Rock climbing in a bonsai garden

David Benavente lives his dream with a garden full of bonsai.
Hidden in the mountains just a few minutes’ drive from Madrid, David Benavente has his dream bonsai garden. It’s a well laid out garden with natural granite boulders, pines and even a small forest of ancient olive trees, all of which add to the idyllic atmosphere of this special place. Bonsai Focus visited David’s idyll and asked him a few questions

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What is your profession?
I have been dedicated professionally to bonsai since I was 22 years of age. As an adolescent I had no doubt in my mind that I would not study for a career and so started working at 16. My first job was in an office as an administration clerk for an important transport company, but I soon realized that what I really needed was to work with my hands and to develop my creative side. At that point, bonsai was already a part of my life and most of my free time was dedicated to my trees. Increasingly I felt that I needed to spend more time with them. Not only that, I was becoming more and more oppressed by the four walls of the administration offices.

Those first 5 years in the work force helped me to understand what work is all about and the discipline involved. Although it was tough, I really believe that it was a great learning experience which taught me what the real world is all about.

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Pinus sylvestris awarded by Shinji Suzuki

 

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Can you tell us how you got into bonsai?
It all began with an exhibit presented by the Club Bonsai Madrid at the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. My parents took both my brother and me to see an exhibit organized by the Club at the botanical gardens. There was an endless queue to enter and we were expected to wait for a further two hours. So as we were only able to glimpse the exhibits from the window my father took us all on a tour around the botanical garden instead. A few days later, my father came home with the book ‘Bonsai árboles en miniatura’ by Paul Lesniewicz and that’s where my inspiration came from. In those days, access to information was very limited. Internet did not exist (although nowadays that’s hard to believe) so, for me, that book was like a newly found treasure loaded with information. Before this, I had not seen anything other than a newspaper clipping with a few sketches on ‘how to create a bonsai’. It was so brief and summarized that it was impossible to get an idea of what those mysterious little trees were all about.

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The idyllic studio

I come from a very humble family and to have achieved such a bonsai garden from scratch is a dream come true.

Who is your bonsai teacher?
This is a question that makes me feel a little sad because I’ve never really had what is known today as a ‘sensei’. This makes me feel somewhat orphaned in the bonsai world and there is also a yearning in me to have been able to learn in the traditional Japanese style. In just a few years, a bonsai Master tends to pass on to his students, all of the knowledge accumulated since his apprenticeship with his own Master and during his professional career. The learning process is based on repetition, observation and obeying instructions that initially seem incomprehensible, trying to perceive what the Master is thinking, anticipating his next instruction and to be immersed in an environment that is completely dedicated to bonsai every single day for years. Unfortunately this was not my experience.

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One of my main sources of information was the magazine Bonsai Actual; since 1988 it reproduced articles in Spanish from Japanese magazine Kindai Bonsai, much like Bonsai Focus does today. I learnt much by observing work carried out by other professionals, from international exhibits, from being immersed in the bonsai world, by practice, from nature and from the trees themselves.

In 1995 Luis Vallejo hired me for the conservation of the Bonsai Museum of Alcobendas, where I was able to evolve professionally for the first time. Luis Vallejo taught me the key concepts and offered me the opportunity to be in daily contact with bonsai in a professional environment and to work with trees that at that time would never have been within my reach. In other words, he offered me a platform where I could experiment and learn, and where I was able to develop my skills. Much of what I have achieved today I owe it to him and to those years.

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What is your philosophy on bonsai?
Respect and dedication. The traditional Japanese understanding of bonsai has
always been my reference. I’ve studied and observed it, attempted to adapt it to the western world and also to my own circumstances. In Japan, the value of respect is taken to extremes and here, aside from the cultural differences, it should also be the same. I respect my clients, I respect the trees, I respect the bonsai world I live in and that allows me to make a living. And to be able to respect, understanding is essential, to put yourself in the circumstance of a client, a tree or a professional.

 

Do you have other interests?
In my free time I enjoy practicing a form of rock climbing known as ‘bouldering’. It combines physical strength, technique and concentration, always in a natural environment, in contact with the terrain.

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Overview of the garden

Is bonsai in your opinion art?
Yes, I absolutely think that the concept of bonsai is an art form. An absolutely different matter would be to consider any bonsai as a work of art. Unfortunately in the West the levels of demand are low and anything can be considered as art. In my opinion, a work of art cannot emerge without a technical basis and a solid ongoing training and, from there, the combination of work and talent is when a work of art can actually materialize. A high level of self-indulgence hinders the artistic development and reduces the quality of the creation.

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Acer palmatum, prize-winner at the Nöelanders Trophy 2014

Do you favour the Japanese or Western bonsai style?
One hundred percent Japanese. Japan is my reference. For now I think we should be trying to imitate Japanese bonsai. Our personal style will emerge naturally once we have attained a thorough aesthetical and technical knowledge, so I don’t think that we should worry too much about developing a certain style. A tree can tell us all about its creator. Just by simply observing them, we will be able to obtain a pretty precise idea of the identity of its caretaker and their personality; however this could also be a double edged sword. I feel that in the western bonsai scene everything is rushed; there is a rush to do things, a rush to observe and also a rush to boast. Nevertheless, the evolution of bonsai in Europe is truly amazing and some exceptional results can be seen at different bonsai exhibits. My personal plea is to maintain this high level of standards so as to continue evolving.

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Pinus sylvestris awarded by Kunio Kobayashi

What did you learn in those years?
That life has its own process that we must go through and that, like trees, everything has its own rhythm. That we must learn to accept an endless number of concepts that would take way too long to explain. Bonsai is an excellent school of life, but I think that one of the most important things that bonsai has given me is the serenity of spirit.

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A Pinus sylvestris in the shade

What do you want to achieve in the future?
Two objectives: Elevate to an even higher level the bonsai that I offer to my clients. To develop over the years a great group of European professionals that have been trained in my garden. This project began 4 years ago and hope it’ll continue to be developed. It follows the same methods used in Japan. The student is not only studying the technique and aesthetics of bonsai and putting it into practice, but also learns how to relate with the clients and within a professional environment, learns how the business works from inside. It is a school for those who wish to pursue bonsai professionally. This kind of student doesn’t have to pay, but long term students are paid.

What do you like about teaching?
Teaching is yet another creative process. It is like transforming a raw yamadori into a magnificent and mature bonsai.

Overview of the garden with some of David’s specimen pines and a few trees still in progress

Which trees do you most like to work on?
Without a doubt, pine trees. They possess a very special elegance and strength, and due to their physiological characteristics allow you to develop very creative work in a short period of time. For me the pine is the King of trees.

Do you have a favourite tree?
I have a few bonsai favourites, but I don’t like the idea of choosing just one. The bonsai world is so extensive and I like the idea of being able to enjoy all of it without limitations. Each tree or species has its own unique moment.

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Pinus parviflora overall winner at the Salieu show 2014

Do you sell your bonsai?
I make a living from selling my bonsai so in that sense I cannot afford to be too sentimental. I love trees and I love my profession. I love the concept of bonsai, but I must maintain a practical approach. I do, however, have a small collection of 5 to 10 trees that are not for sale.

Your dreams came true, when?
When in 1995 I began working in the conservation of the Bonsai Museum of Alcobendas, or when in 2006 I created my own bonsai school, or in 2010 when I opened the doors to my own bonsai garden . . .

Has it always been your dream to have your own bonsai garden?
Absolutely.

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Text: Bonsai Focus Studio   Photography: Pablo Comesaña