to look like a tree.” – John Naka
6) Do you have any specific species and style that you prefer?
I do a workshops on different species, but I am always challenged to recreate a new fluid naturalistic form for every Casuarina E. and Phempis acidula.
7) What would your advice be to a beginner in bonsai?
Do not be overwhelmed with the output but be overwhelmed with the process. Learn the basics, and free your mind.
8) What was your biggest mistake when you started in bonsai?
I made several mistakes in bonsai, which all led to new learnings. But I would say that buying expensive yamadori was my biggest one.
9) Have you had any serious injuries from bonsai such as a scissors elbow or something?
The Filipinos are used to working without an apron, without gloves, and with fewer tools. And luckily, even without those, I did not have any except for tolerable cuts.
10) What gave you the most pleasure in your bonsai career so far?
At first I thought that having a bonsai gallery would please me. But it is, indeed the teaching that gives me the most satisfaction. Alongside the teaching, is the perk of traveling, the opportunity to exchange views with new friends, and the indescribable bonsai experiences.
11) What other interests do you have and how do you fit them with bonsai?
I prefer outdoor activities and adventures, wherein I get most of my bonsai inspirations. But painting is one hobby which brings similar appreciation as bonsai. I found happiness in recreating something on canvas – just like when I recreate a tree and put it in a pot. I have a fascination for architectural designs; I do sketches, I create and customize the architectural design. I translate them. The execution of what I drew into a concrete structure gives me a sense of fulfillment – just like when I sketch a bonsai and turn it into one.
12) Is there one bonsai artist that you follow and will recommend to others?
There are many bonsai icons and idols. But Robert Steven, is a great mentor, a selfless one, as far as bonsai is concerned. He is the Renaissance Man of the bonsai community.
13) Can you see from a bonsai tree if the artist is an introvert or an extrovert?
A bonsai subtly represents the personality of the artist. In general, personality can be seen, not only whether a person is introvert or an extrovert, regardless of influence or design.
14) Are you planning on traveling in South Africa after the convention or is it straight home?
The invitation to be a demonstrator in South Africa is extremely exciting. The visual experiences would be an addition to my inspiration and design. Thus, I am looking forward to travel more after the convention, if and when time permits.
15) Tell us something more about your personal life. Where did you grow up, what made you interested in bonsai, how big is your collection, etc.
I am an unconventional person who do not conform to the norm, in terms of design and art. Not a superb academic person but a highly-creative one. Pursued art and architecture, where sketches, ideas, and designs can be translated into reality. Designed houses and built houses, with the notion that every design idea should always start with a mental sketch coupled with a visual foresight.
Bonsai came to the picture as a way of destressing, a challenge to creativity and a fulfillment of passion. Started with a visit to garden shows, exhibits and attended bonsai demo. Followed by heavy infusion of personal visual experiences, love for outdoor, and application of architectural skills. I immersed myself in the bonsai world, truly.
16. Are you married, children? And if you are – are they interested in bonsai?
Yes. I am married, with three children. They all seem to be interested in bonsai, my wife loves to have a bonsai in her office, and my children are always looking for new bonsai in the house. They particularly like landscape penjing. They are my critics. They would comment on my work, go around it at times and would randomly suggest on how it would look natural.
17. I would like to know more about the history of bonsai in your country. How long ago did it start and is the history well recorded?
Bonsai in the Philippines started at around 1970. In so far as history is concerned, there is no written or recorded history. However, when one would look carefully at the manuscripts about the Philippines, one would encounter a description of small potted plants that resembles the Ling-nan style of bonsai. It would usually appear when the Spanish Friars would describe the activities and livelihood of the Chinese immigrants.
In another setting, I would say that in the early 1970’s, bonsai was only known to the upper-income segment of the society. Bonsai would be featured as priceless collections of those who can afford it. Some would only get a glimpse of bonsai during exhibits and shows. However, throughout the years, because of the aggressive invitations and involvement of local organizations, it gained popularity in all the market segment – upper, middle and low. Currently, Filipinos are enjoying bonsai as a hobby, as a collection, as a passion and as a way of life.