Collaborating with Nature – Search for Relevance of Bonsai Art and Self


About a week from today, one of my bonsai trees will be on display at the Portland Art Museum for The Artisans Cup (an Exhibition of American Bonsai)  Needless to say, I’m very excited about this event.   There are  3 main reasons for my excitement:

1) Most obvious reason…my tree will be on display

2) I get to see other amazing trees from all over United States and some from Canada. Hopefully meet the artists that created them.

3) The idea that The Artisan Cup will catapult awareness to higher quality of American bonsai and therefore a greater appreciation and respect for bonsai art  here in America itself and to the whole world.

Thumbing through some old magazines I have, I came across an interview of David DeGroot (former curator of Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection now Pacific Bonsai Museum ) with Bonsai Today 84th issue  in 2003.  He describes how bonsai is perceived here in America:


Interviewer(Andy Rutledge): ” I often look at how the level of bonsai has grown, say, in Italy in the past ten years. But again, there is a bit of cultural difference. There bonsai is regarded as a fine art and the teachers are artists and held in high regard by the arts community.

David:”Yes! you’ve put your finger on it … Here we have a sports culture. In Europe, you have an arts culture. We cannot get the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection listed in the local newspaper under “museums.”  We cannot get the arts editor of the local newspaper to even answer my emails… let alone to come out to look at it or write about it. And you  will never, to this day, find a bonsai book in any bookstore or library under “Art.” It will always be under “Gardening.”  We fail, at the level of the general population, to recognize bonsai as art. We fail to recognize bonsai artists as artists.  Therefore, it’s not really thriving.

You know, at least in the various parts of the country that I’ve lived in we sit home and watch Jerry Springer and go to the ball game and… it’s just not really what you call a refined culture, by and large.  So I think that we do have some cultural disadvantages in pursuing this as an art.”


Although that interview was 12 years ago, I still feel that American bonsai still have not reach its relevance in the art culture.

I love bonsai and I’m very passionate about it, but at times I still ask myself why do I do this?  As in my earlier post I asked myself why bonsai is important?  I think the question I’m really asking is, why is bonsai relevant and why is it relevant to me to continue pursuing it?  And I think the answer to that question is expressed by Dave as simply as …… bonsai  is part of a refined culture.  When I look at cultures that practice bonsai to high level like China, Japan, and European countries like  Italy, they have a long history of art.  Italy as an example, is where Michael Angelo and Leonardo DaVinci came from.  They understand art.  I like to look at the Italians as a great example of assimilating this ancient Asian art into their culture and appreciate it for its value as high art.

The idea of a living high art brings me back to why I’m attracted to bonsai and why I’m so passionate about it.  First of all, I enjoy nature very much, I’ve always been surrounded by trees.  Also  I’ve always love drawing and creating things. Remembering back when I was around 13 or 14 years old,  I was heavily into oil paintings on canvas.  I read books and looked at master piece paintings.  I’ve seen Leonardo DaVinci’s paintings and dreamed of becoming as good as Leonardo and create masterpieces.  Then one day, I told my family what I wanted to do.  I said I want to be a painter like Leonardo DaVinci.  My “lolo”,grandfather in  Filipino(tagalog), was there, and he said, “you’ll never make any money from that.”    Out of respect for my lolo and I took into consideration of what he said and set aside my heart’s desire.  Although one can make money at anything , I accepted what my lolo said as if it was a fact.  At that age I was more complaisant and had to push aside the idea of becoming a painter or an artist.  My dream of becoming a master painter was crushed at a young age.

Fast forward to the recent years.  I’ve rediscovered my desire for artistic expression.  I have made a career change because of it.  And now the pursuit of bonsai.  I find that my love for nature and art can be expressed in these miniature trees.   Now I dream of becoming a master in bonsai similar to my dream when I was young of becoming a master painter  like Leonardo DaVinci and others.  Of course, being a master at anything will take a long time, a lot of study, and perfecting skills.  I know, realistically at the moment, I can’t go to Japan and study or even spend a lot of time and money on advance lessons.  But the one very thing I can do now is committing to being the best I can in everything I do, especially in bonsai.

My excitement for the Artisan Cup is a culmination of many things and in about a week it will become a reality.  To add to this, recently I was reading a blog post through The Artisan Cup and saw a reference about ” collaborating with nature”.  I was reminded of my very first Garden Show in 2009.  I titled my garden “Collaborating with Nature.”   This is after I’ve already switch career from an Engineer/Project Manager and have been doing Landscape Design and construction for about 5 years.   The first show I did was a rendition of an Asian Art Museum that exhibited fine art and bonsai.   At the time I have not seen bonsai displayed at Fine Art Museums.  In preparation for this show, I actually wrote  the Seattle Art Museum if there was any interest in collaborating for this show.  Sadly, I did not get any response.  I decided, I will create my own museum at the garden show.  Although, it was only a pretend, I envisioned bonsai being with fine arts.

What the Artisan Cup will do next weekend  is realizing that vision in a big way.  Making  bonsai relevant to the art world (especially here in America).  Bonsai is an art where the artist works with living things as a medium, collaborating with the other artist behind the scene – “mother nature.”  The result is a unique living art.

Hopefully bonsai art will become a relevant part of American art culture.  My hope is that, I can practice the art of bonsai and continue to pursue it like I would have mastering oil painting when I was younger.  It would have made a small impact when someday my kids and  grand kids will visit a bonsai museum and say “that 400 year old  piece of art in that museum, my father/grandfather, collaborated with nature to make that master piece.”


Entrance to the display garden of my pretend art museum
Displaying bonsai in a unique way. I envisioned futuristic tokonoma on the right. I also had shohin in open boxes that show case bonsai like artwork in galleries.
Here’s a close-up of the box frames.
Bonsai displayed among stone sculpture.
Combining the traditional elements with modern sculpture art.
Here’s another angle of the display with the red stained juniper drip wood as a piece of art among the bonsai display
I created this vertical window that views a waterfall behind the wall as if the that waterfall is several yards away. It was only about 6 to 8 ft away.
This is my modern tokonoma, I call “green cube” from previous post.
Close-up of the shohin boxes
Here’s another one.

Published by tony bonsaiko

My little trees are my daily reminders of our grand connection to this beautiful and mysterious universe.

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