The first may have been when his family moved from the Philippines to the U.S. by way of Osaka, Japan. That is where Gutierrez, then 15, saw an older man working on a miniature tree. Or perhaps it was the love of plants he inherited from his grandfather and mother. Maybe it was when Gutierrez’s uncle gave him a camera and he started to photograph trees. Or perhaps it was when, as a young surgeon, Gutierrez borrowed a book on chrysanthemums from a young nurse from Japan. The book had a section on how to create bonsai from cuttings.
“I can’t tell you how many cuttings I killed,” he says, with a laugh, adding, “I was determined to learn how to do this – if it killed me.”
He read everything he could get his hands on, but says the real turning point came when, in the early 1970s, he started commuting from his job in D.C. to attend monthly bonsai workshops at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. He made that trek every month for three years in order to study under the guidance of curator Frank Okamura. Traveling on the Eastern Shuttle, he would store his trees in the plane’s small closet near the cockpit.
As Gutierrez’s interest grew, so did his desire to learn more. His travels exposed him to leading West Coast masters, such as Harry Hirao and John Naka, and East Coast leaders, such as Yuji Yoshimura and Marion Gyllenswan. Closer to home, he joined his local bonsai club: the Northern Virginia Bonsai Society. Not long after, in 1976, he was on hand for the dedication of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. “I’ve witnessed that collection from day one,” he says with pride and admiration.
Retirement from his job as chief of surgery at Columbia Hospital for Women has allowed Gutierrez to devote more time to his personal collection of 100 trees and to volunteering every Thursday at the Museum. His toolkit includes some rather unusual items: surgical instruments from his days as a physician.
With the Museum’s former curator, Jack Sustic, as his mentor, Gutierrez says he has learned “to work on a tree until every little leaf, every little twig is in place just the way you want it.” Pointing out how much talent and expertise Sustic brought to his role, Gutierrez, says: “Jack would eat, sleep, live and even dream about those trees. That inspired me – to see someone who is that dedicated.” Today, Gutierrez enjoys working with Assistant Curator Michael James as well as other volunteers.