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Making the art of bonsai appeal to millennials

A Korean Yew bonsai, in training since 1986. The deck is “Hovering Over Rough Waters,” by John Osgood. It’s acrylic & aerosol on wood. (Courtesy of the Pacific Bonsai Museum)
LISTEN: How Federal way is making bonsai trees appeal to millennials

When you think of activities that people in their 20s and 30s are into, bonsai doesn’t necessarily come to mind. Unless you were a kid who grew up in the age of the “Karate Kid.”

But Aarin Packard wants to change that. He’s the curator of the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, and happens to be a 35-year-old man who has been fascinated with bonsai since he was 18 years old.

“Bonsai is the art of growing [a tree] in a container and miniaturizing it through pruning to resemble a mature tree growing in nature,” Packard said. “But [the intention is to] also exude an artistic quality beyond what you’d normally see in a natural, wild tree.”

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Packard says the gardening art is often seen as a hobby someone’s grandpa would do, or an interest particular to people who study and appreciate Asian culture. But he wants people to see little trees like he does, where nature meets art.

“We don’t really need more practitioners of bonsai, we need more appreciators of bonsai,” he said. “I’m approaching bonsai much more like a fine art than a craft and trying to instill in people an appreciation of these trees.”

Modern bonsai

His latest effort to make the natural art more approachable to younger people was a six-month show called Decked Out. He paired 16 of the museum’s bonsai trees with skateboards painted by local graffiti artists, specifically including women and people of color.

“The idea was to replace the traditional Japanese scroll that we would use in Japan to display with our bonsai to create a theme or a setting or a place,” Packard said. “But instead of having that vertical, artistic image represented on a traditional scroll, to use a skateboard deck.”

Packard has been the curator for the past two years. So far his efforts have paid off.

“We had a 25 percent increase in our visitation so far this year to date,” he said. “Definitely seeing a much broader range of visitors coming. Many more tattoos showing up in the collection, which is a good thing.”

Packard says bonsai came to American after World War II when soldiers deployed to Japan came back to the states with a newfound interest in Japanese culture. He thinks the key to getting younger people interested is to modernize the approach to the topic. After so many years of studying and practicing the traditional art form, he thinks he’s earned the right to interpret it through an American lens.

“I’ve gotten to the point to where, OK, I’ve been there, done that,” Packard said. “Now what’s something different we can do while still honoring that traditional aspect? We’re not throwing away the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. We’re still trying to maintain this art form and still trying to work within the framework of what bonsai is, but make it more relevant to me living in 2016 as a 35-year-old American.”

“So what does that look like?” he added. “Ultimately there’s going to be some push back but there have been more people getting excited about this idea of where we can take this historically traditional art form and make it much more unique.”

Packard is already busy planning his next exhibition and he reminds people that admission to the Pacific Bonsai Museum is free.

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A Bonsai-Shore pine. Its age is unknown. The deck is an oil painting on wood, called “Surroundings,” by Tehya Sullivan. (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Bonsai Museum)

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