About Bebop Bonsai
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
My name is Ian Evans. I am a husband, a father, and a lifelong artist. But I wasn’t always a Bonsai artist. I didn’t always live the bonsai life. I didn’t pay attention to the yearly path of the Sun. I didn’t need to heed the patterns of rain, snow, ice, and chilling cold of the wind during winter. I didn’t bother with growing seasons and the timeline of the earth’s rotation on its own axis and it’s path around the sun. Things I loved and cared for every day didn’t depend on those forces of nature in a meaningful or immediate way. It took a long time to find the trees.
As a child I dreamt of drawing for Detective Comics, specifically Batman. I drew constantly, and read a lot of books. I played with a lot of Lego. I was an only child in a dysfunctional home. In elementary school I decided to become a drummer. I had listened to a lot of punk and metal by middle school, but as I honed my skills I visited drum shops where they played amazing music on old stereos.
I heard Max Roach.
I was deeply and fundamentally drawn to the swirling, indescribable emotion, and the masterful technical and creative force that is the African-American Jazz Tradition. The music of John Coltrane, specifically Live At Birdland, changed me forever.
I began gigging professionally during my junior year of high school, playing in a church and for local theatre productions. I used all the money to buy more drum gear. I started going into the city to play before I could drive. My mom took me to jam sessions and even to a couple gigs. When I could finally take myself there, I went all the time. Like, I had a weekly schedule of spots and sessions to go every night if I wanted, to play, get my ass kicked on stage, and go home hungry to figure it out. I totally loved being around these older musicians. They were seasoned, and I was a sponge for the history, skills, anecdotes, and the general wisdom for life, music and manhood. That last part was important, because I didn’t grow up with my father in my life. I latched on hard. I became a regular, and gradually I became a teeny tiny, minuscule part of the oral tradition of African-American music and manhood. Some of these guys were father figures to me, and my youngest son has a middle name of Harrison, in honor of a great friend and musical elder who passed away.
After an apprenticeship with Roger Humphries I emerged onto the scene a little more (not yet of legal drinking-age), and continued on to forge a humble, 25 year career as a jazz sideman, private instructor, hip hop/electronica producer, bandleader, studio session drummer, and a lot of other music-industry titles that I won’t bore you with.
I did a lot of gigs in a lot of states, and spent enough time in cars, buses, planes, and hotels to realize what I did and didn’t like about all of it after two and half decades. I had a lot of successes and some failures. The typical highs and lows of a longish career in the performing arts. I made a lot of wonderful friends, had more than my share of amazing and unforgettable experiences, and a decent enough income to keep at it for a while. I do have some opinions about the music industry in general, and I met some nasty people along the way. I got jaded and it stopped being fun for a couple years.
I guess like a lot 80s kids who get into bonsai, I remember the movie Karate Kid. The image of Mr. Miyagi serenely pruning his bonsai, in a manner portrayed as almost sacred, an act of communion and meditation. As if the ultimate form of wisdom and peace was achieved this way, by growing, maintaining, and stewarding these miniature-looking trees. Like, Miyagi-sensei can kick ass, but also care for these delicate living things, and achieve some sort of balance through the trees. At least that’s how it struck me. I will always have that image in my mind. A neighbor once referred to me as Mr. Miyagi and I was profoundly touched in a way that might not have made sense to him.
