It doesn’t take a Michelangelo to see that the art of bonsai and the art of sculpture have many similarities. Alesha Burk can attest to that: the 24-year-old artist from Atlanta, Georgia, spent the past few months as the “First Curator’s Apprentice,” the summer internship offered by the National Bonsai Foundation in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
Burk grew up with parents who were fascinated with Asian culture. When they took her to view the bonsai collection at a monastery in Conyers, Georgia, Burk’s interest in bonsai was piqued. “That’s the moment it hit me,” said Burk, “I really wanted to get some bonsai.”
And she did. Today, Burk has a small collection of bonsai at her home in Baltimore, including pines, an ironwood and an azalea. As a graduate student, Burk moves frequently, and she says it is difficult to maintain a large collection. She is planning to move to a new home with a yard soon, which will be a better place to “raise” bonsai.
Fortunately for Burk, her apprenticeship has provided her with plenty of hands-on time with the bonsai in the National Collection at the Museum. She has enjoyed learning about how to care for certain species and honed her skills as a bonsai caretaker.
Burk, who has a degree in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art, is a self-described perfectionist. This provides a challenge in working with the bonsai, she says. “I want everything to be exactly perfect, but this is a living thing … you have to respect its boundaries. Overall, it becomes rewarding because you deal with these challenges and move on.”
When not at the museum, Burk works as a fine artist, creating contemporary abstract sculptures in her studio. Her work uses steel, wood, mirrors, and other industrial components. She is currently working on integrating horticultural materials into her sculptures.
“Alesha’s background in sculpture has helped her to understand the aesthetics of bonsai,” said Jack Sustic, Museum Curator. Although she does not have a horticultural background like the museum staff, Burk says her keen interest in natural life and attention to detail are good attributes to have as a bonsai artist. “If one leaf is out of place … it is nearly the same as one screw being loose on a sculpture,” Burk said.
Burk’s experience has inspired her to incorporate natural life in her artwork, as well as continuing to improve her skills as a bonsai artist. “I have learned so much about the incredible history, traditions, and processes of bonsai,” Burk said. “I hope to finish this internship by embracing the practice and going forward with more knowledge to apply to my own trees and artwork.”