Collaborative Bonsai Work

Bonsai is usually a solo endeavor. It’s that way here, and it’s the way we worked in Japan, too: one tree per work station per person.

I’d been trained as a lone wolf artist in painting, in sculpture, and later in pottery, so this solo assumption felt natural. A rock band assumes several members, but bonsai bands are rare.

I never did any collaborative work until 2012. I wanted to explore ideas that were only half-formed in my head. But I didn’t have the skills to make them myself.

In the early Seasonal classes I found a wide range of skill sets. We had surgeons, architects, woodworkers, and engineers sign up. They likely didn’t know what they were getting themselves into (sorry folks!), but I realized what a bounty I had there.


The first experimental slab, 2012: twin trunk Mountain Hemlock on a nylon cutting board. (Tree images link to posts about how they were made.)


Another of the early experiments: a Mountain Hemlock forest on a Corian slab, a new slab material for us.

Initially, this collaborative thing didn’t go well. It was hard to get the lone wolf to run with the pack. Over time I came to appreciate this way of building a unique bonsai.

I learned it does help to have a creative captain. Pure egalitarianism isn’t best. I did find, though, that helpers often (usually) had better methods than I did. And they sure could build it better than I could. I would show up in the morning with an idea, and then by the end of the day they’d have made it a reality.

Next we tried one with an internal nylon frame: a cascade Vine Maple.


Assembling the Vine Maple cascade interior support.


Trying it out… We ended up reworking this first support attempt.

Affectionately called ‘The Boot’, this Vine Maple was my first cantilevered tree.

Trees that hung, rather than rested on a surface, then piqued my interest. This is a Shore Pine. I’d found that nylon could be easily bent with heat, expanding the possibilities of the slab. Later we made a 3-D printed slab for this one.

Another hanging one, a Rocky Mountain Juniper trunk grafted with Itoigawa.

A return to the slab idea, with a Mountain Hemlock clump; this one slightly levitated.

It’s impossible to imagine any of these works ever arriving as fully formed as they were without the combined efforts of my students and apprentices.


A current project with Erich. We’re bouncing ideas around for a metal support so this pine can be displayed without a wall or post.

One project that I’m particularly fond of is my collaboration with Sergio Cuan for my book Bonsai Heresy: 56 Myths Exposed Using Science and Tradition. We’d decide on which chapters to illustrate, and then Sergio came up with hilarious ironic illustrations. The only one based on my idea was the cover, all the others were his. It was terrific fun and I was delighted by Sergio’s willingness to be crazy with me. And—to underline the point of this post—that book would be only half what it is without his wry presentation.

If you’re curious about collaboration and want ultra-level inspiration, try the new Beatles documentary Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson. Many reviews canned this one, but I think Rolling Stone got it right. This is not “Let’s have fun with the Beatles for two hours”, politely packaged for the family audience (given that it’s a Disney product that’s somewhat amazing). It’s a 6-hour odyssey—a fascinating, clear-eyed view into the messiness and joys of collaborative creativity. (Also, the paisley and other bold fashion statements of 1969, oh my oh my, so worth it!)



    Your initial issues w/ colab work are understandable as physical media art is generally a solo show… No-one stood over Picasso’s shoulder and told him to make pretty faces… But coming around to colab work can be rewarding if we let it… Once we started the Arbor Arts Collective, I learned to dig the colab work (when asked – never uninvited)…

  2. vennfootwear says:

    If you ever want to collaborate with a footwear designer Michael, please let me know!

    Love getting these emails.

    -Mark MARK BRITTON +1.949.566.3518

    On Fri, Feb 18, 2022 at 2:02 AM Michael Hagedorn wrote:

    > crataegus posted: “Bonsai is usually a solo endeavor. It’s that way here, > and it’s the way we worked in Japan, too: one tree per work station per > person. I’d been trained as a lone wolf artist in painting, in sculpture, > and later in pottery, so this solo assumption felt na” >

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