Many people think of bonsai as a marriage between science and art, but few people understand that partnership better than Michael James. The Museum Specialist joined the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in 2002, first as a volunteer, then as a staff member. He brought with him not just a love of bonsai, but a background in plant science, agriculture and art.
Originally from Clear Spring, MD, James grew up farming with his family. He saw his first bonsai, a forest planting of red maples native to the area, at the Clear Spring community show. He was only in middle school, but was immediately intrigued by the art.
“My jaw just dropped,” James said. “It was kind of surreal. It looked very real, but the scale was just so small. It’s the same reaction almost everybody gets when they see a well-shaped and maintained bonsai for the first time.”
James attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, studying fine arts and design. He said he particularly enjoyed sculpture, a skill that has translated to his life of bonsai. It was around that time that he started his own bonsai collection. Years later, he is still training some of those original trees. After two years of art school, James decided he “didn’t want to be a starving artist,” and pursued a plant science degree, which he earned from Cornell University in 2001. He said the things he learned in both science and art education have helped him become an effective caretaker of bonsai.
“Understanding form, texture, movement, color theory, all these things play a part in bonsai and display,” James said.
James really dove into the world of bonsai after a trip to Vietnam with his father and brother. He brought back about 30 bonsai specimens to the U.S., many of which are now in his personal collection. He began volunteering at the Museum in 2002 and eventually applied for an open position. In 2005, he took a hiatus to teach agricultural science, raise his daughter and son and spend time working on his family’s farm growing organic fruits and vegetables.
Although he was formally trained in plant science, James said that his work on the farm has been the most valuable in teaching him how to take care of plants and understand what helps them grow and thrive. The most important lesson he’s learned, he said, is patience.
“We’re maintaining these trees to look good for another 100 years,” James said. “Sometimes you remove a branch and it’s not for immediate gratification. When you prune, sometimes you don’t ever see the end results.”
For James, working at the Museum is a chance to celebrate the history behind the trees in the collection, and to continue telling the story of some incredible bonsai and their original artists. He hopes that his work will help keep the Museum as an oasis for visitors who do not get to experience nature very often.
“They’re beautiful works of art,” he said. “A lot of the trees are styled in the form that they grow naturally. Some people don’t get out to the forest much and see these trees in their natural setting, so this is a way of doing that in a miniature scale.”