Our Bonsai Family
Mr. Shinji Suzuki
None of us spring into a career unguided. Mr. Suzuki was courageous enough to take me on as an apprentice in 2003, followed by Matt Reel and Tyler Sherrod who also completed apprenticeships with Mr. Suzuki and fill out our bonsai clan, or family, in the United States. Mr. Suzuki won his first Prime Minister’s award at 36, and has been a superstar of Japanese bonsai since then, appearing on the news frequently and building enthusiasm and love for bonsai in the professional community as well as his visits to schools to share bonsai with children. When his personal style was coalescing—a deep respect and sensitivity for naturalness in trees—he made the thought-provoking bonsai video Works of Divinity which documents a year in his creative life. My book Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk tells many stories about Mr. Suzuki’s gentle way with trees, his humor, and his hope for bonsai around the world.
I apprenticed under Shinji Suzuki of Japan from 2003-2006, and have since crafted a life around bonsai—in 2008 setting up an urban studio in Portland, Oregon, USA where I create, teach, and write about bonsai. The 3-day intensive Seasonal program is my primary teaching outlet, with private lessons, client services, and horse-whipping apprentices until satisfactorily bloodied filling out the rest of the week. Formerly a potter, my resume also includes being the bonsai consultant at the Portland Japanese Garden, the book Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, founding the Portland Bonsai Village, co-creating the Bonsai Fundamentals Course, and blogging weekly at www.crataegus.com.
a few other tidbits:
—was a painter and sculptor for years, have an MFA from The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and made bonsai containers in the 1990’s under the name ‘Crataegus Bonsai Containers’
—prior to my apprenticeship abroad, I studied with sensei Boon Manakitivipart from 2000-2003, who prepared me well for life and work in Japan, as well as offering a solid and detailed grounding in everything bonsai
—creative influences include the ideals and intentions behind the Unknown Craftsman, the sculpture of Jean-Pierre Larocque, the bonsai of Shinji Suzuki, the writing of Thoreau and Jean Giono, the mixed forests of the Northeastern and Northwestern USA, and certain rascally poets like Hafiz and Billy Collins
—work as an apprentice in Japan earned master Shinji Suzuki several major awards (Kokufu and Prime Minister), as well as client awards in the Artisan’s Cup and the National Show; privately a Mountain Hemlock was awarded ‘Best Evergreen’ at the 2016 National Show
—outside of professional life I might be found dancing Argentine tango, kayaking, obsessing over TED talks, or tooling about town on a hybrid bike
Statement of Orientation
Most artists would probably refer to this as the ‘artist’s statement,’ so you can call it that if you wish.
One part of bonsai that I find particularly resonant is the chance for the artist to be a bit invisible, to have the tree eventually be its own spokesperson. When we let go of our grip on the microphone, we become infinite.
Having just moved to a city I am aware of urbanization, and these days think a lot about what is wild. I am arrested by natural beauty, the kind of beauty that is not created but born. The use of collected trees, even deciduous, as ‘found objects’ has allowed some exploration of these themes of wildness and naturalness, and juggling that within the traditional framework. Also the minimization of the bonsai container to the point of it vanishing completely has had continued relevance in my recent work (a bit ironic given that I’m a potter), which brings the tree into the foreground. At least that’s the intention.
I really don’t think we need wabi-sabi to make viable and excellent bonsai, but for me the original, raw aesthetic values that gave birth to bonsai are still meaningful and guide my work, even if I sometimes use unconventional and irreverent means of getting there.
Though I avidly work with all kinds of trees, thin-trunked trees have perennially touched me for their poetic potential—those very old, slender trees pack the wallop of a haiku—and are unmatched for expression in sekikazari, bonsai display in a tokonoma.
Often, and irrationally, I think of the Robert Browning poem that starts ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…’ as the perfect beginning of a poem about bonsai, but his poem runs off into other territory and doesn’t mention bonsai even once. Still, it’s a nice beginning.
‘Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.’ — The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
For more thoughts on bonsai and our interfaces with them, take a look at the Philosophy page.
Andrew Robson (Current Apprentice)
Only a couple weeks out of graduate school, Andrew drove to Portland from St. Louis to start his apprenticeship in June 2016. His background is in music, with a degree in flute from the Yale School of Music (according to Andrew, I don’t make my pruning cuts on the beat very often. About half the time, apparently.) In addition to all his apprenticeship duties, Andrew has been the Director of the Portland Bonsai Village since his arrival here in Portland, and is often seen talking about bonsai in the Cultural Corner of the Portland Japanese Garden to a crowd of amazed visitors. Andrew’s energy, ideas, and enthusiasm make him a welcome addition to bonsai in Portland.
Bobby Curttright (Past Apprentice)
Apprenticing with Michael from 2013-2016, Bobby came from the deep waters of the Omaha Aquarium, where he swam with sharks and had a specialty in seahorses, and is now on the solid, somewhat drier soils of bonsai. An enthusiastic supporter of the Village idea from the beginning, he played a central role in making it a reality. Bobby holds the distinction of being the first person to complete an apprenticeship within the United States. Following his apprenticeship at Crataegus Bonsai, Bobby settled his business Cascadia Bonsai in the Portland area where he is available for teaching and client services, has bonsai and Keido display items for sale, and is a distributor for Kaneshin tools. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Apprenticeships: Anyone interested in an apprenticeship at Crataegus Bonsai, please don’t be shy about contacting me. Full time apprentices may live at the garden property rent-free. There is room for two apprentices in a shared house. Term of study is 3-5 years, based on skill assessment. Interested parties, do make yourself known, come and spend time here, let me get to know you and vice versa. I don’t make long-term commitments over the phone or Internet, although that’s a fine place to begin: email@example.com
Matt holds the record of the longest staying western apprentice in Japan, at 7 years and 9 months, a record that may stay unbroken for a long time. His quiet and relaxed manner is a relief in the sometimes ‘louder is better’ bonsai world, and as such forms an anchor for our bonsai family here in Portland. Matt is incredibly tall. His tree styling also has a truly vast range, from edgy and dynamic to those with subtle presence. Matt is available for teaching, client work, as well as tree sales. To inquire about his services: 503-989-3294.
Tyler is the latest to graduate from Mr. Suzuki’s garden, and has created his garden in his home state of North Carolina. With several study groups and a broad range of travel, Tyler is a whirlwind of activity on the East. Like his bonsai brother Matt, Tyler is quite tall, which clearly is an advantage to both of them for reaching into massive bonsai and tweaking that last dangling shoot. He is available for teaching, client work, and tree sales. Tyler may be reached at 828-446-0557.
The Students of Crataegus Bonsai