Jack Sustic, who grew up on a farm in Michigan, saw his first bonsai while serving in the army in Korea. He was on a bus when, out the window, a display of bonsai caught his eye. Sustic recalls getting off at the next bus stop in search of that nursery. “I was captivated,” he says. “That’s what good art does. It captivates you so that you lose your sense of time and place for a brief moment, maybe longer.”
The seed was planted. When Sustic returned to the States in 1987, he sought out the local bonsai club in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was stationed. By then, bonsai was starting to catch on in the U.S., thanks in no small part to John Naka, who is considered the father of American bonsai. Sustic went on to earn a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University, followed by a job at the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually he became president of the Bonsai Clubs of South Carolina.
And then, in 1996, he was offered what would turn into a dream job – an internship at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum. He later served as assistant curator before being named museum curator in 2002. Sustic went from caring for his own young trees in South Carolina and learning from members of his local bonsai club to taking care of bonsai in the national collection that are hundreds of years old – such as the 400-year-old Yamaki white pine that survived Hiroshima – and working with bonsai masters from all over the country and around the world.
The best part of the job, he says, is working with and caring for the museum’s world-renowned collection including John Naka’s “Goshin,” a forest planting considered by many to be the most famous bonsai in the world. He has treasured learning not only from Naka (who died in 2004), but also Saburo Kato, the late President of the Nippon Bonsai Association who was instrumental in the original gift of 53 trees from Japan to the U.S., and Harry Hirao, who returns each spring to the museum’s annual Bonsai Festival.
Kato’s belief that there would be peace in the world if everyone did bonsai lives on at the museum with its annual celebration of World Bonsai Day. “The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum meant a lot to Saburo Kato and he means a lot to us,” says Sustic. “Each year, on National Bonsai Day, we rededicate ourselves to spreading his message of peace.”
One highlight of being at the national museum, Sustic says, is working with volunteers who donate their time – many of them for years. He also enjoys interacting with visitors, recalling one moment in particular. When he noticed a visually impaired woman in the museum, Sustic stopped what he was doing to describe the trees to her and then guided her hand to one tree’s branches and pot. “She was clearly moved by the experience and grateful that we allowed her to do that. That experience made me think of bonsai from a different perspective,” he says.
“It’s an honor to be part of the legacy that is this museum,” adds Sustic. “I’m as proud to be part of this today as I was when I first walked through these doors.”