NBF News

Museum Hosts “Irreverent Bonsai Monk” Michael Hagedorn for World Bonsai Day

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Michael Hagedorn, a potter turned bonsai artist, will hold demonstrations at the Museum on World Bonsai Day, May 11th, 2019.

Hagedorn hails from Oregon, where he works on bonsai, teaches about his craft and keeps a bonsai blog. He said his interest in bonsai remained on the back burner for many years while he explored other disciplines, like drawing, ceramics and sculpture, that prepared him for a future in bonsai.

When he graduated from The New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University with a Master of Fine Arts, Hagedorn wanted to craft something – so he made bonsai containers for ten years. Hagedorn had taken care of bonsai since he was 15, but only late in his potter years did the trees start to become more compelling than the vessels they lived in.

“A full day could go by in the ceramics studio, and I was thinking about trees the whole time. I wasn’t concentrating on the pots,” he said. “There are only so many years that you can do that and know you need a change.”

A Background In Bonsai

Hagedorn said he jump-started his bonsai career under the tutelage of Boon Manakitivipart, an internationally recognized bonsai master.

“He was strict and I was a challenging student, willful and opinionated, but he survived me and also prepared me well for study in Japan,” Hagedorn said.

Another one of Hagedorn’s mentors was Japanese bonsai master Shinji Suzuki, the owner of the Taikan Bonsai Museum in Japan and an artist who Hagedorn said created “bonsai of haunting beauty.”

Hagedorn said his three-year apprenticeship at Suzuki’s large nursery was filled with challenging work from the beginning: he wired trees, watered half of Suzuki’s bonsai collection, welcomed clients, prepared the nursery for typhoons in the summer and shoveled snow in the winter.

His book, “Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk,” details his journey through the bonsai world, which was filled with obstacles, learning moments and failures that all led to eventual triumph.

“It’s all in there,” he said. “But what was intended as ironic is the ‘monk’ part. My sempai and I were the opposite of monks – we were survivalists.”

Bonsai As Emblems Of Peace

Suzuki used to tell Hagedorn he should embrace that one of the central themes of bonsai is “peace.” Hagedorn said he watched people connect with bonsai as therapy or use the tree to forge friendships across national boundaries, and understands now why Japan has sought to equate peace and bonsai after two catastrophic world wars.

“In many ways, bonsai both offers peace and is created by it, and perishes in its absence,” he said.

These sentiments are the roots of World Bonsai Day, an internationally celebrated day of appreciation for the ancient art of bonsai as a path to peace.

Hagedorn said he used to sell pots at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum as a potter long ago, and he is looking forward to visiting the Museum again for his demonstration for World Bonsai Day next month.

Hagedorn added that he has enjoyed studying the Museum’s vast array of bonsai, as its collection is one of the most significant in the United States.

“The entire idea of a museum for small trees is a truly important thing for Westerners,” he said. “There’s an otherworldly quality about bonsai that can be riveting to people.”

Advice To Bonsai Hobbyists

Hagedorn said those looking to delve into the world of bonsai can use books for inspiration, clarification and memorization. But they should also branch out – no pun intended – and take advantage of the hundreds of easily-accessible blogs and videos that comment on recent and specific bonsai techniques.

A hobbyist’s next step is to find a trustworthy teacher who can guide them through their bonsai journey with examples, contrasts and comparisons, as the art is complex and transcends any rulebook one might try to follow.  

“Being a student is a brave act, for one will fail if you’re being at all serious about it,” he said. “Being a physical art, one needs the full quiver of experience, which is only offered in person.”

Hagedorn suggests the budding enthusiast be wary of the amount of plants they own when developing their hobby. For example, caring for five plants tends to draw too much attention to each one, but keeping too many trees will ensure that they will each remain “mediocre.” The ideal number for most hobbyists falls in the range of 20 to 30 trained bonsai, he said.

He added that hobbyists shouldn’t let maintaining bonsai become a burden – keep it fun.

“Bonsai should be a release from the pressures of life, not another cog in that wheel,” Hagedorn said. “Find people to share bonsai with that you enjoy and respect, and that will bring the same energy to the bonsai you work on.”


Learn more from Michael when he speaks at the Museum on World Bonsai Day! Learn more about the day of events here.

Museum Appoints Andy Bello as Curation Intern

Andy Bello, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice.  The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship  for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation.

