History of MBS Exhibiting at the State Fair

The Minnesota Bonsai Society first participated in the Minnesota State Fair in 1975. That year MBS and the Minnesota Horticultural Society shared the room and held a joint show. The club was only four years old, still small, and the members probably weren’t sure they would have enough trees to fill the room the first year. The show was held in the same room MBS uses today. The white boxes and tiered tables were covered with burlap that first year. A member hand-lettered tree identification tags as the trees were brought in. The bleacher area, hidden now by our cloth backdrops, was used to partition the back of the room into a rest area for members. In the early days a small group of club members spent hours creating their own displays using handmade shoji screens and tokonomas, staffing the show, and promoting bonsai.

There is something magical about a small group of dedicated people determined to put on a good show. They would arrive on Thursday evening for setup, work into the early hours of Friday morning, go home to grab a few hours of sleep, return to staff the show Friday and Saturday, and complete tear-down on Saturday evening. During the show members would scavenge benches from the fairgrounds, bring them in to seat the audience during demonstrations, and take them back outside after each demo was over. Vern Weeks, one of the club’s founding members, constructed a beautiful tokonoma and would stand for hours in a kimono and slippers answering visitor questions.

In the late 1980s MBS member Ann Erb, a set designer and carpenter, constructed the display we still use at the State Fair show. Ann and Rick Raygor designed the tree label database using the Apple-based FileMaker Pro program and integrated it with a judging spreadsheet. The display has survived basically intact since the late 1980s. (Ann is now a member of the California Bonsai Society in the LA Basin area, which uses a modified version of her MBS display.) Black paper was substituted for the white paper table-skirting after 2000, black theatrical cloth later replaced the paper and the currently used black cloth replaced the theatrical cloth around 2017.

The table layout was changed in 2009, through a Van Jensen creative moment, to reflect the pie-wedge shape of the room and open the demonstration area for better sightlines.  In 2011 a viewing stone display area was added and continued for a few years.

Competition, judging, and ribbons are a big part of the Minnesota State Fair. Members did not initially want their show to be judged, but the club was required to present awards to meet State Fair guidelines. Judging bonsai has always been controversial in the bonsai community.  In September of 1992, Roy Nagatoshi wrote a treatise for MBS that gave his perspective on the subject:

“I am totally against judging bonsai that are designed, trained, and cared for by an experienced artist. However, those bonsai created by a novice and intermediate persons who are still at the stage of learning the basic techniques of designing and caring of newly acquired trees may be judged for the benefit of evaluating their progress. “ Roy further says, “Bonsai is the creation resulting from the application of a combination of both HORTICULTURAL SKILL and the ARTISTIC SKILL. Any omission, lack of, or over bearing of these skills will affect the level of its quality and value.”

The judging system used by the Minnesota Bonsai Society evolved over the years and reflects the spirit of Roy’s statements. At first ribbons were given to trees that looked good, without any type of quantitative judging system. This, not surprisingly, generated a lot of discussion and disagreement, and in the early 1980s a group of club members developed a point system for judging. Initially the show was judged by a group of three senior club members, or by a visiting master if one was in town during the show.  By the 2000s, the show was always judged by a professional with no two consecutive years being judged by the same professional.   In 2012 when Ryan Neil judged the exhibit, a Friday night hour long critique was added that proved popular with the club and continues today. 

In 1990 the judged classes were Bonsai, Shohin, Novice, and Penjing. The judging form had criteria broken down by design, technique, and horticulture, with 10 points allotted to each one.  A Best of Show award was given in each class. Later revisions added artistic intangibles to the judging criteria, gave fewer points to horticulture, and limited the total points to 35. Penjing, or Chinese-style bonsai, were judged separately by a “penjing group” using standards they had developed. According to notes in the State Fair judging file, penjing landscapes were not eligible for Best of Show, but individual trees in the penjing style were eligible ifentered in the Bonsai class.  In 2008, MBS purchased six shoji screens and added a display class to the show.  Post 2012, the judging criteria was revised to 35 points each for design, technique, and horticulture respectively and “artistic intangibles” converted to three percentage multipliers based on the impression of the judge.  This was thought to be a better system for avoiding the occasional point ties for awards, although they still sometimes occur.    

1995 judging revisions limited the classes to Open Bonsai, Novice, Exhibit Only, and Shohin. Trees entered for judging in the Open Bonsai class were further separated into divisions and eligible for Best in Division awards.   Five different divisions were chosen each year with an “other” division added later.  Forests and collected trees became standing divisions in 1997 and a tropical division was added in 2006.  There were four standing divisions under Open Bonsai (forest , collected, tropical, and other) and an additional two divisions chosen new each year. One of the two divisions was usually a tree style and the other a tree type.  In 2010, boxwood was the tree type and clump was the style.  

MBS formally adopted the visiting master judging system in 1987 with Melba Tucker as the first of the visiting judges. Others have included but not limited to: Mas Imazumi, Ernie Kuo, Roy Nagatoshi, Kathy Shaner, David DeGroot, Chase Rosade, Boon Manakitivipart, Colin Lewis, Marty Schmalenberg, Guy Guidry, Rodney Clemons, Jim Gremel, Suthin Sukosolvisit, Ryan Neil, Peter Tea, Matt Reel, and Jim Doyle.

In the early days of the show, Ann Erb remembers that there were between 72 and 125 trees exhibited. Generally from 20 to 30 members bring trees for exhibition. Going back through the files, the number of trees exhibited ranges from 68 to 109, with roughly one-third being Exhibit Only trees. Entries in the Open Bonsai class have ranged from 25 to 45 entries; Shohin from 5 to 14 entries; and Novice from 2 to 15 entries.  Trees from the Como collection were exhibited in the past requiring members to take the initiative to get the trees and bring them to the exhibition.  In recent years we have not had Como trees as they tend to be larger trees and most of the people willing to bring them have since stopped exhibiting.

The Beginnings of the Judge’s Critique Hour

The judge’s written critiques have become more important over the years as a tool to help plan for the tree’s future refinement. Many of the trees entered as Exhibit Only now also receive critiques. In the past the opportunity to listen to the judge’s comments has been limited to one or two note-takers who help out during the judging. In 2012 the addition of the special critique session with Ryan Neil on Friday evening after the building closed to the public added an element common in convention exhibits where the professional provides his/her opinion on what the tree gets right and where further work is needed for participants to gain additional incite in developing bonsai.  The critique is open to all members and attendance after the fair closes is open to all members without a ticket.