Retrospective: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, Pots, and Bonsai

For a year I’ve been dreaming about assembling my past artwork in a timeline. Almost everything I had needed to be digitized from slides and prints, the earliest from 35 years ago. Going through the big boxes of images took longer than expected, as I would drift into reverie over times long forgotten.

I enjoyed seeing the bonsai evolution here. For 15 years they remained unsophisticated and undeveloped. Then in the span of two years that changed. 

There’s a LOT of images in this post, edited ferociously to just a few examples per creative period. It was a hoot to put together, and I hope you enjoy it ~

Left, birding in the Everglades, FL at age 11; right, at my drawing table in Ithaca, NY, age 20. By age 10 I had an art mentor, and at the time I was heavily into birding, so I drew a lot of birds. 

These pencil drawings were made during college summer breaks. I apparently enjoyed Where’s Waldo—try to find the cicada with the cactus wren, and the waterthrush hidden in the ferny waterfall. I also enjoyed the gorges of the Finger Lakes region and how the streams cut through the shale bedrock. And notice the bonsai here. A couple of these date back to when I was 15, the skill level remaining essentially unchanged until my early 30’s. And yes, that mountain laurel is planted in a trashcan lid.

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While not my first tree drawing, this was the first with a bonsai-ish feel. I was 20. The inspiration was a juniper seen at Mesa Verde, CO. 

These were from my freshman year, an intaglio print, and two life drawings.

As a sophomore I found ceramics, and began making bonsai containers for my trees at that time. This is about as far as I got with functional tableware.

My undergraduate thesis show was in painting. They were all big, and the one over the wood floor was huge, 8′ x 8′. I was a biology minor, and looking through microscopes inspired that series.  

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I think this was my last painting, done just after I graduated college. 

Part of a series I made to get into ceramics graduate school. These are about 3′ tall. 

And in college, again the unimpressive bonsai. Two reasons may account for this: my creative energies were going elsewhere, and I lacked the techniques to make a tree say anything other than ‘Hey, I’m a potted plant.’

This is work from Indiana University. I was in that graduate program for one year. Then I transferred to the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University. 

Early work at Alfred, my first year as a ceramic sculpture grad.

These pieces are from the second year. The monoprints were from an elective course. 

A few pieces from my thesis show, which was one last experiment. It was the first time I’d done any writing. There were short prose poems printed very small which were read with a glass magnifier (which a glassmaker friend made). The feet were porcelain. 

I usually resist the urge to explain artwork, but I know work like this can be confusing. So, let me try at least to describe the process. Work like I did in graduate school is often quite private, and often it’s never meant to be shown. You might call it journey work, one piece leading to and informing the direction of the next, using the subconscious as an ally, and learning from it. The pieces themselves are little more than a breadcrumb trail. They may ignore other’s ideas of beauty, or what’s pretty. There may be no effort to sell them. When released from those tethers, if lucky, the work can guide and teach the creator. And if very lucky, it can be interesting to others. But most important is to keep moving. To keep exploring. To be led by the work, by the products of the body and not of mentation. I still use this challenging, uncertain and yet edifying creative toolbox for so many things. 

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When I was in graduate school my father heroically leapt off a tram to recover a hat blown off my mother’s head, slipping on some rocks and getting a concussion that took over 6 months to recover from (beware, the heroic). The reason this drawing is crinkled is I’d used it as wrapping paper for a gift to my father in the hospital, thrown out and later saved. He was an entomologist, and making these insect people was my only way of relating to the fragility of a man I always thought was indestructible.

And once more notice the bonsai. These were from the graduate school years, in my mid-20’s. Their lack of sophistication was, as the years went by, in greater and greater contrast to the other work I was doing.

At the end of my term at Alfred I felt that I’d gone as far with sculpture as I wanted to go, and turned to making bonsai containers. 

My potter years, 1995-2003, starting in Upstate NY and ending in Arizona. That last unfired pot seems to suggest I wanted more. 

