There are three major parts to visiting Black Dodge Bonsai. There is the man, the art, and the goods. I know that everyone wants to hear about the goods, but I’m saving that for last so that you listen to why you really need to make a stop there.
Black Dodge Bonsai is a two man, and one truck show. John Rough, Kris Springer and a famous Black Dodge.
I visited with Kris whom is a hard-working, mountain climbing, swamp trekking, humble man. He graciously gave me hours of his time teaching, joking, storytelling, and chasing geese out of his goose infested yard. All of this was before we had even spoken about actually purchasing anything.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Kris trained under Nick Lenz.
Kris is probably the most prolific, talented, and most importantly, honest and ethical collector of bonsai material on the east coast. His specialty seems to be in American Larch and Eastern White Cedar, but he collects almost all types of trees, and can name and give specific details on every single species without a second thought. Kris is also a very talented bonsai artist in his own rite.
Kris clearly has a passion for bonsai. There’s a revolutionary thinker and artist living inside of him, and there is also a sentimental, loving, and reminiscent side for both his teacher and the memories of his bonsai adventure. He has no plans of slowing down (quote), and continues to trek out into the wilderness for us (and maybe a bit for himself 😊).
The art at Black Dodge Bonsai is simply breath-taking. Firstly, Kris is a collector of all things Lenz. He has paintings, mugs, pots, sculptures, and trees from Nick. Being that there are only a handful of legendary bonsai artists on the east coast, seeing this collection was stunning. I’m actually still working on processing everything that I saw.
There is an art to Lenz’s (and now Kris’s) art that transcends bonsai and becomes something else entirely. In the world of bonsai, we’re always talking about the “rules” and the esthetic principles (defining branch, counterbalance, taper, left/back/right branching, etc.) I don’t think that their art came from a place of defiance either. I believe that it came from a place of pure art in a living growing form.
The first example of this is a pair of Lenz’s boots which were planted. They have been this way for 40 years.
Kris told a story of bringing this display to a show some years ago. He had stepped away from the display, and the board holding the boots was gone. It was discovered that someone working the show had thrown out the board. Kris gently asked them to retrieve the board.
I think that this is a very important story. At a bonsai show, every single person there is trained to see bonsai (and related displays) as they are classically defined. When you’re able to step out of that trained box and really look at this display, it is so painfully clear that the whole piece is the display. The board is no less important than the boots or the plants.
I want to do a bit less talking and a bit more showing of the true art at Black Dodge Bonsai. Here are some more pieces on display.
This final piece was moving for me. We were sort of on our last lap of the garden and Kris said “I’m surprised you didn’t ask about this one”. Honestly I had 100% missed the tree. It’s tucked in between many other larger and more jarringly striking pieces. When I saw it though, it stopped me dead in my tracks.
I’ve been moved by other pieces before. I’ve stood awestricken staring at other trees taking in their curves and branching, but there’s probably ten or twenty trees that have done that to me. I took in this tree as we discussed the true art of it. The fact that it so clearly transcends bonsai even though it still is a bonsai. We discussed the genius and foresight required to think this up and then execute it. As I took it in, I (secretly) got a bit choked up, and that is a first for me when it comes to any type of art.
Another thing to note is that there are some absolutely spectacular “conventional” bonsai at BDB.
Kris mentioned that some people are afraid of the pieces that he sells. They don’t know what to do with them. We both agreed that that is the entire point. You are not supposed to impose your will on these trees. The trees have had nature’s will imposed upon them for decades or centuries sometimes. You can’t compete with that no matter how hard you try. It’s your job to gently take the direction that the tree and nature have given you and accentuate it. Show it off. Turn it’s chaos into a more perfect (or imperfect) chaos. Don’t be afraid of this. Embrace it and gently mold it to show its best (or worst) self.
Now onto the part that a lot of people were probably waiting for. The goods. If you skipped the previous paragraphs and pictures, go back and start from the beginning. I’ll wait….
Or you can keep reading. Kris claims that (almost) everything is for sale at Black Dodge Bonsai. This ranges from tiny little pieces that would be suitable for a kusamono all the way up to massive show-ready pieces. I think that most people are interested in the raw, weather-beaten yamadori though, so that is what I want to focus on.
There are stick-straight young pieces perfect for a forest planting. There are tall gently curving pieces perfect for a bunjin. There are twisted, contorted pieces that look like they’ve been just barely grasping at a fine thread of life for the last 100 years. There are deciduous, coniferous, shrubs, vines, and all sorts of other things.
The key element that cannot be overlooked is that these pieces are natives. It’s one thing to have a Rocky Mountain Juniper and think that it’s cool because it’s a native. It isn’t a shimpaku, so you would still be correct to call it a native. It’s a wholly other thing to have an American Larch in the actual state that it belongs in though. Kris very deliberately pointed out that nobody in the world can grow a blueberry like we can in New England. I very deliberately purchased a beautiful one 😊
Here’s a shot of just a small portion of Black Dodge Bonsai’s main “for sale” table.
Here’s the key. The prices are very reasonable. Kris also knows what he has though. There is no negotiating; that’s not how it works. The very simple reason for this is that he is comfortable with selling it at a given price. If you do not agree, then don’t buy it. I already have a spot picked out for it and I’m saving for it right now 😊
This is a place where you buy trunks, age, and character. Here’s a few shots of some of what I purchased. Try to picture these with organized foliage. Picture what YOU would do with these. Picture the 3-5 year plan.
Overall, if you live in New England, or really anywhere honestly, you should make a trip to BDB. It’s a worthwhile experience that you can choose to have whenever you decide to make the trip (by appointment). For me it felt like a pilgrimage. I feel that my outlook on bonsai already was approaching the corner of bonsai (and sometimes not strictly bonsai) that Kris Springer and Nick Lenz live in. Even still, I feel as though after this trip, I have seen and experienced, and had my eyes opened to something totally new and revolutionary. My eyes have been opened in a way that is not possible in any other way than experiencing something so enlightening in person.
P.S. I do want to add some post script. There is a place in the world for all types of bonsai. I will still have trees that are by the book. I will still purchase trees with left/back/right branching. There is something magical about this. I still love a great Shimpaku or JBP. They are amazing bonsai material.
Not everyone believes in collecting bonsai material from the wild. I understand this and I understand the concerns. While I understand the concern, I also believe that most of these trees would not be appreciated in nature on the same level as they can be when used for bonsai.
I apologize for the backgrounds in the pictures, and all I can tell you is that you need to experience these masterpieces for yourself in person. Kris doesn’t know this yet, but I plan to go back next year and bring a backdrop to do a photoshoot of some of these pieces (if he doesn’t beat me to it).
I also believe that in terms of the art of bonsai and all related arts, there are no rules. By this, I mean that if you want to follow the classic rules, go for it. If you want to juuuust poke your head outside of those rules, that’s great, go (gently) break them. If you want to ignore the classic rules of bonsai esthetics, do it. I plan to learn and master all three cases. Keep coming back for more updates on that adventure.