The Bonsai Ballerina

Jennifer Price discovered bonsai 8 years ago after retiring as a professional ballerina. She had the opportunity to study with long-time friend and teacher, Jim Doyle and, through Jim’s influence, went to work with artists including Mauro Stemberger, Chase Rosade, Larry Jackel, Peter Warren and Walter Pall.

What was your professional education?
A Bachelors of Fine Arts in Psychology, which is the study of behaviour and the mental processes.

How did you get into bonsai?
Like many others, I went to a local garden centre where there were a few bonsai. The trees typically survived for a few months and then died; I couldn’t figure out why. A friend at the garden centre suggested that I attend a local club for bonsai enthusiasts.
During that very first meeting I attended at the local club (Prairie State Bonsai
Society, Chicago) I was asked to become the chairperson for special events. They were in desperate need of volunteers and I was the only one willing to take the job. In the beginning I was completely lost. It seemed as if there was no way to go from a rank beginner to having a tree that one sees in magazines and bonsai books. It was not until I travelled down to Brussel’s Bonsai for an intensive workshop that I realized how much I liked the hobby.

What was the kind of bonsai education you received?
I didn’t have a formal education; in the beginning simply took numerous workshops and classes. Studying with Jim Doyle as well as my local club members began my introduction to bonsai and it continues to this day as an apprentice to Walter Pall.

Who is your bonsai teacher, and what is the most important thing you learned?
My early bonsai influences included instruction from Dan Kosta, Ben Okie, Jim Doyle, Andy Smith, Peter Warren, Owen Reich, Mauro Stemberger and Colin Lewis. I have studied as an apprentice with my mentor, Walter Pall, for the past 3 years. His ability to study a collected tree from the wild has shaped how I approach not only working with collected material, but has also trained my eye to see beyond the formal approach to traditional bonsai, giving me a chance to explore bonsai as an art form.

What are your plans after your apprenticeship?
At this point I cannot imagine ending my apprenticeship with Walter. When that day arrives I will continue his legacy by sharing the knowledge that he instilled in me. One must remain a student while creating bonsai; my goal is to continue advancing my skills and artistry. This year I am going to Germany to be a part of Generation Bonsai and then will continue to China in October for the Zhongguo Feng Penjing event. As a former ballerina I enjoy performing and also instructing students. An opportunity for teaching further allows me to share the knowledge I have gained with the next generation of bonsai enthusiasts.

Do you plan to go to Japan to be an apprentice to one of the Japanese Masters?
I do not plan to visit Japan for any lessons in the near future. However, while I was attending a bonsai convention in Hartford Connecticut last year, I was fortunate to meet Master Kunio Kobayashi. His skill and artistry impressed me greatly and I would not rule out an opportunity for future study with a Japanese Master.

What is your philosophy on bonsai?
Bonsai is first and foremost a way for me to express the grace and power of nature with its beauty, its quiet elegance and harshness. Creating a bonsai forms a connection to a living entity, which you cannot truly control, but can listen to and learn from. Through one’s own creativity, the possibilities are almost endless.

Although excellent technical ability and the quality of material are of the utmost importance, I believe all individuals can participate in the enjoyment of bonsai
regardless of gender, income or ability level. However, without technical skills one can’t hope to achieve the freedom to fully express one’s creativity. Bonsai continues to teach me patience and the importance of working with what nature provides us.

Through travel to Europe, I have had the opportunity to observe bonsai. The European quality of material, the level of detail and refinement was stunning. On further reflection, I believe that we are finding our own voice in America. Bonsai artists such as Ryan Neil (Artisans Cup) and Bill Valavanis (National Exhibition) are helping to influence that voice. Our native species such as rocky mountain juniper, ponderosa pine, lodge pole and limber pine all continue to further shape the future of American bonsai.

Do you have other interests or hobbies besides bonsai?
I love to read, have dabbled in the local theatre and have recently taken up hot yoga. I would also like to learn to play the cello someday, after studying classical piano for many years.

Which trees do you most like to work on? Why?
I like tackling difficult collected yamadori and enjoy finding the movement within the trunk line as well as the challenge of enhancing special features, such as the natural deadwood and shari.

Your dream comes true when…
. . . I do a demo at the Nöelanders show in Belgium. In my first year of bonsai, Marc Nöelanders was teaching at the Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery located in Olive Branch, Mississippi. This was also my first time visiting a bonsai convention and I was extremely intimidated by my lack of both skills and knowledge.

Do you favour the Japanese or Western bonsai style?
I admire all styles of bonsai and am always struck by the quiet elegance and artistry of the Japanese. My own personal taste leans towards bonsai that are not ‘over-styled’. As Colin Lewis famously stated, ‘We were totally unfettered by any preconception of what qualifies as good or bad and just did our best to make cool trees in pots’.
I believe that we are finding our own voice in America

Photography: Walter Pall