For most of my potter years the bonsai advanced hardly at all, still little more than toys. I didn’t take them as a way to journey, as I had with painting or sculpture. Then in the last few years as a potter this changed. 

I love this photo on the left, from about 2002. I’m in the red shirt, my first teacher Boon Manakitivipart is on the lower left, Mr. Kimura is on the lower right, and my future teacher Mr. Shinji Suzuki is to the upper right. I had pretty clear aesthetic opinions by this point, and when it came to finding a master in Japan it felt like Mr. Shinji Suzuki’s work was the closest match. At the time of this photo I’d been studying with Boon for two years, and already my bonsai looked different. The techniques he shared felt like the beginning of a microphone for the medium. Then I went to Japan.

Work as an apprentice.

Here’s a smattering of bonsai made post-Japan. None of these are particularly traditional (plenty of those in my portfolio), save for the accent plants. It was only after Japan that I began to skip sideways with the trees. 

This is a tiny home I designed and built in 2017. I knew almost nothing about architecture, but found many similarities to the arts I was more familiar with. For one, creation is a messy affair, with lots of aborted cul-de-sacs not seen in the final work (for the tiny home, thankfully, most of those were confined to my early SketchUp drafts).

What inspires us to create? A few early trips likely sparked much of the above, and I was 19 on the most memorable one. At Hamilton College in January we had a short ‘Winter Term’, when a professor could take a group of kids and do something crazy. We kitted out a van with a 55 gallon drum of water, eleven students, one brave professor, and left Upstate NY for Baja, Mexico. (Micha, I think you’re in the back row there by the van…) It was an ecology class, and the first time I’d ever kept a journal. Three weeks later we returned with no reported homicides though with various bruises, particularly to our van which had barely survived Big Bend National Park—one fender was bent at a jaunty angle, a perfect spot for our Big Bend bumper sticker. The photo of the streaks is my favorite. One member of the group had brought his tripod, and we both had cameras, so one night we stood on a hill overlooking the ocean and each took 30 minute exposures of the stars with a cable release. I didn’t know the fella that well, but we stood and talked of future dreams that entire hour, and I couldn’t believe the slide when I got it back. That the stars had such colors…and it was the first time the starry sky had felt 3D, like rain that gives body to air.

In my mid-20’s I went on two other trips: to the green roof of Upstate New York, the Adirondacks, and to England where I wandered about the Cotswolds and was taken with the welcoming wooden doors framed by semi-cultivated foliage, a wisteria planted at Kew Gardens in the 1750’s, the dry stack rock walls everywhere, and in London, tile steps where many feet had worn off the glaze.

Along with the bonsai progression, I enjoyed seeing how early on I was looking at entropy, time and nature in various ways, and that I now see as proto wabi-sabi interest, foreshadowing a deeper investigation in the bonsai that have threaded through all of this. And I wonder, what’s next for them? 

 

27 Comments

  1. Rodger Kessler says:

    Micha3l, an amazing tour. The range of, your stuff is remarkable.

  2. Beautiful, Michael. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kit says:

    All sublime but that hip…oh that hip!

  4. Cheryl says:

    Michael, I relate very strongly to your posts on creativity and the artistic process. I came to bonsai as a painter (BFA-RISD, MFA-VCFA). What speaks to me most strongly is that, as artists, we need not be tied to any one medium or process. Indeed, many of us balk at such constraints. I am a painter, a writer, a designer, a spinner (wool), a knitter, a cook, and also, thanks to bonsai, a sculptor and amateur horticulturist. I think for many of us, the joy of making is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Additionally, the learning that accompanies each pursuit keeps our brains engaged, challenged, and absorbant. I am very grateful to bonsai as it stretches my mental muscles every day, but it has also introduced me to some of the kindest, most interesting people I have ever known: creative folks from all walks of life. What a gift!

  5. Dave Crust says:

    I am astounded by this. Here I thought you were just another wandering, birdwatching, x-potter, mostly-artist-first bonzo dork. Such a beautiful trajectory!

