A Look at Exhibition Scoring
One of my favorite trees at the 2022 Pacific Bonsai Expo (and there were many great trees in the show) was listed on the judging sheet as “# 42, Deciduous category, Species Chi Chi Gingko” (Fig 1). The exhibitor’s name was listed as “Anonymous”. Trained in a “flame” style, the tree had aged white bark with newer growth at the tips. It was shown without leaves and displayed the exquisite, dense branching, the result of years of work. As advertised, the tree displayed aerial chi chi, consistent with age. The base and roots were well-formed. It was planted in a rectangular, green glazed container with patina. The feet of the container were decorated with small spirals or maybe clouds. It was an antique Chinese container. I heard that this tree had been in the Kokufu-ten exhibition in the past before being imported to the US.
As I said at the beginning of this post, there were many great trees in the show. However, this particular tree seemed to me to be as fine an example of a Chi Chi Gingko as I have seen. The scoring system for the show was well thought out, and “state of the art” if one can say that about a scoring system. That said, the tree ranked 27/73 for all trees, and 7/18 in the deciduous tree category. Best in show judging involved a judge voting for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices in that category. The chichi gingko received one vote in the 1st choice, 2nd choice and 3rd choice categories from 3 individual judges, totaling 9 points in all. The winning Ponderosa Pine of Randy Knight received 59 points in all for Best in Show, the runner-up Shimpaku juniper of Jeff Stern received 37 points.
Different views of the tree during setup of the Pacific Bonsai Expo
Why did the Chi Chi Gingko not achieve a higher score compared to these other trees? It may come down to some small aspects, intangibles if you will. Some people thought the pot was a little large for the tree, some thought the tree lacked emotion or presence. Some people may just not know what characteristics make a good Gingko bonsai, we generally don’t see many after all. Large collected trees do have a WOW!!! factor (see Scale and Bonsai) that a tree like the Gingko may lack. So perhaps the Gingko was technically excellent (except for the pot??) but that it lacked emotion or presence.
This brings to mind another tree shown in 2021 at the National Show in Rochester, NY, a Zelkova serrata entered by Steve Ohman (the tree is now owned by Adair Martin). A large, broom style tree (yes I know, another classic style) featuring great age as evidenced by the rough bark, trunk and nebari. This tree was shown in the Kokufuten in 1954. It was sourced in Japan by Yuji Yoshiumura and imported to the US around 1968. There may have been some imperfections but this tree had an impressive heritage (see post on Bonsai Nut site by Adair Martin, “THE Zelkova”, https://www.bonsainut.com/threads/the-zelkova.53128/).
Zelkova serrata at the National Show in September 2021 and at the Winter Silhouette exhibit without leaves in December 2021 (click on images to enlarge)
I personally feel that this tree had age, presence and an impressive heritage, although it was not necessarily emotion-provoking. Some felt the middle section of the trunk was too thick, however it was hard for me to judge this while the tree was in leaf. See the image from the Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show in December, 2021 (2+ months later).
Some Current Systems
As these two examples illustrate, there is no judging system that will satisfy every observer. The reader is encouraged to review the available information on the judging rubrics discussed here that are available online. The judging rubric adopted for the Artisan’s Cup discusses criteria for evaluating trees that details both technical aspects and artistic aspects that must be considered in arriving at the final score for the tree. The rubric used for the Pacific Bonsai Expo used a 5 point scale for trees and also a separate system for judging Best in Show (described above). Importantly, the organizers used statistical methods (z-scores) to “normalize” judges scores. This removes scoring problems and bias that can arise because one judge tends to award higher scores overall and another, more critical judge tends to award lower scores overall, for example. At the Kokufu-ten, trees that receive scores above a certain threshold receive awards regardless of “category” and there are no set number of awards. As far as I know, there is no designated “Best in Show” award.
Based on published details from the Artisan’s Cup and the Pacific Bonsai Expo, I identified three “Best Practices” that all judging rubrics should incorporate. First, the provision of their criteria for judging trees/displays that all of the judges are supposed to adhere to. The second, is the use of z-scores when applicable as described above. The third is transparency. Publishing not only the judging criteria but also the judges scores serves an important educational function. Judges can see how they did compared to their peers. Exhibitors, attendees and the public at-large can learn more about what constitutes quality in bonsai.
I would also propose that future exhibitions use a two-part scoring system, where judges give each tree/display two separate scores, one for technical proficiency and one reflecting the level of artistry. These scores would be combined to provide a composite final score. I do not believe that this would add much time to the judging, but I do think it would encourage the judges to consciously consider both of these components in more detail and would also be educational for everyone involved. Finally, as mentioned in the Artisans Cup rubric under “artistry”, trees should be “of quality and value/interest”. The two trees that I discussed above are both of “value/interest” given their history and “provenance”. These characteristics should be recognized and given more weight in future exhibition scoring methods.
Copyright Walter J. Scott, 2023