Autumn Bonsai Festival 3 - George, South Africa


For several years now,  the Autumn Bonsai Festival in George has been on my bucket list.  Every year, at the last minute, something comes up and I have to cancel.  I was determined to go this year.  I studied the weather, bought new winter warmies, ordered my whisky well in advance and set off to drive through the Transkei, visiting some bonsai friends (new, newer and old) along the way.  I checked in a day early, so I could visit En’s (that’s what my holidays consist of) and this one was no different. I am sure there were many more, but I did not factor in the hospitality of all the people I visited, so only managed three in George.


The afternoon of the opening was chilly (for me), but I bravely joined the registration queue. With lots of hearty laughter and long-time-no-sees, it was not difficult to find the venue and the excited buzz was palpable.  A lot of old friends were gathered and the joviality of bonsai spirit filled the beautiful hall.


The trees on display stopped me in my tracks and what I saw, can only be described with an ”oh wow”! The trees in George are magnificent and in a class of their own.  I must admit that from here on, it is very difficult to be objective, and it is my personal opinion that Tobie Kleynhans’ trees cannot be compared.  Although I had the privilege to have a personal tour the day before of his (immaculate)  garden, it was breath taking to see his and some of the club members' trees in a formal display. In fact, all the trees were just exquisite. As I walked past each tree for the first time that weekend, I wish I had time to hear every tree’s story! There was a majestic air about the trees, beautifully displayed and to be quietly enjoyed! Mouthful? I know!


There was an awesome line-up of local talent and I could not wait to get started.  At 09h00 exactly, Tobie welcomed all and the festival was off.  


First off was Viky Petermann, talking about pot selection for difficult or unique trees. We all have at least one of those trees that won't go or fit into any pot you have ever seen.  Viky's talk encouraged us to let our imagination go and try something different.  Her high quality powerpoint show included images of the most outrageous and stunning combinations I have seen in a long time.  


From Kimura who used "pots" that defy gravity to Furukawa's non-traditional and unconventional pots.  Some pots were just plain crazy, like Lenz's alien-egg pot to David Crest who planted a bonsai in/on/around a vacuum cleaner.  Most notably was Harry Harrington's planting in Victor Harris (Erin Pottery)'s pots.  If you want to be this daring, your combination has to "work", in that the tree and the pot should either compliment each other or make a serious statement.  Viky's talk made that statement. I wanted to leave straight away to go home and make an outlandish but stylish pot.  The only thing that kept me there, was  that Tobie's talk was next.


From vibrant to quiet and unassuming! It was not the first Tobie-demo I have seen and every time I am amazed at the man's talent.  Tobie started his demo by drawing several design options of an unstyled Olea.  


From his designs, he asked the audience to choose one by democratic vote. We voted and voted until Tobie's favourite design won!


 My excuse has always been that I am not able to draw.  After watching the demo, I don't think that the process lies in the drawing, but more in the planning and visualisation.  What is key, is the planning. No good bonsai comes from jumping in head first.  The final proof is in the pudding!


Closing up Day 1, was Willem Pretorius, SABA President, on "When is Bonsai Art?", taking us through the subtleties of placement, harmony and making statements with your bonsai.  He talked about synchrony of pot and tree. He then asked a very important question: what is an ugly bonsai? and this created another whole debate. Can a bonsai be ugly and to whom?


We all then set off to Tobie and Sandy's beautiful home and garden for dop & tjop and chin-wag catch-up. (One thing:  You have not lived until you have taken a stroll - with your hands behind your back - through Tobie's En)


The debate on "ugly Bonsai" continued around various fires (I think the numerous fires were deliberate so as to keep the factions apart:-).


In what felt like minus degrees much later that night, we all left for our warm beds and to recuperate for the longer session the next day. (I believe the "younger" faction kept Tobie up till way past his bed time!)


The line up the next day got started with Phil Levitt reminiscing on the lessons learnt during ABC4 in Stellenbosch in 2016.  He recapped quickly on the three demonstrators from England, America and Europe, and what he learnt from each.  The most value one gets from conventions, is the lessons

 we learn and the knowledge we take away.  Phil encouraged us to listen to (international) demonstrators and to talk to them.  It should not stop there, we should try out what we learned and not forget to share and pass on our knowledge.  Above all: we must acquire quality material. One should also strive to be unique in ones ideas and designs.


I was very honoured to be asked to contribute something to the convention and I thought it would be a good idea to talk about Bonsaichology.  Bonsaichology (Free Tree Therapy) is something we all know and do but don't often consciously think about. Sometimes we must look past the style and pot and harmony and our own prejudices and look for the meaning behind the tree for the owner of that tree. Maybe there is a very special meaning behind the tree. Maybe a child bought it from Woolworths for Gran's birthday and that tree started Gran off on bonsai. It is important to realise that not every tree has to be a master piece. We sometimes miss the emotional bond with the tree for another person.