  6. Great post Michael! Thanks for sharing so much of yourself and of your journey through art. It was both humbling to compare it to my own small dabblings in art over the years and inspiring to see the arc of how one can continue to evolve and grow. I don’t think we spend enough time considering our own arcs and being proud of where we have come from and excited about where we have yet to go. Do you ever have any regrets about leaving a particular medium behind? Or does it just feel natural to you that they played their part and you’ve now moved on to the next thing?

  7. Viky says:

    Thank you for sharing this trip down the path of your growth as a creative, I so enjoyed it and the resonance I felt with my own journey!

  8. Jeffrey Robson says:

    A window into a soul. BEAUTIFUL! Thanks for giving us a glimpse.

  9. lost2301 says:

    Best post ever!!

  10. Ron Davis says:

    O my gosh. What wonder wrapped in one life! So inspiring to see so many artistic expressions. Most of us would be happy to dwell in just one of your creative periods hoping it wouldn’t fade away. What I find most interesting are those times when a fork in the road was present, like that last unfired pot saying now is the time, and you stuck a wet finger in the wind and went with it. But really, Michael, why no tango dancing pics?

  11. Chase Rosade says:

    What can I say, you are a Renaissance man working towards perfection in all you do. Life is beautiful

  12. Ray says:

    What a great retrospective Michael. I love the bird sketches an early direction to art. The ceramics , out door photos, nature is all present in the move towards bonsai artistry and life. Your new small space home is a delight you led us through.
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Your influence on my bonsai education will never be forgotten.
    Ray

  13. Wayne Schoech says:

    Michael old buddy

    You’re brilliant. And like most brilliant artists, talent shows out young. Those early bird drawings say a lot about who you are. Thanks!

    -w

  14. john blanchard says:

    Wonderful, living with the freedom to be creative and artistic always has appealed to me. Thankyou for sharing so much.

  15. Sekhar Chatterjee says:

    Michael,

    Thank you for sharing these photos. It tells me about the journey of your life and the huge talents that you have. It is interesting to see how you moved and morphed into something new and always wanting more.

    It is valuable and extremely nostalgic to take time to look back to the path one traversed to come to the point in life where one is now.

    Thank you

    Sekhar

  16. Masaki says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey as an multifaceted artist. Enjoyed all the paintings and pictures. Looking forward to see what may come in the future.
    日々是好日

    Masaki

  17. Jenna Williams says:

    Your inspirational life and works are a great example to put into practice in my own life. Your touching more souls than you know! Silent leaders always shine the brightest.

  18. Gary Wood says:

    Great job Sir Hawthorn!!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  19. chubby says:

    lovely

  20. Rod Murray says:

    What a wonderful journey
    Cheers Rod

  21. Micha says:

    I miss the pottery. I still have at least one or two.

  22. Dana says:

    This post was an incredible snapshot of your life in art. And honestly if you put this into a book and expounded on it a bit more I would buy it and read it over and over. And there are few books I read more than once.

  23. Nancy Fletcher Cassell says:

    Thank you for sharing your art. I signed up for your site because you are an artist and work with bonsai.
    I have an MFA in drawing and work primarily with sumi ink. My work is based on an abstraction of nature. I have experimented with making drawings of bonsai over the years and have a strong interest in clay and Japanese culture.Your bonsai work is dynamic. Wonderful to see the path you have followed.
    Especially enjoyed the video of your bonsai garden.
    Nancy

  24. Stephen Liesen says:

    It looks like you followed your passion and path fearlessly. You did not worry about security or failure. Your abilities shine thru in every stage of your life. Those early bird drawings fascinated me. What’s next?

  25. MY GOD!! You went back to baby times… LOL I’ll see if I have me drawing in my diaper…

  26. Phyllis Kinser says:

    Thank you! This was moving and inspiring. 

    Sent from the all new AOL app for Android

  27. Joel Gold says:

    Now I can see where your art comes from. Thanks for sharing your journey.

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