Bonsai Apprentice Program

The first Curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum was Robert Drechsler who served in that position from the founding of the Museum in 1976 until 1998.  In 2011, during the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Museum, an internship for the Museum was established by the National Bonsai Foundation to honor Mr. Drechsler for his many years of service. It was called the First Curator’s Apprenticeship.

The purpose of the apprenticeship is to educate and train a new generation of American bonsai artists. It is sponsored by Toyota North America and the Hill Foundation.

Congratulations to Andrew Bello, who has been selected as the 2019 First Curator's Apprentice. Learn more about him here.

Andrew Bello, 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice (Stephen Voss)

Andrew Bello, 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice (Stephen Voss)

Learn more about the position through this news piece produced by ABC News below about Bonsai Apprentice, Aaron Hughes (2016).

Many of the Bonsai Apprentices have gone on to do significant work in the world of bonsai. You can explore their bios below.

Past Bonsai Apprentices


david rizwan (2018)

A native of New Jersey, David Rizwan graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Science degree degree in Chemical Engineering and Philosophy.  While employed as an administrator in the engineering field he was searching for a relaxing hobby when he discovered bonsai and began developing a personal collection of tropical species. He also began volunteering in the bonsai collection at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh where he led introductory bonsai classes and participated in all aspects of bonsai care.  In 2018 he was chosen as the First Curator’s Apprentice for the Museum.  At the conclusion of the internship he moved to San Antonio Texas to continue developing his collection of bonsai and to explore the possibility of opening a bonsai business.

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tony green (2017)

The love of both art and horticulture drew Tony Green to bonsai. In an effort to elevate his amateur skills, he became a member of several local bonsai clubs and study groups in South Florida, where he was introduced to many skilled bonsai artists. Craving more insight into the craft, Tony began volunteering weekly to help maintain the prized bonsai collection at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Boca Raton, Florida. Through his work at the Morikami Museum, Tony gained a solid foundation in the art form of bonsai. Tony’s passion for understanding trees led him on a 5-month journey in 2016 hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, during which he studied the shape, growth patterns, and unique characteristics of thousands of trees. This journey only increased his passion for bonsai study. Upon his return, Tony was chosen as the 2017 First Curator’s Apprentice and gained additional  experience and knowledge to further refine his bonsai skills. Tony remains closely involved with the Lighthouse Bonsai Society in Florida and still works weekly on the trees at the Morikami Museum. He gains immense joy in sharing his love of bonsai with others.


Aaron Hughes (2016)

The internship of Aaron Hughes was the first to be supported financially by a grant from Toyota Motor North America.  A graduate of the Tyler School of art at Temple University, he traveled extensively in Europe and then spent a year in New Zealand as a rock climbing instructor and gardener.  Aaron first discovered the art of bonsai by accident when he purchased bonsai care book at a used bookstore thinking it was about vegetable gardening. Several weeks later he flipped through the book and “was instantly hooked by an art form that seeks to mimic nature by sculpting living, breathing organisms that are constantly growing and changing. What an impossible yet enticing challenge to undertake!”  After his internship in the Museum concluded Aaron signed on for a five-year apprenticeship under Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan.


danny coffey (2015)

Daniel Coffey is an American bonsai artist based in the hills of western North Carolina. His passion for bonsai has lead him to a deep appreciation for a variety of styles and disciplines within the art form. He has spent multiple years living in Japan as a formal apprentice to Junichiro Tanaka, 4th generation bonsai master of 'Aichien', a bonsai nursery in Nagoya operating for over 120 years. Additionally, he has served as intern and visiting artist for some of the United State's finest public and private bonsai collections, including the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington D.C. and The Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, Washington.



Alesha Burk was the third intern to hold the First Curator’s Apprenticeship. Ms. Burk held a Bachelor of Fine Arts from from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a major in Interdisciplinary Sculpture and a concentration in Curatorial Studies and Art History and pursued bonsai as a hobby.  After she completed her internship she pursued a career in the field of fine arts.


Chris Baker’s journey began 15 years ago in Gainesville, Florida when he was introduced to bonsai. After moving to Maryland in 2004 to work as a horticulturist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, he joined the Baltimore Bonsai Club. In 2010 Baker, at an Open House at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, met Curator Jack Sustic and expressed an interest in one day curating a public bonsai collection. He began volunteering at the Museum in the spring of 2011 and then, thanks to an introduction from Sustic to Tohru Suzuki, a third generation bonsai master in Japan, Baker spent 6 months in 2012 as an apprentice at the Daijuen Nursery.  In 2013 he was chosen for the NBF sponsored First Curators Apprenticeship position. His research project, interviews with Chase Rosade and Marybel Balendonck, who had donated important trees to the Museum’s permanent collection, was a highlight of his internship.  In 2014 Baker’s dream to curate a public bonsai collection came true when he accepted a position as the first full time curator at The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe Illinois. There he has used the skills and knowledge gained in Japan and at the National Arboretum, to raise the status and quality of the Chicago collection.



Ms. Miles, an Environmental Science and Policy major at the University of Maryland, remembers the most important part of her internship to be that every bonsai tree has a story and she spent much of her time at the Museum trying to unravel the stories behind the trees. Near the end of her time at the Museum Micah herself became part of the story when she helped prepare an Ezo spruce tree that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested to be on display at a state dinner for the Prime Minister of Japan.