Originally from Arlington Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., Danny Coffey became interested in bonsai in his early 20’s. In the spring of 2007, he visited the U.S. National Arboretum with friends and was surprised to discover the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
“It was my first time seeing bonsai of that age and quality,” says Coffey, who became a frequent visitor from then on. This provided his inspiration to study bonsai as a hobby.
With each passing year, Coffey’s interest increased, along with ideas of pursuing bonsai full time as a career and lifestyle. He was almost entirely self-taught apart from a beginner course from bonsai educator Randy Clark, who would later recommend him as a potential volunteer to the Museum.
In 2012, Coffey began volunteering at the Museum under the guidance of Curator Jack Sustic and former Assistant Curator Aarin Packard. “By then I was determined to do bonsai professionally, but I knew I had to increase my skill,” he says. He also knew the only way to get better was to devote his undivided attention to bonsai. “You have to be all in,” he says.
Shortly after, he moved to Nagoya, Japan, where he studied bonsai full time as a formal apprentice to bonsai master Junichiro Tanaka, the fourth-generation owner of Aichien Bonsai Nursery. It was during this apprenticeship that he truly learned the depth of what it means to pursue bonsai. “I literally lived in the workshop,” says Coffey, “My sleeping area was less than five feet from my working area.” Tanaka and Coffey have maintained a strong relationship; Tanaka continues to educate Coffey remotely via text and phone conversations.
In the spring of 2015, after almost two-and-a-half years studying in Japan, Coffey returned to the U.S and was immediately selected as an intern at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum under Sustic. Impressed with the curator’s patience and skill as a teacher, Coffey says, “Jack was so open to my questions – anything I was curious about.” The experience as a Museum intern, he says, was very different from his previous education. “I’m not sure most people realize how unique the national collection is,” explains Coffey. “There’s possibly no other place where you can find such a wide variety of bonsai, from all over the world. Having all of that as a study tool, in one place, is a real treasure.”
Today, Coffey’s primary focus is continuing to study bonsai while experimenting and developing his own body of work using the accumulation of techniques and experience acquired over nearly a decade of individual and formal studies. In addition, he frequently travels the East Coast teaching bonsai while building a small home-based bonsai nursery in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the help of his wife, Yukie, and his father, Dan Coffey Sr.
When Coffey is in the Washington area, he still stops by to volunteer at the Museum.