I can’t remember exactly how or when the idea to get some bonsai got in my head. I had a couple old issues of Bonsai Today that filtered in from my mother-in-law’s collection of gardening books and magazines. I read those. I saw the high-level techniques and how these amazing trees were designed, altered, and maintained. I was inspired. At some point I had accrued a short list of failed attempts with the dreaded “mall-sai” form that is unhealthy at best, and dying at worst. I learned some lessons, and like always; I learned a lot of them, and quickly. I also discovered things about the practice of bonsai that could be immediate sources of creative gratification, like making bonsai from nursery stock. I read lots of articles, and I watched a lot of videos. I became consumed with it. Soon I was making my own bonsai. I would spend hours and hours working on a tree (I work much more efficiently now) and some days I would have certainly preferred this solo artistic pursuit to putting a suit on, some fancy shoes, sitting in evening traffic, and lugging drums around. The trees were starting to become a more wholistic approach to satisfying all of my artistic desires at the same time. I realized I could use all my capabilities at once. And I didn’t need anything else. It was complete. Closed-loop. I could work in three dimensions, tell a story, paint a picture, enjoy nature, and relax, all at once. Then I get to care for this beautiful thing I made in concert with nature and steel, and make it even more lovely each year? Yes, please! It was a real, positive-affirmation of different parts of myself; the creative brain, the scientific, and became something of an epiphany.
For an artist with a strong visual sensibility, bonsai is appealing. The image of a tree, in bonsai, has to achieve overall coherence as a composition. This totality consists of many layers, and uses many distinct disciplines. You are dealing with a living thing, so there is the horticultural element. You must start with a healthy subject. Then, a bonsai image that resembles a tree in nature, but tiny, and a bit more perfect, must be engineered from the raw material. A decent 360 degree tree-image requires calculated design decisions. Cuts to branches are made with purpose-built, precision hand-tools. These cuts determine the lines of a tree’s trunk, where the branches are, where the negative space is. Like sculpting. Part of these first steps is to also envision the container in which the tree will sit if it isn’t already in it. The paring of pot and tree is fundamental to the final result of the bonsai design. It’s almost like a beautiful painting, set perfectly in the right frame. But if the painting was really a three-dimensional sculpture that went into the frame sideways.
And for an artist with a professional and creative background in performing who can improvise fluently on a musical instrument? Bonsai is appealing. A tree presents the bonsai practitioner with a puzzle. The solution to this puzzle is to reconcile the tree’s immutable and fundamental characteristics of species, size, age, and existing trunk, branch, and foliage structure, with the creative desires of the practitioner. The question for me is always: what can I make from this that is close to what I want to see, with what this particular tree IS? What can I do to satisfy myself, but within these specific parameters? If you substitute “See” with “Hear”, and “Tree” with “Composition” or “song”, you might understand how this experience could relate to that of an improvising musician. A song has a structure, and your ideas and decisions in the moment are informed by that. Obviously it’s much slower, softer, and less immediate than a drum solo, but you get the idea. The feeling of satisfying the given parameters and reconciling them with my own creative desires, is the same. For me, it’s more satisfying, relaxing, meditative, and creative than the other things I have done to scratch the itch and delve into myself as a person. It changed me, and I started thinking of a different career.
Then the pandemic happened. No more gigs. By that point I didn’t care. I had dedicated myself to my growing collection of trees (read about my pivot here) . Eventually I had to get rid of some bonsai to make room for more bonsai blessings. The idea of Bebop Bonsai came from the process of paring down. My wife is a professional, white-collar person, but with a very astute artistic talent and sensitivity herself, so she created an LLC around my bonsai practice. She does the heavy lifting with paperwork and spreadsheets. Invoices. Yikes. I can’t even come close to that, but she doesn’t make bonsai, so it works. In time I had developed some partnerships at locally-owned greenhouses and at first sold just trees, then we added soil, and then fertilizer, on consignment. This scheme generated some income but more importantly, it helped me to literally house trees during the winter months, too, all while they were on sale. I bet you can guess what I do with the bonsai sales money? That’s right. More trees. More soil, more pots. It’s still early days, but the cycle continues. We get a little better each time. We sell our fertilizer and soil wholesale now, for example.
Much like jazz changed me and how I look at the world, bonsai has made me see things I never saw before, and to see familiar things in a whole new way.
I know I’m rather verbose and inwardly-focused. Hopefully I’m not too mad a scientist! Thanks for reading.
Let me sum it up:
I started to work on the trees, and found the trees were the ones working on me.
I didn’t come up with that, but man, it’s accurate.