Expert Has a Deep-Rooted Interest in the Art of Bonsai

<i> McPhillips lives in Pasadena</i>

Jim Barrett took off enthusiastically through the rows of trees in the backyard of his Arcadia home.

“They’re more of an artistic achievement than a duplication of nature,” he said strolling through the rustling golden-green leaves of a Chinese elm forest.

What appeared to be ancient blue atlas cedar spread its branches like outstretched arms, and from the clutches of a long-dead trunk a magenta-flowered bougainvillea blossomed brilliantly. Nearby a well-established pomegranate hinted it would soon be dropping red pulpy fruit.

When that fruit finally does drop it will be full-sized, even though no tree in Barrett’s nursery stands taller than 40 inches.


Bonsai, the 56-year-old former battalion chief with the Alhambra Fire Department explained, aren’t meant to be exact copies. “They’re meant to suggest nature as it’s perceived by the artist, like an impressionist painting.”

On Lecture Circuit

Barrett, who retired in July, should know. He also teaches regularly scheduled bonsai classes and is a board member, officer and founder of various bonsai societies. The soft-spoken six-footer continues to teach out of his home and gives lectures and workshops on a circuit that has taken him from Toronto, Canada to Cali, Columbia.

But his reputation is not confined to the Americas: In 1985 he was the only Caucasian invited to the opening of the Kanuma, Japan, Bonsai Park, the only bonsai park in the world open to the public.


“I’m not sure why they invited me,” he said modestly.

Though Barrett won’t say so, it probably has something to do with the fact he was one of the pioneers of American bonsai.

Although bonsai has appeared in the West at a London exhibition in 1909, it did not become well-known in this hemisphere until the aftermath of World War II, when occupying troops returned home from Japan enthusiastic about the living art form they had observed there.

Couldn’t Find Teacher

It was during those years that Barrett, then a young fireman in the naval reserve, became interested in bonsai. But he found that learning wouldn’t be easy: He couldn’t find anyone to teach him.

“Back then,” he recalled, running a freckled hand over his receding reddish hair, “there were very few bonsai societies in the United States, and most of them conducted their meetings in Japanese. There weren’t many books either. The few that were written in English turned out to be pretty amateurish.”

He finally found a bonsai book published in English by the Japanese Travel Bureau that proved to be a good resource, and, with that in hand, Barrett undertook his own education by experimentation, seeking advice from a growing network of nursery owners who shared his interest.

He learned that there was more to bonsai than met the eye. Defined simply, he said, bonsai is a miniaturized tree planted in a tray or plot. (In Japanese, bon means tray or pot and sai means to plant, hence bonsai literally translates as “planted in a tray.”) The trees are kept at their desired height and form through various bonsai processes of confining the roots, pruning and shaping, and would, unlike dwarf trees, grow to their natural sizes (some over two hundred feet high) if planted in the ground.


Art of Commemoration

But there is a history behind this simple explanation, he said. It is believed that bonsai evolved from the potted medicinal plants brought to China in the 5th Century by traveling Indian healers. By the 13th Century, bonsai had made its way to Japan and there it developed into an art of commemoration.

“You see, besides being a type of sculpture with ever changing, living things, it’s also a feeling and philosophy,” he said, pale blue eyes scrutinizing a Japanese mountain maple. “It’s how you perceive what things should look like or what moves you when you see a tree that has been broken off by lightning and still struggles to maintain some equilibrium and some life.”

Struggle and triumph have always been the major theme in Japanese bonsai, Barrett said.

“The Japanese have an empathy with plants that struggle through the hardships of nature and stay alive, because of their own past and their own struggle to survive,” he said. Early Japanese farmers, he elaborated, toiled for centuries to feed themselves from the land in the midst of tribal attacks, feudal wars and finally under the harsh dictates of the Shogun.

When the migration from the country to the cities began, the Japanese concentrated on creating the illusion of fullness of nature within the confines of their necessarily tiny gardens and the trays of bonsai to remind them of their country roots.

Well of Information

In the early 1960s Barrett’s eduction took a quantum leap: He discovered a well of information at the newly formed California Bonsai Society, and at the same time was asked to teach at the Temple City Komai Bonsai Nursery where for years he had been spending all of his free time.


