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Shapeshifters: The Alchemy of Bonsai and Design

August 16, 2019 at 11:00 am to August 25, 2019 at 7:00 pm


Exhibition presented by:

as part of the 2019 Seattle Design Festival


For “Shapeshifters,” four artists working in the Pacific Northwest have each been paired with a work from Pacific Bonsai Museum’s collection and asked to respond in their own medium. John Hogan’s glass vessel is paired with a 150-year-old Sierra Juniper in training as a bonsai since 1957; Diane Rudge’s hanging macrame is paired with a 60-year-old Formosan Juniper; Vince Skelly’s wooden bench is paired with an abstract, black nephrite jade viewing stone; and Julian Watts’ large, wooden sculpture is paired with a meandering, 40-year-old Sumac.

Each artist’s response creates a display that is also a dialogue—between the bonsai and object, and between the pairing and the viewer—asking the viewer to investigate each pairing’s visual interplay, similarities and dissimilarities, and (possibly) shared agendas, from which to draw their own conclusions and explore their own dialogue with nature.

For at least eleven centuries, people have felt compelled to cultivate artistic representations of nature in the form of bonsai (“artist tree in a pot”) and suiseki (“contemplative stones.”). The desire to connect to and revere nature runs deep, and perhaps is needed more urgently today than ever. Bonsai—as a living art, practiced in the medium of nature itself—provide tangible, emotionally-charged moments offering ways of understanding nature: through change, resilience, reciprocity, and balance.

Though ancient, the art of bonsai is changing, too. Though steeped in tradition, bonsai and its allied arts are emerging in America as a contemporary practice that responds to modern culture and culturally-constructed nature. Led by artists in the Pacific Northwest, bonsai in America is jumping off from Japanese tradition by drawing on relevant American cultural stories and symbols, shifting perspectives on how we engage with plants in our day-to-day lives.

The ways in which the global design community facilitates a deepened, daily relationship with plants has the potential to shift perspectives dramatically. Whether learning from them or designing with them, plants offer lessons in transformation. Sun, water, and soil transformed into emergent life is a magical, creative act. In other words: pure alchemy.

Artists and designers are likewise alchemistic, with their propensity to transform natural materials into elevated objects. Whether sand to glass, fiber to construction, wood to sculpture, stone to object of contemplation, or tree to bonsai, alchemy takes natural materials to the next level. But could we go even higher with a meta-pairing of bonsai and object?