Felix Laughlin was a young attorney in New York City working long hours when his wife Betty Gayle came home with a few bonsai. “She said I needed more balance in my life,” he recalls with a laugh. Over that first winter in their tiny Manhattan apartment with no balcony, the Laughlins kept their bonsai collection in their refrigerator to induce dormancy. (What a sight that must have been to guests visiting their home!)
More than 40 years and hundreds of bonsai later, Laughlin says “Betty Gayle likes to remind me that she’s now number three – after my work and my bonsai!”
In addition to being a serious collector, Laughlin was instrumental in the creation of the National Bonsai Foundation (NBF) in 1982 and has served as its President since 1996. Under his leadership, the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum has gained recognition around the world for its remarkable collection, scholarly publications and outreach efforts.
“Felix is absolutely devoted to the museum,” says NBF Executive Director Johann Klodzen. “He has led it from the early days when we had a single Japanese Pavilion to our current standing as the world’s most comprehensive collection of bonsai and penjing.”
Under Laughlin’s leadership, NBF is currently raising funds for a major renovation of the Japanese Pavilion. “The new design will set a very high bar for the public display of bonsai around the world,” he says.
Laughlin is also committed to spreading the message of Saburo Kato, the late Japanese bonsai master and former chairman of the Nippon Bonsai Association, who was the principal founder and first chairman of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF). Laughlin succeeded Mr. Kato as the second chairman of WBFF, an international organization dedicated to promoting peace and goodwill in the world through bonsai. WBFF chose Washington, D.C. and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum as the venue for the 5th World Bonsai Convention in 2005. Under curator Jack Sustic’s leadership, the museum was the first public bonsai collection in the United States to celebrate World Bonsai Day and honor the legacy of Mr. Kato, helping to spread his message to a broad audience. Laughlin and Sustic are encouraging other public bonsai collections around the country – including the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Florida, the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection near Tacoma, Washington, and the North Carolina Arboretum – to celebrate World Bonsai Day.
“Bonsai gives us a chance to see the ultimate beauty of nature and refreshes our spirit, “ Laughlin says. “Taking care of a bonsai allows our love of nature to grow and we become more compassionate toward our natural world, and the world in general. That is the spirit of bonsai.”