Enliven Your Spirit at the Pacific Bonsai Museum

The beauty of art and nature
April 25, 2019 Updated: May 2, 2019

Bonsai is distinct from other visual arts in that its creative medium—a tree—is alive. Unlike a painting or sculpture, which rarely changes after the artist applies the last brushstroke or chisels the last facet, a bonsai continues to grow and develop over its lifetime. Bonsai is a Japanese word, but the art of growing these trees originates in China, where it is called “penjing.”

Chinese Elm_
Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) “penjing” created in the early 1980s by Qingquan Zhao. (Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)

A bonsai responds to the artist, and to the environment, and the artist responds in turn in an ever-changing dance. The work of art is never finished, always becoming. With proper care, bonsai can live in their containers for hundreds of years and therefore routinely far outlive their original artists. Bonsai often get passed down over generations, becoming imbued with layers of collaborative, artistic expression.

The Pacific Bonsai Museum is one of only a handful of public museums in the world solely dedicated to bonsai. Its bonsai collection includes more than 150 trees from China, Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the United States—among the finest and most geographically diverse bonsai collections anywhere. When trees are accessioned into the collection of the Pacific Bonsai Museum, they often come with a deep history of artistic intervention—some having been touched by the most revered pioneers in the field. Bonsai created by Xueming Lu, Amy Liang Chang, John Naka (known as the “father of American bonsai”), Ben Oki, Harry Hirao, Vaughn Banting, Nick Lenz, and Melba Tucker are among the most noteworthy in the collection.

“Domoto Maple, Summer” (Trident Maple, Acer buergerianum), in training as a bonsai since at least 1913. Artist: Toichi Domoto. (Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)
Domoto Maple winter_
“Domoto Maple, Winter” (Trident Maple, Acer buergerianum), in training as a bonsai since at least 1913. Artist: Toichi Domoto. (Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)

Aarin Packard, the museum’s curator, who oversees the collection’s artistic and botanical direction, is constantly reminded of what an honor it is to care for these living beings: “Bonsai are a touchstone for me; I not only feel connected to each tree, but to each person who has cared for it in the past and even to those who will care for them in the future after I’m gone.”

The oldest tree in the Pacific Bonsai Museum’s permanent collection—a Korean Yew (Taxus cuspidata)—has an estimated birthday in the year 1500 and has been a bonsai since Su Hyung Yoo began training it in 1986. The museum’s largest bonsai is its signature “Domoto Maple,” named after the Japanese-American nurseryman Kanetaro Domoto, who cared for the tree after it was imported to America from Japan as a bonsai in 1915. It has endured trauma and war, standing as a testament to the will to live and the power of perseverance.

Bonsai is an art with ancient roots in China from at least the third century. For the past 100 years, the art has been embraced by North Americans who have evolved it in unique and open-minded ways. In America, bonsai is finding new ground, with fewer rules and a range of new “bonsai-able” tree species.

The Pacific Bonsai Museum attracts a worldwide audience by presenting fresh exhibits, the likes of which the world has never seen before. The 2017 exhibit, “Natives,” was the first exhibit to exclusively present bonsai trees that are botanically endemic to the United States. “Natives” not only helped make bonsai relatable to American audiences but also celebrated the beauty and diversity of American native trees.

The museum’s 2016 exhibit, “Decked Out: From Scroll to Skateboard,” also provided points of connection to American cultural references. In place of hanging scrolls—traditionally hung beside bonsai in Japanese bonsai displays—“Decked Out” displayed custom skate decks painted by some of the Pacific Northwest’s most talented urban muralists with modern street-art styles. The mash-up helped visitors see both disciplines differently and attracted new audiences to bonsai.

Decked Out_
From the “Decked-Out” exhibition, Tucker Oak (Quercus john-tuckeri) with the “Tucker Oak” skate deck painted by Merlot. (Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)

In the open air, against the backdrop of towering conifers in a wooded area at the heart of the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan region, the exquisite collection at the Pacific Bonsai Museum is rendered sublime. Upon arrival, visitors walk a wooded trail that transports them from the everyday to the threshold of the magical. As visitors stroll the grounds, they find harmony, grace, and delight. Each bonsai sits on its own table, set within display niches organized as an outdoor art museum with no roof.

Visitors come from around the world to admire the bonsai and reap the compounding benefits of time spent outdoors, time spent experiencing beauty, and time spent soothing the soul. “Our hope is that you will feel closer to nature and inspired as you experience the museum,” says Kathy McCabe, the museum’s executive director, adding, “There’s always more to see, in every tree and in every season.”

Pacific Bonsai Museum setting
The Pacific Bonsai Museum’s serene setting in Federal Way, Washington, with a display of bonsai. (Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)

The Pacific Bonsai Museum is open six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday), from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, although donations are always appreciated. Don’t miss the museum’s 2019 special exhibits, “Living Art of Bonsai: Principles of Design,” and “Gnarly: The Dan Robinson Retrospective,” which are on view May 11 through September 29.

This article was written by Katherine Wimble Fox and is published, with permission, from Elite Lifestyle Magazine. Katherine Wimble Fox is a Seattle-based writer and designer who currently works as the communications manager at the Pacific Bonsai Museum.