Bello, a 24-year-old Illinois native, earned a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources Conservation and Management from the University of Arizona in 2016. He then moved to Eugene, Oregon where he designed and built ornamental ponds, propagated pond plants and bred koi and goldfish at a local store.

His fascination with bonsai catalyzed after he stumbled across Peter Chan’s “Bonsai: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees” in 2016.

“I took this book home, and the second I opened it I could not put it down,” Bello said. “Everything from the history of the art, the horticulture aspects, and the design techniques amazed and intrigued me deeply.”

His readings prompted him to join the Eugene Bonsai Society, a group of Oregon bonsai enthusiasts. Bello said he felt welcome in the society, but after spending a year in the group he wanted to delve deeper into the bonsai realm and craved hands-on experience.

His big break occurred on a trip to the Oregon Coast, when he inadvertently stopped at Driftwood Nursery in Bandon, Oregon. Bello befriended nursery owner Tom Roberts and soon began a monthly apprenticeship at Driftwood, where he learned basic bonsai skills and developed his passion for the trees.

Bello said he and his girlfriend soon began to discuss moving east to solidify their careers and settle down close to family. In preparation, he explored available permaculture and organic farming jobs on the East Coast – eventually discovering the Museum’s curator apprenticeship – and immediately sent in his application.

In his newly-appointed position, Bello aims to deepen his understanding of different species’ needs in all seasons, and looks forward to improving his horticulture skills and bonsai designs.

His year-long internship will consist of performing various bonsai care-taking duties, from repotting and wiring to pruning, and spreading the joy and wonder of bonsai to Museum visitors.

“I am extremely excited to be part of a new community of fellow bonsai artists and create new connections from all different parts of the world,” he said. “I hope to learn and grow as much as possible in the world of bonsai.”


The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. If you’d like to help fund these types of programs, please consider becoming a member of the National Bonsai Foundation. More information here.


A CELEBRATION OF JAPANESE BONSAI: DEDICATING THE RENOVATED JAPANESE PAVILION

Board President, Felix Laughlin addresses crowd.

Board President, Felix Laughlin addresses crowd.

Last month, our staff, board members, friends, and supporters of the National Bonsai Foundation gathered to celebrate the long-awaited re-dedication of the Japanese Pavilion.

The Japanese Pavilion was originally built in 1975 to house and display the 53 bonsai gifted to the American people for the bicentennial from the Nippon Bonsai Association on behalf of the Japanese people.

After nearly 40 years serving as a symbol of peace, and hosting visitors from all over the world to view the historic collection, the pavilion was in need of renovations. The $2 million project was almost completely donor-funded, and the National Bonsai Foundation is so grateful to those who contributed, particularly Dr. Deborah Rose, whose generous leadership gift made the pavilion redesign possible.

Interior of new Japanese Pavilion

Interior of new Japanese Pavilion

The new pavilion was designed by world-renowned Japanese garden designer Hoichi Kurisu. Kurisu’s design for the pavilion invokes traditional Japanese design concepts Shin, Gyo and So, featuring natural elements like boulders and running water.

In his own words:

“Unlike painting or sculpture, bonsai is a pure and living art form. My challenge is to express that beauty and dignity, as well as the timelessness of the trees … We need peaceful moments in our lives. I think 99 percent of people in this country are missing that. To understand nature is to understand the universe.”

You can read more about Kurisu’s life, work, and vision for the garden here.

At the October opening, guests heard remarks from Dr. Richard Olsen, director of the U.S. National Arboretum; Mr. Felix Laughlin, president of the National Bonsai Foundation; Mr. Takehiro Shimada, minister for communications and cultural affairs at the Embassy of Japan; Mrs. Naemi Iwasaki, chair of the Nippon Bonsai Association; and Mrs. Marybel Balendonck, vice president of the National Bonsai Foundation.

Throughout the weekend, guests enjoyed other events like a presentation on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi from Bonsai Master Seiji Morimae, who recently donated three trees to the Museum’s collection, and Bonsai Artist Peter Warren. The National Bonsai Foundation also hosted a dinner to honor Dr. Deborah Rose for her leadership gift and our guests from Japan, including Mrs. Naemi Iwasaki, the chair of the Nippon Bonsai Association.

Finally, we were honored to welcome Mr. William Valavanis into the Bonsai Hall of Fame, presented by former Museum Curator Jack Sustic.

The renovated Japanese Pavilion, along with the rest of the national bonsai collection, is open to the public daily from 10 am – 4 pm. (All photos by Colella Digital).