Photography courtesy of Timothy Aguero.
Aarin Packard wants to change the way you think about bonsai, the art form derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice concerned with creating miniaturized yet realistic representations of nature in the form of carefully cultivated tiny trees. “Americans have never tried to figure out how bonsai could express our [own] culture,” says Packard, who spent eight years at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at DC’s National Arboretum before becoming curator of the Seattle-area Pacific Bonsai Museum, which holds a broadly geographically diverse collection—including 150 specimens from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Canada, and the US—that is among the world’s most renowned. Established in 1989 by paper manufacturer Weyerhaeuser, the entire collection was gifted to the newly formed museum in 2013.
“Bonsai practice needs to evolve to make it relevant for today. If it doesn’t, I don’t think it can be continued,” Packard says. To create a cultural shift in how bonsai is created and interpreted by Western audiences, he launched the LAB—Living Art of Bonsai—to free practitioners from the strict conventions of the traditional bonsai-making framework, in which the design of a bonsai’s stand and pot are dictated by that of the tree, by rethinking the process.
A four-part, multiyear experiment, each LAB session takes place in an architecturally significant setting and employs a standmaker, ceramist, and bonsai artist. The first was held last August at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Griggs House in Lakewood, Washington, where ceramist Ron Lang unveiled a shallow, angular bonsai container he’d made in response to the building. The second convened in April at the Mary Lund Davis House in Gig Harbor, Washington, where standmaker Austin Heitzman presented a cantilevered copper-and-wood stand made in response to Lang’s container. The third will happen August 17 at architect George Suyama’s Fauntleroy House, where a bonsai cultivated in response to the stand and vessel will be presented for discussion and critique. “The LAB is about seeing what happens when you mix up [bonsai] ingredients,” Packard says. “Will we get something extremely different? That’s the big question. It’s all uncharted territory.”