An interview with Jack Douthitt
Welcome to the bonsai garden podcast where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.
Click the play button to listen to this episode.
*Jack Douthitt has been a bonsai enthusiast for over forty years. The former president of Bonsai Clubs International, he has served as a judge at bonsai exhibits and exhibited his own award winning bonsai at various shows. Jack’s bonsai appear in both the National Arboretum Collection of American Bonsai in Washington D.C. and the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection in Tacoma, Washington. In 1987, he was named “One of America’s Outstanding Bonsai Artists” by the National Bonsai Foundation. His book, Bonsai: The Art of Living Sculpture approaches bonsai as art, exploring how the traditional fine arts apply to bonsai. He focuses on the specific design elements of the bonsai – the roots, trunk, branches, foliage, and container – and discusses how bonsai artists can manipulate these elements for a specific effect.
BGP: So welcome Jack Douthitt to the Bonsai Garden Podcast.
BGP: So, I understand that The Milwaukee bonsai society has plans for a Public Bonsai Collection to be displayed at the Lynden Sculpture garden. Can you tell us about that?
Sure. This is something that’s been talked about in our area for a very long time. We have a very strange situation in Milwaukee County in that every park facility is owned by the county of Milwaukee. There are two botanic gardens. They are both owned by the county. Milwaukee County got into some financial difficulties over some of the decisions they had made in the past and were very close to going bankrupt. So there county facilities are—although we meet at one of their county facilities—they are not good for something like what we’re trying to do.
The Lynden Sculpture garden is a relatively new thing in Milwaukee in some ways. Actually it started back in 1926. There was a wealthy industrialist in Milwaukee by the name of Harry Bradley who was part of the Bradley Allen Corporation which is now Rockwell Automation. He married a lady by the name of Peg. They bought a farm house on the outskirts of the city with 40 acres. They called in a landscape firm from Chicago and they landscaped the entire 40 acres. And then they started collecting art.
Their collection of paintings now hang in the Milwaukee art museum, but on the ground of what used to be their home, of course they are passed away and it’s now owned by a family foundation, they have 53 pieces of monumental outdoor sculpture. They have two Henry Moore’s, they have a Barbara Hepworth, they have world class sculptures sitting on their 40 acres of landscaped property.
It’s still exquisitely maintained. It’s owned by a family foundation which is a very wealthy foundation. They’re interest—well it was private for many many years. I think in about 2010 they made it public. Before that, the only way you could go there was by invitation. Now it is open to the public 6 days a week. They are still doing art on the premises. They are interested in working with artists who are interested in working at the intersection of art and nature. And that fits bonsai beautifully.
So we have made some overtures to them. We have been very well received, very positively received. We’ve had some one tree exhibits out there. We have several classes planned and workshops planned there next spring and we’re very hopeful that this will lead to a permanent collection at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. Number one because it’s a private entity and it’s a much better facility to work with than a government owned facility. Secondly it puts our art work on a basis with some world class sculptures. And so it’s a very exciting thing for us.
BGP: Whose bonsai would be displayed there?
Well we hope to have some of the best bonsai that we can obtain. Several bonsai artists that are currently active have offered to donate trees to the collection. We will probably put out a call for trees. Once it becomes a reality and we’ve signed a contract and we’re ready to go. Most of the trees will probably be donated. We don’t see that we’re going to be buying a whole lot of trees. The national collection in Washington was put together with donated trees. The two California collections, the one in Lake Merritt, and the one in Huntington are both built around donated trees. I do know that some of the trees at the Weyerhaeuser were donated. Some were purchased. So, that’s not an unusual thing to do. So we hope to have a wide variety of artists represented in the collection.
BGP: When you put together a collection like that and people donate bonsai trees, who takes care of the bonsais that are being displayed?
Well you know that’s an interesting thing. For example at the national collection in Washington the trees are owned by the government so they actually have the responsibility of taking care of the trees. They are very heavily assisted by the national bonsai foundation, not only with finances, but also with volunteers. The two collections in California they have a paid curator. I don’t think they get paid a lot but they have a paid curator. The rest of it is all done with volunteers. In most of these situations the collection itself, owns the trees.
BGP: So let’s say you have an established collection like this, that’s on display and you have volunteer’s taking care of it. And over the period of a summer or two the bonsai are obviously growing so I’m assuming that the volunteers are going to be out there making alterations to the trees. Does that ever concern anybody?
There are two schools of thought. Some of the collections try to maintain the trees as close as they can to the original concept of the tree when it was acquired. Other collections are working to make it the best tree it can be regardless of what it was like when it was acquired. And all of these volunteers are working under experienced people.
BGP: In a collection like this, what happens to the trees during winter? Do they continue to be on display without their foliage or are they brought into a green house? What happens to them?
In our climate in Wisconsin, as I mentioned to you earlier, it’s been down to around zero and the chill factor has been well below zero for the last few days. We can not leave them out on display in the winter time. It’s just too cold for them. In most cases the trees are put away for the winter and given their dormant period and not displayed. Our club has had, and in fact we have an exhibit planned this winter at Lynden Sculpture Garden, what we call the winter silhouette. Trees will be on display for maybe two days in an indoor environment, the way they look in the winter time. But in general, in winter time in this climate, they are put away for the winter and they’re given a rest.
BGP: I understand from looking at the Milwaukee Bonsai Society website that there is a fund raiser to raise money for this display.
That is absolutely correct.
BGP: Tell us about that.
