Earlier this year, kusamono artist Young Choe was honored for 20 years of service to the Arboretum’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Choe has created and cared for the Museum’s kusamono – potted arrangements of wild grasses and flowers in unique pots or trays displayed next to bonsai – over many years.
A native of Seoul, Korea, who has lived in the Washington area for 30 years, Choe describes herself as a city girl. She studied traditional art-ink painting and calligraphy-in Korea where she grew up in a Japanese-style house with lovely gardens – though she confesses that she didn’t spend much time in the gardens. On her first day as a volunteer at the Bonsai Museum, she showed up in office attire and dress shoes. The assignment involved watering plants and weeding the Museum grounds. The first time she saw a worm, she screamed so loudly that the staff came running from every direction.
While weeding and worms were not her thing, over time Choe developed an interest in and talent for creating kusamono. She traveled to Japan to study the art form with master artist, Keiko Yamane, a former student of bonsai master Saburo Kato. Later, she obtained a BS in horticulture from the University of Maryland.
Today, more than 50 kusamono at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum are Choe’s creations – the result of countless hours of her time and talent donated to the Museum.
The name kusamono is composed of two Japanese characters – “grass” and “thing” which together suggest humble, everyday plants or even weeds. In recent years, kusamono has developed into an art form of its own. A well-chosen kusamono reflects the season in which it is displayed. Besides the season, a kusamono may suggest a specific natural habitat—such as a wetland, meadow or woodland.
Watching Young create her compositions – selecting the plant combinations and matching them to containers – is like watching a painter work with a palette of colors and textures. Unlike long-lived bonsai, kusamono are ephemeral creations.
When not volunteering her time at the Museum, Choe can be found working in the Arboretum’s seed bank where she is responsible for 4,000 seeds from around the world. She calls it “the perfect job.”
On her days off, she travels around the world teaching the art of kusamono to bonsai clubs. She loves being outside and hiking, and takes her camera wherever she goes to get ideas for her kusamono from the wild. She quickly adds that to this day she is still afraid of worms.
Receiving her 20-year pin from the Museum meant a great deal to Choe. Reflecting back, she told the gathering: “Twenty years ago, I didn’t have any idea what the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum would mean to me. Here is what I’ve learned: without the Bonsai Museum, I wouldn’t be me.”