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Joe Day Portrait of a Bonsai Stylist and Slab Maker
by Dale Cochoy
Some of the great things about attending the American Bonsai Society annual symposiums are that you get to travel to places around our country that you may have never been to and see great local bonsai, demonstrations and workshops utilizing stock from that area , renew old acquaintances and friends, and meet a few new friends. This years ABS symposium in New Orleans, Louisiana was no different. This was my second trip to New Orleans, the first being a bald cypress collecting trip with Gary Marchal which I wrote about in the Winter 1999 issue of the ABS Journal. During this symposium I met a new acquaintance from Mobile, Alabama named Joe Day. I had heard his name mentioned before but we had never met. Joe was a fellow vendor at the convention who had a table full of very unique stone slabs for planting forests on. These slabs were very nicely made, and each one was shaped differently. I noticed that several of the trees in the bonsai display were planted on these slabs ( these turned out to all be Joe's creations) and they captured my attention.
In talking to Joe I found him to be an easy-going, soft-spoken man who knew his bonsai. Joe got started in the art of bonsai 20 years ago when he was trying to find a way to combine art with growing some type of plant. Joe's first contact with bonsai in Mobile, Alabama came in 1981 through the late Edith Sorge of the Bonsai Farm in Texas. He had bought some plants from her and she sent him the name of another of her customers in Mobile. His name is Gator Vickers. Together they formed the bonsai society of Mobile.
Joe's background certainly had no connections to the art of bonsai. He was an electronics technician serving in Viet Nam during the war from '68 to '72. He was a controller for Coca-Cola bottling in Mobile for ten years. Now he is a business manager for a trucking warehousing firm.
He got started making natural stone slabs in 1996 when he was looking for a way to utilize all of the accumulated material that he had grown from seed. Joe had bought some trident maple seeds back in the 80's and one of the new small trees had a very bad root system so he planted it in the yard. It produced lots of seeds every year so he started growing tridents for both single trees and for groups. Each summer he sorts trees by size and quality as he trims them. Since he now had a large assortment of tridents in different sizes he decided to make his own forests. He tried using pieces of broken flagstone but didn't like the looks of the broken rock so he tried various ways to make the rock look more weathered.
Joe uses natural rock slabs from Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Tennessee. They range in colors from grays to browns, tans and blues. A typical slab is made from a Pennsylvania slate-like stone that is very hard, gray-green in color and about 1 1/2" thick broken flagstone. A good carving rock needs to be consistent in color, thickness, and hardness without bumps and dips in the surface. It must be hard enough to stay in one piece as it is lifted, bounced and dropped in normal bonsai use. It must also be soft enough to be carved by hammer and chisel and soft enough to allow sharp edges to be polished smooth. Six years of experience carving rock tells him when a piece is hard enough for the strength and soft enough to allow the work. A rock must also be free of fractures. A close inspection will show up most fractures but some are completely hidden. These hidden fractures will show up when, without warning, the slab he is carving suddenly splits into many pieces. This can happen the first time he uses the hammer and chisel or the last time he taps the rock to make the finishing chip. For this reason he uses steel-tipped boots in case a large chunk of stone falls on his toe.
Joe first does a free-form drawing on the stone using a piece of soapstone. He then roughs out the edges using a sculptors hammer and chisels. A carpenters hammer is not suitable. The hammerhead is too hard and small pieces of metal can chip off. A sculptors hammer is made of softer metal and this lessens the risk of hammer particles chipping off and lodging in the users eye. He then uses a grinder with wire brushes, polishing grit , grit polishing discs and various sanding wheels to make the edges and surfaces smooth. . He uses an industrial breathing mask while working since breathing rock dust into your lungs can be very dangerous and cutting or polishing rock for even a short time without one can cause serious damage to your lungs. I must tell you that there are also a few other "secret" steps in rock slab making which Joe would not go into.
Joe makes slabs up to about 50 inches maximum. They cost about $45 per linear foot up to about $250 for a large one. They weigh approximately 10 pounds per foot. The slabs will not deteriorate and will last as long as any composition. He does rock work when he can and by special request. He regards it as very rewarding as a creative effort but much too much work for the money! Shipping is a problem because without a safe and cheap way to ship the stones the combined cost of the slab and shipping makes the total cost more than most hobbyists would like to pay for a container. He also has troubles consistently finding rocks of good quality and quantity. For these reasons he doesn't regard it as a business but instead as a hobby that he finds rewarding.
The US National Arboretum has ordered slabs by special request which Joe made to specs from a drawn form . These were to be used as replacements for existing slabs. In April 2001 the US National Arboretum celebrated the 25th anniversary of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. During the Asian Arts Festival ,which was part of these celebrations, one of Joe's slabs and groups of trident maples was used in a demonstration by visiting Japanese bonsai master Susumu Nakamura and assisted by Warren Hill, curator of the bonsai and penjing collection. A beautiful trident maple forest was created on the slab.