By Jocelyn Moore
Northwest Asian Weekly
Often perceived as an expensive hobby for old men, the art of bonsai is often overlooked by younger generations living a bustling city life.
Decked-Out: From Scroll to Skateboard, an upcoming exhibition (April 30–October 2) at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, combines the tradition of bonsai and skate deck art – introducing bonsai in a way that gets past the general misconceptions against them.
“I want to make the art accessible to people in their 20s and 30s, and make the broad appeal of bonsai relevant to people today,” said Aarin Packard, the curator of the museum who came up with the concept of Decked-Out.
It took nearly four years for Packard to turn his concept into reality, as he waited for an opportunity in his career that would allow him to put the exhibit together.
The art of bonsai can be traced back to the Chinese practice of penjing, which depicts artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. The concept of penjing travelled to Japan in the 6th century when Buddhist students and diplomats in Japan visited China.
Since then, bonsai has played an essential role in Japanese culture, from a symbol of status to a meditating hobby that brings inner peace.
Bonsai is often displayed in a small interior alcove called “tokonoma,” which consists traditional elements: a bonsai, a hanging scroll, and an accent object. Imagine a mantel above the fireplace of an American family home. A tokonoma shares a similar purpose as the room’s focal point.
Decked-Out collaborates with 16 Pacific Northwest muralists to reinterpret the role of the hanging scroll with modern skate deck art.
“I want the three elements of the display to present themselves equally,” said Portland artist Maxwell Humphres. “I will be using repetitive forms or modular units in my work. This relates to the systems, and repetition in the treatment, trimming, and care of the bonsai. I want my work to reflect a strong presence of structure. Along with form, I personally will be focusing on my color palette. I do not want the scroll to have too bright or overly saturated colors.”
Japanese American visual artist Jean Nagai is excited to see the public’s response to his use of white out to cover colors in his work to highlight an individual’s spiritual connection to nature.
“This phenomenon of ‘whiting out’ is something that happens every day and it’s difficult for a lot of people to talk about, but we know it’s happening,” said Nagai, who lives in Olympia. “It can be violent or subtly aggressive and it’s a sad absurd reality.”
Nagai said Decked-Out was a challenge. He had to find common ground between skateboarding and bonsai, and he has little experience in either.
Nonetheless, he saw it as an opportunity to learn something new and have discussions with different people about the world around them.
“I hope [younger Asian Americans] who pick up this art form learn a more simple and peaceful life with nature within their homes,” Nagai said. “And also carry on the respect and love of nature they found through bonsai to the rest of the planet.”
For Seattle artist John Osgood, his piece at Decked-Out is a personal tribute to his childhood friend who passed away 15 years prior to the day he first met with other artists at the museum.
“My ideas gravitated towards wanting to pay an homage to him, but stay within a certain meaning of the tokonoma and bonsai,” Osgood said.
Osgood said his friend was a talented swimmer who upheld time and dedication to the sport, especially swimming the butterfly.
“For my tokonoma display, I have painted a scene of rough waters [that is] supposed to depict tragedy and something to overcome,” Osgood said. “Around the skateboard deck, I am creating a sort of my own bonsai from cut wood that has butterflies on it.”
Osgood also plans to include a small bed for the purpose of collecting water. This symbolizes his childhood friend’s life around water.
“Once the bed is filled with water, it will give way to a reflection,” he said. “I reflect on Jason quite a bit. He is a big part of who I am.”
Packard said that seeing the responses and enthusiasm of the artists is one of the most rewarding aspects of putting up the exhibit. His passion for bonsai echoes the unique connection between each artist and their tokonoma.
“I have a deep appreciation for plants and horticulture,” Packard said. “Trees are so long-lived. They are going to outlive us. Since they are around for so long, they can connect us with the past and future.”
According to Packard, most of the trees in the museum have been cultivated for 50 to 60 years and their history are very well documented.
One particular tree, the Domoto Trident Maple, has been in the United States for 101 years. The tree originally travelled from Japan to the United States to be displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
Japanese immigrant Kanetaro Domoto fell in love with the tree and bought it at the end of the fair. Despite the family’s economic hardship and Japanese internment during World War II, the Domoto family cared for the tree until 1990, before they donated it to the museum.
Packard said the museum has a collection of 125 trees and 53 are on display at any given time.
“We rotate them as needed and do a major change-out twice a year,” Packard said. “We try to keep a variety and some trees need to be out all the time.”
Packard said that people often mistake bonsai as a type of tree that grows indoors. In fact, people can turn any native tree into a bonsai, as long as they dedicate the effort to observe, water, and connect with the tree every day.
“The temperate climate of Washington allows a broad range of trees to grow well,” Packard said. “Any native tree will grow well, such as fir, spruce, pine, Chinese juniper, Japanese maple, and so on.”
“Try to grow some trees that are native to the environment,” he said. “You want to grow a tree that will do well where you live.”
For first-time owners of bonsai, Packard offers a few words of advice.
“Start by observing it,” he said. “The more you look at it, you can definitely notice the subtleties. Especially this time of the year when I go out to check the trees, I notice the difference in trees and the little buds coming out. Keep the trees outside, if they need to be in display, then bring them in.”
Maintaining a consistent amount of water is the most crucial for a healthy tree.
“You should check if it needs water daily, but not water daily,” he said. “Trees are always telling us how to take care of them. Our part is simply to listen.”
Jocelyn Moore can be reached at email@example.com.