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Profile of Vance Hanna

Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan

Art has always been a force in my life. I was the high school “artist” for my class. Later, upon graduation I was awarded a scholarship to travel to Europe as an art student. I had heard of bonsai but didn’t really have a clue until the New York World’s Fair in 1964 where I became exposed to bonsai for the first time.

Transforming the art skills and knowledge from a degree in both Art and Industrial Design, into bonsai came naturally. I’d been interested in bonsai back then as previously mentioned, but knew nothing of horticulture. Horticulture what?

It really hit me when I was a graduate student in Product Design at Stanford. There in the midst of it all, was the Japanese garden near the med quad. Wow, I loved that place! At the time, I had no idea that Toshio Sambumoro had designed it (later I would meet him in Michigan as a “neophyte in bonsai” around 1975). Bonsai was a passion and an environmental awareness that was transforming my understanding of Universe radically. At the very same moments, R.B.Fuller had just finished his term as ‘scholar in residence’ at my undergraduate alma-matter, Cal State San Jose and I had been exposed to both Alan Watts and Dr. McCollough as a student in Chinese and Japanese history. Now bonsai, that would be a bit much to handle and remember: horticulture what?.

The really first attempts at bonsai were without much long-term success, but in the fall of 1976, after struggling with keeping a few sticks alive for four years, I decided to join Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan for a more formal approach. Certainly, I’d kept ‘pontensai’ alive prior to this, but really found out the rudiments of styling at the club level. Sure back then, you had to pry it out of certain more ‘knowledgeable’ members, but surely someone had something better that what I had. Key word here: better.

That was it! I took off for the Northern area of the lower peninsula of Michigan with a spade drain shovel, sharpened like I’d been shown by John Eichols, a then prominent member of the club.

I still have most of the trees today. In fact, I’ve won several MABA awards for a couple of them and countless firsts and seconds in Chicago at the Mid West show over the past decade. Speaking of the decade, I also was awarded a honorable mention at the Ben Oki design competition back then.

I’ve discovered that I’m a natural born teacher and have the love of helping others to gain visual and technical confidence in making decisions. Translated: I’ve been teaching bonsai styling since the eighties and have been to clubs in Iowa, Wisconsin, most of the clubs in Michigan and now, to Canada. I’m not in a hurry to do anything, let alone buzz about where I’ve been, but I do love to help.

I seriously believe that I started the now current argot of dispelling bonsai myths. Back at Four Seasons and at other ‘now defunct clubs’ in the early days, I used to hear these myths about bonsai and it bothered my acute sense of ‘love for the truth’. Since then, I promised myself that I’d not tell those stories about how old something was or how I got this plant from my great grandfather who was an ambassador to China or blah blah so and so. Also, it greatly disturbed me to ask questions and get sideways answers...as if what I was to find out (a procedure of types), would quickly make my bonsai better than yours. Hahh! Well folks, I have to say that I really am concerned about sharing information simply because in the process I know that I will learn more than what I knew when I started. Tom Peters points this out in his books on management. Read Henry Luce. Read Clive Irvings: Wide Body (The story of the Boeing aircraft company!)

Life Management: a Primer for Bonsai I’ve often thought more of what I’ve learned about life’s little twists and turns in the process of growing bonsai than all of the wonderful technique I’ve learned along the way. Sure, it’s important to know how to thread graft, leaf prune, etc., Chase Rosade showed us that nearly two decades ago, but what I mean is: after so much time what have you contributed to the greater life experience because of your bonsai?

I used to have a 200+bhp high performance luxury sports car, exotic, hand painted, made in Europe really a beauty. I loved the car. But, one day a dear friend who’s in his eighties said something very important to me that stuck in my head: “It just gets you from point A to point B.” Yep, that simple realization. (Not to say I don’t still love exotic and high performance machinery in all formats including aviation and watercraft, no!) I just realized that as Fuller had said so many times the similar concept of who’s driving who and why? I was loving the car to death! It had to be washed every day. It had to be driven to the extreme end of the mall parking lot where nobody would ding it. Was I keeping it for the Harrah’s collection? The Henry Ford Museum? As humans, we have a tendency to acquire serious time consuming projects. Is bonsai a serious time consuming project? Not really. But it can be if you don’t know how to manage your life. It can also be a serious proving ground for plant failure...again, time management.

One must be with bonsai to see the ever changing scenario of buds evolving into leaves. And leaves changing into the special colors of fall and finally into winter’s deep cold sleep for at least a decade or more to begin to understand the cycles of bonsai on a grander scale. If you think of them as ‘just plants in pots’ then you have certainly missed their very nature... What brought you to bonsai in the very first place?

As froglets
They sang like birds...
Now summer is gone
They bark like old dogs. Onitsura

Vance Hanna can be reached via his design company, Birmingham Design, Inc. at: 248-548-2244 or e-mail: vancehanna@hotmail.com

He has a bonsai website: www.ameritech.net/users/alvhante3/vhweb.htm

Member of BCI, ABS and MABA


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