I completed my DPhil in 2015 on the meaning and healing qualities of doing bonsai and shared some of the research I did.  I also shared with the group my work with traumatised youth in our area (and I would like to thank every person for donated trees and offers of pots and wire for my next project).  Some hefty debate followed and I hoped I convinced attendees that it is OK to have ugly bonsai trees and to temper their criticism of newbies walking into their first bonsai meeting. (Photograph credit: Cindy Rodkin).


During tea time, I did some serious damage to my credit card and tried to support all the vendors. Antony Smith and his wife, Mavourneen, from Willow Bonsai, displayed their personal range of pots and other bonsai paraphernalia.   These quality pots made by Mavourneen, are really outstanding. The range is incredible and after seeing these, I will be very reluctant to buy Chinese imports again.  The pots are pricy, but as a novice potter, I totally get that.  I can only request that they start looking at bigger sizes (size does matter:-). I then moved on to Terry Erasmus's stand, Bonsai Tree and found the most amazing spray thingy that you can attach to a 1 litre cold drink or water bottle.  It is nice and light and fits comfortably in your hand.  Terry had some good tools and I must say that I am quite partial to Bonsai Boost!


The handmade pots by Linda, Inge and Viky could not be passed by and by now my car was getting low on space.  Div sold some serious contraption-stuff that I think was meant to bend branches. Definitely for the more adventurous bonsai nuts!  It is important to support vendors at these conventions. If not for them, we would struggle to get tools, pots and new inventions. Thank you to all who brought their goods. A fair amount made their way to KZN!


After the break, Antony Smith from Bonsai Addicts did a demo on a Juniper and must have nerves of steel with the bending he did.  Unlike Tobie, he does not sketch his design prior to working on the tree, but it became obvious that preparation is a major part of his design work.  



Regardt Fereira is anybody's dream bonsai assistant and seemed to pre-empt Antony's every wish.  In the beginning I was rather sceptical that Antony would be able to bend the Juniper in the way he planned and we all held our breaths but never heard the dreaded snap.  Antony was quite willing to share his expertise and explained why he used certain materials and how we use them.  I found his talk and demonstration informative and very educational.  I am even keen to try it myself!


The tree went from this...    to this...... right in front of our eyes!















Antony succumbed to peer pressure to draw his final design and after doing his magic, went to style his tree in peace.

After lunch, (and man, the food was plentiful and good!), Tobie had a quick talk and carving demonstration on an olive.  



Reghardt quickly became everybody's assistant and must have gained invaluable experience that weekend. In fact, he probably needed a holiday too. Tobie stressed that any carving done must look natural and not "done", as so many of us like to do.  Less is definitely more. Carving must also be done in a safe manner and like any good doctor should, practiced what he preached.



To end off the day, Michelle van den Burgh from Kat Rivier Kai, George, talked about the van Meer technique to help us prevent those ugly scars that we sometimes have with our bonsai.  In step-by-step direction, she careful explained it in a way that made it look very easy.



The spit braai was rained out, so most of us levitated towards the fire near the bar that evening (the fire was the draw card) and all we learnt that day was debated before we had supper.  Unfortunately I could not stay for the demos the next day, as I had to get back to work and there was two days travelling ahead of me.  From all accounts, I missed out on a lot.


The line up on day 3 included, Robbie de Witt, Terry Erasmus, Earl Jefferies, and Gail Theron.  Earl talked about score cards and how it can be used to improve trees.Earl kindly gave me permission to copy his talk here.  He feels that bonsai is not necessarily an art form, but can be taught.  He's famous for saying: when you begin to read, you begin with a, b, c and when you sing, you begin with do, ray, me. And when you begin with bonsai, you stick to the rules. And when you play golf, you keep score - so when you exhibit trees, you get scored and must be prepared to be critiqued.  What he did then was to get everyone to score one of his existing bonsais.


This grouping received an average of 5.78 out of 10.  He tallied the scores, paid attention to the critique (or low score areas) went away, worked on what was "wrong" with it and returned it for another crit.  Without wiring and pruning, his grouping now received 7.28 out of 10. His club also keeps records of the members' scores so as to monitor improvement.



All in all, the Autumn Bonsai Festival (3) was a resounding success and an annual event not to be missed.  Kat Rivier Kai has amazing quality trees and quite a few lessons were learnt. I am not entirely convinced that we need international demonstrators with all our local knowledge.  A huge congratulations to Tobie and Sandy and their team who organised this event.  I am just sorry that I missed ABF 1 and 2!


(Photo Credit:  Earl Jefferies)

(Photo Credits: All other photographs: Caroll Dewar Hermann)

Disclaimer:  This is my own personal view and does not reflect that of any other entity.

Gallery of photographs:












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