“The customers were complaining that they had nowhere to learn bonsai and I always enjoyed teaching,” the one-time naval instructor said.

“But I guess the main reason I agreed to teach the classes was that I had reached a plateau where I wasn’t improving in my bonsai knowledge and techniques and I figured if I forced myself to teach, I would have to say ahead of the students. And it worked. I broke out of that rut.”

Together with nursery owner Kahn Komai, Barrett developed a “pretty comprehensive program” for beginners and intermediate level students, seeking advice from the only bonsai teachers they knew of, John Naka, a California Bonsai Society founder who taught in Japanese, and Frank Nagada, another nursery owner.

Although he enjoyed the teaching, Barrett added, it didn’t allow a lot of time for his wife, Helen, or his now-grown daughters, Diane, Karen and Sharon.

“In those days,” he said, “I worked every other day and had every other Saturday off. With teaching four classes a month, that meant I was either working at the fire station or working down at the nursery. I think my kids forgot who I was.”

Common Misconceptions

Barrett discovered early on that before starting to teach his students he first needed to correct many misconceptions about bonsai. The most common misconceptions, he said, are that bonsai has to be old to be good and that they are routinely neglected.

“It’s not actual age that’s important in bonsai,” he said, turning his eyes to a two-foot California Juniper, “it’s apparent age that counts.”

Age can be simulated by various methods he used on the juniper, Barrett explained, such as peeling bark from the trunk, branches or exposed roots to cause that exposed wood to die and discolor into a shade of gray like the dead wood on very old forest trees.

“See, if you were to ask me, ‘how old is that tree,’ well, that’s interesting information to the general public and we’re not offended by it, but you’ve missed the point,” he said. “But if I were to tell you, ‘it’s 5 years old’ and you say, ‘gee, it looks older than that,’ now I’ve achieved my goal: It looks old.”

Between bonsai artists, though, the question is never raised.

“It’s like asking a lady her age,” Barrett said, “you just don’t ask. What we do when we’re exhibiting is display signs next to the trees that tell how long they’ve been in training as bonsai, meaning how long they’ve been containerized and worked with. That’s what’s relevant to our purpose.”

As for neglect, that’s simply not part of the program. Once the bonsai has been potted, the artist must maintain a regime of careful watering and feeding, always watching for hungry pests, and must protect his trees from extremes such as heavy winds, continuous rains or intense sunlight.

‘Stiff and Unnatural’

Barrett admits that an art form doesn’t really lend itself to classroom study.

“For the first two years, at the beginning and intermediate levels, we teach mostly rules and aesthetic standards of bonsai,” he said. “But it’s a stiff and unnatural approach to an art and we get away from that later on. But before you can break the rules you have to know what they are.”

Barrett’s students learn various techniques that, in addition to establishing and controlling form, aim to reveal the natural beauty of a tree and heighten its characteristics of maturity. In addition to methods of pruning and trimming that will best reveal a tree’s structure, students are also taught how to reposition and reshape branches and trunks to achieve a desired form or characteristic. For instance, by temporarily wiring branches to turn them downward, a young tree might be given the appearance of greater age or an upright tree might be redirected into a cascading style.

Before any of these techniques are employed, though, the artist must first consider positioning and framing. Every bonsai has a front and a rear view, depending upon which angle best displays the tree’s structure, and pots are chosen carefully for their ability to compliment the bonsai.

Leading the way to a side patio where he uses two kilns to make his own pots, Barrett explained their role.

Conveying a Mood

“We’re getting back to the big picture here,” he said. “In bonsai, the artist is trying to convey a certain feeling or mood. The pot is like a frame that you’ll find around a picture; it’s supposed to compliment the tree but not pull your eye away from it, and the tree does the same kind of thing for the pot. They work together as a team: The pot’s as important as any other aspect of bonsai.”

Practicing what he preaches, Barrett takes pains to make his pots as pleasing to the eye as the plants themselves. He does so well at it, in fact, that his containers, sold at bonsai convention commercial booths, are now found all over the world.

“One of the most fascinating things about this business,” he said, “is that no one ever stops learning. As soon as you think you know everything, something new pops up or a whole new facet of the art opens up that you never really thought about or explored before. It’s just not something that can ever be completely mastered.”