How many people have the opportunity to help repot the most famous bonsai in the world?
Chris Baker had the opportunity to work on John Naka’s famous “Goshin” and many other trees when he volunteered and, later, interned at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, under the guidance of curator Jack Sustic. That extraordinary training led to his current position, as the first full-time curator of bonsai at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he is responsible for 269 bonsai.
It’s a journey that began 13 years ago in Gainesville, Florida, when Baker was introduced to bonsai. Soon after moving to Maryland in 2004 to work as a horticulturist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, he joined the Baltimore Bonsai Club. That’s where he first met Sustic during an open house.
Baker recalls telling Sustic at the time: “I have aspirations of working at a bonsai collection and I’d like to volunteer.” That remark, Baker says, “changed the course of my life.”
He began volunteering at the Museum in 2011 and, in 2012, was chosen for the selective internship position. His research project – interviewing Chase Rosade and Marybel Balendonck who had donated important trees to the Museum’s permanent collection – was a highlight of his experience.
In addition, Sustic paved the way for Baker to spend six months in 2012 studying with third-generation bonsai master Tohru Suzuki at the Daijuen Nursery in Okazaki, Japan.
“The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum has a special place in my training and how I approach what I’m doing at the Chicago Botanic Garden,” said Baker.
“Over the years, Jack has become a friend, mentor, and big influence in my life,” says Baker, who adds that his techniques and how he approaches bonsai are in part modeled after what he learned at the National Museum. So is his philosophy. “If there’s one thing I learned from Jack, it is that every tree is the most important tree – when you are working on it.” He took away other lessons. For instance, if you do things properly, the results will be consistent. And this: doing bonsai is as much about celebrating the person who donated the tree and the connection that person had with it, as the tree itself.
“Jack is very understated,” says Baker. “The collection is not about him. As a result, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum collection looks awesome.
“The Museum is a national treasure with an amazing history,” he adds. “It’s a traditional place but one that also keeps up with trends in American bonsai, like The Third National Juried Bonsai Pot Exhibition, which paired American trees with American potters. In other words, this is not your grandfather’s bonsai collection. It’s an evolving and creative place to display bonsai. That’s a great combination and provides a great forum for introducing people to the art form.”