Well as I mentioned earlier in our talk, this is something that’s been discussed in the Milwaukee area for a very long time. The club itself has started a fund and when they had a few extra dollars they would put some money into the fund for a permanent bonsai collection. And that’s a hard task to do because you try to keep the dues low enough to where you keep everybody interested and you get as many people involved as possible. So you’re really not operating with huge profit margins. And again, the goal of the board of directors of a bonsai club is to manage and operate a successful bonsai club. So this has been talked about for a very long time and I have been very fortunate this year in selling some property. And I just decided that maybe what we should do is to see if we can jump start it a little bit. So at our annual exhibit, which I think was our 43rd annual exhibit in September, I made the announcement that I would match any donations to a public bonsai collection, up until the end of the year, dollar for dollar up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. We had four people donate that night, two at a thousand, one at five thousand and one at ten thousand. So that was very exciting. It languished for a month or so and then we started getting our act together and I’m happy to report that as of right now, we have raised fifty five thousand dollars. And that is basically all from the local bonsai community which excites me greatly. The plan we have in the back of our minds is that raising that kind of money in a very short period of time, less than three months, is a demonstration that we’re really serious about what we’re trying to do here. And after the first of the year and holidays it is our intention to take this fundraising out to the general public. We have a number of large companies in the area that are very philanthropic minded and we want to start approaching some of them. But this gives us a chance to say, look the bonsai community is serious about this. They raised over 100,000 dollars in three months, we’d like to have you match it, and just see where it gets us. Because $100,000 dollars is probably not enough to put together what we’d like to have.
BGP: What do you think your goal is to be able to put together the type of display that you want to have?
I’m taking a shot at the dark here. I know that Ann Arbor just opened a new bonsai garden at the Matthaei gardens in Ann Arbor, owned by the University of Michigan. And if I’m not mistaken, their bill for putting that together was about $300,000 dollars. I don’t envision us spending quite that much because they have a lot of architectural features which I’m not sure we will have. But by the same token we want to have some sort of endowment to help cover future expenses. I mean, you know, pots get broken, soil has to be brought in, you know, things brake, blah, blah, blah. If we can raise $200,000 dollars to get things started I think that would give us a very good start on what we’re tying to do.
BGP: If people wanted to make a donation to this public bonsai display, how would they do that?
The easiest way to do that would be to go to the website of the Milwaukee Bonsai Society. Or just do a Google for Milwaukee Bonsai Society. And if you go there, you will find a donation form that they can print out, fill out and mail in with their contribution.
BGP: If you’re able to meet your financial goals, when do you hope to have this display open?
I would hope that—now this is a process—we just started in September, and so I’m hopeful that by maybe the middle of this summer we will have a definitive commitment from Lynden Sculpture Garden. And if we can raise the money between now and then we’ll be ready to start construction immediately. And it’s possible that we could be open in 2014. If not 2014 than the spring of 2015.
BGP: That’s really exciting and it’s incredible that you were able to raise so much money so far.
I was—when they told me—in fact they sort of kept it from me until we had our annual holiday party. And at the party they said, “Jack come up here we want to talk to you a bit.” And the first question they asked was “If we go over fifty thousand dollars will you still match it?” And you know, I’m being very magnanimous and I said “Of course.” They said “well right now we’re at fifty three and counting.” I was absolutely floored.
BGP: that is incredible. It sounds like you attend a really outstanding bonsai club.
Our club has been very very active. When I first started my bonsai career in Madison which is about 75 miles west, so I’ve been very familiar with the Milwaukee Bonsai Society since the early 70’s, about the time they started. And the Milwaukee club is very unique, it has public workshops, novice classes, intermediate classes and it has advanced classes. In addition to that, we are not the sponsor, but we have taken under our wing, one of our members is a school teacher at Kenosha Wisconsin which is about 35 miles south of us, whose students have seen some of her trees, came in and said, “We want to learn how to do this.” And since then she has had a junior high bonsai club in the school.
So there’s a lot of interest here. There’s also a lot of people interested that don’t do bonsai. I would guess that our club membership runs about a hundred and fifty or somewhere around that per year. We have people who are very interested that don’t do bonsai and we just think that this is one way for us to share—I think bonsai as an art form is greatly underrepresented. Traditional art is, there are museums everywhere because once you hang it on the wall it’s done. You never have to do anything more to it except maybe restore it every 50 years or something. Bonsai takes constant care, so we feel that this is the way for us to share our art form with the general public whose interested in art and in nature and everybody wins.
BGP: well that’s exciting. I hope that you’re able to get the display open by next summer.
Wouldn’t that be great! And one of the reasons that sort of sparked this is, obviously if I’ve been doing bonsai for over forty years I’m not a young person anymore. I’m in my low 80’s and I want to see this happen in my lifetime. That’s the thing that really started it.
BGP: With as much experience as you have, what advice would you give to the listeners who might be starting out in the bonsai hobby?
My advice is enjoy the journey. It’s a fantastic hobby. You can get involved with it as far as and as deeply as you want. I have been all over the world for bonsai. I’ve been to china, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia. There are places that I have not been that I would like to go but I’ve been to Japan seven times for bonsai. Of course being on the BCI board I got to do some traveling, I’ve been to bonsai conventions in Monico, Great Britain, Germany and I’ve had bonsai friends from all over the world. It’s a great hobby and it’s a lot of fun and my advice is just enjoy it.
BGP: That’s good advice. Well I think that’s all we have time for today Jack, but I wanted to thank you for coming on to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.
Thank you for having me and I look forward to seeing your check in the mail.
BGP: OK. Thank you very much. Bye.
Photo credit: flickr Creative Commons, Bonsai by Richard King