—Found a Sunset Bonsai book in a library at age 15, which eventually led to study with sensei Boon Manakitivipart from 2000-2003, and later, an apprenticeship under bonsai master Shinji Suzuki of Japan from 2003-2006
—Returned in 2006 with enough unlikely material to write the book Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, a whimsical/philosophical take on apprenticing as a foreigner
—Teaches at home and as far from home as Germany and South Africa, maintains client trees, is currently nibbling on a couple more books, and blogs weekly at www.crataegus.com
—Was a painter and sculptor for years, has 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’
—Founder of the Portland Bonsai Village, an affiliation of bonsai professionals in the Northwestern USA that fosters the educational wellbeing of the bonsai community
—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, and client work in the Artisan’s Cup and the National Show have also received awards. Privately a Mountain Hemlock was awarded ‘Best Evergreen’ at the 2016 National Show
—Outside of professional life Michael might be found dancing Argentine tango or kayaking near Portland, Oregon, USA
Statement of Orientation
Most artists would probably refer to this as the ‘artist’s statement,’ so you can call it that if you wish.
There are a number of things I think about or am conscious of when doing bonsai, and that serve as inspiration. One part of bonsai that I find particularly resonant is the chance for the artist to be a bit invisible, to have the medium of a tree eventually be its own spokesperson. Also, I’m convinced that how we apply a wire to a tree—our attitude towards that—actually says a lot about us. It’s a very fingerprinted action.
I’ve been very conscious of urbanization—having just moved to a city—and the real benefits of even modest touches of authentic nature, not stylized nature, within that environment. So focusing on what is beyond the city in a very blunt and honest way gets me beyond some of the assumptions of what a bonsai is supposed to look like, to such questions as — what is wild? what is natural? — while still being within range of what the tradition offers us.
I think a lot about natural beauty, the kind of beauty that is not created but born, and how we can be a part of that or against that. Minimizing a tree’s natural beauty is almost like cooking a vegetable until it’s most definitely dead. I like trees that breathe. That have a life I’ve not agreed to.
The use of collected trees, even deciduous, as ‘found objects’ has allowed some exploration of these themes of wildness and naturalness. 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 does bring the tree to the foreground, and heightens the qualities I seek to revere about the tree itself.
Although it may be hard to see some of these things in the work, they are part of the stew at the moment. And though I do engage in invention and experimentation, the raw values of wabi-sabi continue to guide my work. I really don’t think we’re doing bonsai any more when we stray too far from the original aesthetic values that gave birth to bonsai, and those are less about how something looks than how it feels.
‘Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.’ — James Thurber
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 cut 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. 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. Following his 3 years apprenticing at Crataegus Bonsai, Bobby is building his business Cascadia Bonsai and plans to stay in the Portland area.
Apprenticeships: Anyone interested in an apprenticeship at Crataegus Bonsai, please don’t be shy about contacting. Starting in 2018 apprentices will be living on 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
The Students of Crataegus Bonsai