Profile: Jeff Barry of Chojo Feature Trees

Jeff Barry is a bonsai boss. He’s the founder of Chojo Feature Trees, a nursery/gallery specialising in Bonsai and Niwaki. Based in Sassafras, Victoria, Chojo offers sales, service, demonstrations and lessons. They also maintain and curate a large collection of advanced bonsai, which is on display to the public. I had a chat to Jeff about Chojo, and their upcoming exhibition at Grey Gardens Projects in Melbourne. This is how it went…

Please tell us about Chojo Feature Trees?
In 2011, after working as a grower and servicing private bonsai collections for 10 years, I decided to open a retail shop that focused purely on high quality bonsai. Aside from the poor examples offered at hardware stores and shopping malls, Australia has very few opportunities to learn about and understand Bonsai. When I was starting the business I was asked regularly, “Do you think there is a market in Australian Bonsai?” and my answer was always, “No, but I think we can grow one.”

To be honest, it was an easy transition for me considering I have been working in the industry for so long and had built a significant collection of specimen trees along the way. Another concept that was completely new to Australia was Niwaki, which is larger garden trees, usually planted in the ground, styled with similar principles to Bonsai. I have always felt it is a much more effective way to bring the Japanese aesthetic to a garden or courtyard whilst minimizing maintenance.

There are four of us at Chojo, all of whom practice in other forms of art. Prior to moving to the Bonsai industry, I worked for prominent luthier, Jean Larrivee, building acoustic guitars in Vancouver, Canada. Luke Yeoward is a professional musician who has toured the world recording and performing his music. James Rolfe is a studied artist specializing in graffiti and street art and Craig Wilson is a botanical encyclopedia. He is one of Australia most experienced growers and a wealth of knowledge that he spreads through lessons, demos and radio shows across Melbourne.

Can you please tell us about the upcoming exhibition at Grey Gardens Projects? What inspired it?
Our upcoming event at Grey Gardens is a collaboration with Melbourne photographer Nicole Reed and tattoo artist Andrew McLeod, exploring a western impression of Japanese art and landscapes. Incorporating bonsai with more traditional forms of art has always been a long-term plan at Chojo, as it tends to broaden the audience. For many people at the show, it will be the first time they have seen professional bonsai of this quality. We are all very excited.

What does a typical day involve for you?
To be honest, there is no typical day. We obviously are maintaining the collection, however a day may include plumbing, giving a lesson, building plinths, assisting retail customers or a whole day of wiring one tree. It just depends what’s cookin’. I’m not sure if this will ever change, I’ll let you know.

How would you describe your work/what’s your design philosophy?
When designing a bonsai, we are providing an artistic impression of a mature tree in nature in miniature form. In most cases the specimen provides natural features such as texture and colour and we will assist the tree with its movement and overall shape. Sometimes this process is subtle and sometimes radical.

What draws you to the art of bonsai?
Beauty draws me to bonsai. And perhaps an inherent drive to care for something and witness its growth.

Can you tell us about your bonsai collection? How many plants do you have? How much maintenance do they require?
We are growing hundreds of plants ranging from 2-year-old seedlings to advance yamadori (collected material) that is close to 100 years old. Our oldest plant is a 120 year old azalea. Records from the original planting were available as it came from a state garden that was being developed. At the moment, we have two olives that came from the desert of South Australia (very common weed) that are sensational. I would guess they would be no less than 70 years old. Essentially, the individual pieces in our collection have come together by one of 3 ways; cultivated, collected, or purchased and redesigned.

We use a wide range of species most of which are exotic species however Australian natives are becoming more common. Personally, Banksias (Serrata & Integrifolia) and Coastal Tea Trees (Leptospermum laevigatum) are my favourite. As with most nursery jobs, the sheer quantity makes the maintenance high, however to own a small bonsai collection (5-10) there would be no more than one week of work a year. I feel it is a misconception that owning a bonsai is high maintenance when you would probably spend more time polishing your golf clubs annually. I guess it’s a relativity thing.

Do you have a favorite bonsai specimen?
My favourite specimen is invariably the composition that I have yet to create. No matter how satisfied I am with a piece, there is always something I have learned through its creation that benefits the next attempt. Perhaps it is a survival mentality. Like the best forms of art, you never stop learning and it never really ends. With bonsai, there is no final stroke. You will always return to your work.

What is one lesson you have learnt since becoming involved in bonsai?
I think being involved in bonsai makes me contemplate culture and what’s important to myself and my family. I like to think it has taught me persistence and focus.

What other designers/creatives/artists are you inspired by at the moment?
Ai Weiwei is an inspiration. Not only his work, but also him as an artist. I love reading about him and am very excited his art will be coming to Australia later this year. There are many talented bonsai artist across the globe but one who stand out to me is Naoki Maeoka from Osaka. His designs are beautiful.

What media resources do you look to for inspiration?
I guess I enjoy different types of art on the Internet but the best way to get inspired for bonsai is taking a walk through the forest. I live in the Dandenong Ranges – there’s a world of inspiration just out the door.

What is your dream project?
I was just telling a friend I would like to hire a cherry picker and shape a full size Cryptomeria up in the hills. I am almost certain it would be best if that idea remains a dream.

What would you be doing in an alternate career?
If I wasn’t working in bonsai, I would probably be building guitars. I always thought being a postman would be cool but everyone tells me it’s a drag.

What are you passionate about
I guess I try to be passionate about life, my family, the nursery, playing music, getting out for a surf.  When you wake up every morning and stare into the eyes of a beautiful five-year-old girl, its hard not to be passionate about the day in front of you.

What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to continuing working on interesting projects with my friends at Chojo. Honestly, just to continue doing what we are doing.

How does the word ritual relate to the art of bonsai?
Probably the universal ritual in the bonsai world is the moment you open and prepare your tool roll. It is at that time a vision begins to translate into a reality.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
I would be a bonsai. Perhaps a Japanese Black Pine with a wonderful caretaker providing me with care and love. I would watch generations of his/her family enjoy my presence and silently contemplate my timeless allure.  I would symbolise the infinite power and beauty of nature.

IMPRESSIONS OF JAPAN: Nature and Design through Sculpture and Image.
Presented by Chojo Feature Trees, with photography by Nicole Reed and tattoo Art by Andrew Mcleod of Chapel Tattoo.

Exhibition Details:
Grey Gardens Projects
51 Victoria Street, Fitzroy
4th September 6pm-9pm (launch party)
5th September 10am-6pm

All images supplied by Chojo Feature Trees.