I wrote this article for a newsletter with the GSBF Clark Bonsai collection last summer. I had meant to share it on my blog, but my professional life has been very hectic and intense (fortunately mostly good) and the article escaped me. I’ve been thinking a lot recently that there is a significant percentage of the American bonsai demographic in their 70s. Many of these individuals are understated backbones of local bonsai communities who have done a lot to promote and support bonsai. The reality is many of these individuals will slowly begin aging out of the hobby–it’s neither a bad nor good thing, but just to be expected with life. Although I have my own qualms and disagreements with old school style clubs and orgs, I can appreciate dedication some of these members have invested to grow our local communities. One part of that is our public bonsai collections. Public collections can create a space for collaborative effort between hobbyists and professionals, but even greater they probably are the best outlet for direct exposure to the general public. Everyone starts from nothing, and seeing that first bonsai could be the catalyst for creating a future supporter of our community. As much passion people have, life is short for all and as older members age out public resources we took for granted can disappear! This article is a plea to consider supporting your local collection–whether by volunteering, donating, or even just visiting. Older members are always ecstatic to see younger faces interested and helping out, and there is always work to be done. That said I hope this biopic and narrative is enjoyable!

*I was not able to perfectly match photos to the narrative, some photos are from the winter although this narrative is based in the summer. I did not have pictures from when I wrote this article, incase you’re wondering about the bare trees and roots!

It’s midday in the central valley. Following a record and uncharacteristic California winter, temperatures are beginning to rise. The air feels dense, and seeking respite from the heat an older gentleman sits beneath a deep pavilion. His name is Bob Hilvers, who curates the Clark Bonsai Collection located in the Shinzen Gardens.

His hands and body, having weathered a long career prior to and within bonsai, bears signs of age. His expression is stern, but even so there is a great eagerness and passion emanating from Hilvers, who has dedicated over 20 years cultivating and curating these trees. Surrounding Bob is a team of volunteers, of varying backgrounds and ages, but all bearing wide smiles sharing a common passion for the art of bonsai.

The atmosphere is energetic and lively, quite the juxtaposition against these seemingly timeless and unchanging trees. I asked long-time volunteer Linda Jacobsen about her feelings about working at this collection. She replied, “Having been a docent for the Clark Collections of both art and bonsai since 2010, for me personally, I feel proud of continuing the legacy of the Clarks whose mission was to   preserve and promote the art and culture of Japan. Every day in the bonsai garden it is a great pleasure to witness the admiration and delight of our visitors experiencing the beauty of the garden and the art of bonsai in this great variety and quality, most for the first time.”


All the volunteers seem to share similar thoughts to one extent or another and are compelled by these small trees. From this one layer of value we can infer from a public bonsai collection is engagement with the community–professionals, volunteers, and visitors. It is a very human aspect to share passion for common goals and interests. But I think the value goes a bit deeper than this, because community engagement is obtainable in all manners of interests, and perhaps more easily done with other mediums. After talking with visitors, who may have little to no knowledge about bonsai, a common observed sentiment to bonsai is some sense of awe and even bewilderment. I believe there are two layers to this. First from not being knowledgeable about the art of bonsai and curious as to where the trees came from and how they were made.

The second aspect, especially for the very attuned or “present” visitor, is this inexplicable attraction and beauty. On the surface, one can easily agree that the bonsai are beautiful. But is there more than meets the eye? It may be presumptuous of me but let me infer the second aspect. Bonsai is a unique art form with no equal–that is, as a living art. We are contending with nature, to borrow her beauty, but also subject to her whims. A tree is forever growing, forever changing, despite what intentions we have planned. While one may visit a gallery to witness an artist’s work in its immutable greatness, a bonsai is quite literally alive and will change for better and worse.

There is this concept called “wabi-sabi” in Japan which in simple terms describes imperfections and qualities brought about by age. Think of a weathered stone pathway, whose once sharp edges are now soft and further covered by lichen and moss. Or perhaps the patina on an antique watch or set of tools. Wabi-sabi finds beauty in impermanence, in acceptance of the natural flaws and passage of time in this world. Bonsai embodies the values of wabi-sabi and gives us a unique opportunity to appreciate age. We value the weathered trunks, fine branches, and fissured bark in a life that is often as old if not older than ourselves. There is an expression of seasonality throughout the year (think fall colors, bare branches in winter, and the green vigor of spring and summer), but also a broader story of how the tree developed and changed overtime. As we celebrate bonsai, more than just an art, we are celebrating life. No different than in a person who similarly ages and changes over time. I’d like to imagine that unknowingly, as a visitor gazes upon and appreciates a bonsai they in turn appreciate themselves. Or maybe that is just my hope. In an increasingly fast paced world with all manners of media and medium, bonsai offers a unique opportunity to slow down, to engage with art, nature, time, and ourselves. A public collection such as the Clark Bonsai Collection creates a space for this engagement where not only trees, but people can be cultivated.