Calm. Restraint. Natural beauty. They’re not the adjectives you’d normally pick to go with skateboarding and street art. But they’re perfect for bonsai — and in a groundbreaking new show opening April 30 at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, those calm bonsai qualities mix with the energy and passion of street culture to make you look at both very differently.
“Decked Out: From Scroll to Skateboard” combines bonsai plants and artist-painted skateboard decks in 16 traditional tokonoma (alcove) arrangements, and curator Aarin Packard is prepared for some people to not like it.
“Bonsai in the U.S. has been learning by imitation all this time,” says Packard, who has been planning the show for eight years. “But there’s more to bonsai than repetition of tradition. … I’m ready to move into a realm of something else.” As he does, he adds, “having to steel yourself to negative reaction is something I’m trying to do.”
There’s more to bonsai than repetition of tradition.” –
Aarin Packard, Bonsai Museum curator
If a skateboarder and a bonsai enthusiast walk into one of Packard’s alcoves at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, they’ll probably both see things that puzzle them. The bonsai — collection specimens chosen for both quality and variety — are offset in the arrangement by a vibrant skateboard deck (minus trucks and wheels) instead of the painted scroll that’s been used in tokonomas in Japanese houses and temples for centuries. It’s the same shape, but jarringly contemporary in palette and image. Yet compared to most skate deck art, the tranquil setting — each alcove is an L-shape wall surrounded by the towering trees of the Weyerhaeuser forest — is a world away from the stark, loud concrete of a skatepark.
Not that you’d actually skate on one of these artworks anyway. The entire concept of “Decked Out” is contradiction — and that’s a fully intentional move by Packard.
“Bonsai is at this junction internationally where it’s trying to … appeal to a more youthful generation,” he says. “And (making skate decks into museum art) speaks to the natural progression of all art, from rebellious to more established.”
But the catalyst for the contradiction is found in Packard himself. Now 35, he grew up a skater in southern California — yet he had keen gardener parents, including a father who grew bonsai. High-quality skate deck art wasn’t as big back then. (“We painted our own,” Packard says.) But as he went through anthropology and museum degrees and into bonsai curation, he began noticing more skate deck designers like Arbor Collective, which uses images from nature and has a logo that looks like a bonsai tree. He also noticed that a painted skate deck looked a lot like a Japanese scroll, with the same vertical shape, iconography and — for one Japanese-Australian artist — even using a “chop,” or traditional artist’s stamp.
Packard submitted two of his personal trees with store-bought decks to a Portland exhibit, and the idea for “Decked Out” began to grow.
The curator chose 14 Puget Sound artists (some have two decks) known for their mural work or street-style painting: Ryan “Henry” Ward, Baso Fibonacci, David Buitrago, John Osgood, Joey Nix, Joe Vollan, Maxwell Humphres, Teyha Sullivan, Jean Nagai, Merlot, Solace, They Drift, Jonathan Wakuda and Angelina Villalobos, who uses the artist name 179. Their styles range from tattoo lines to hyper-realistic photo images, from geometrics to caricature, from bubbly, child-like scenes to intense graffiti slashes. Small accent plants (kusamono), such as ferns, will accompany each arrangement in traditional tokonoma style.
To a certain extent, Packard has tried to match tree and artist. Joe Vollan, who paints eerie, “Coraline”-style scenes of ghostly birds or skeletons in black lacy dresses, got an American Eastern larch with poky Gothic needles and a leaning trunk into which artist-owner Nick Lenz had carved little white skulls. Wakuda, who intertwines images from his Japanese heritage (such as geisha) with surreal, sci-fi visions, got a formally-styled Japanese species. All the decks will be auctioned off at an event Oct. 1.
Packard is fully expecting some visitors to push back at the idea of combining bonsai with skateboards. Not every artist liked it either. Jean Nagai, an Olympia artist who paints pointillist images with Wite-Out to convey ideas of flux and invisibility, didn’t like the tree he was given originally (it was too decorative) and still isn’t sure of the wisdom of it all.
It’s an oxymoron. Bonsai is a way of connecting with nature … calm, meditative. Skateboarding is this loud, wild fury of action.” –
Jean Nagai, artist
“To me, skateboarding and bonsai don’t go together,” says Nagai, who doesn’t skateboard himself. “It’s an oxymoron. Bonsai is a way of connecting with nature … calm, meditative. Skateboarding is this loud, wild fury of action.”
Nevertheless, Nagai responded to his second tree — a tall, statuesque Hinoki cypress with a staggered 360-degree ladder of branches — by painting his deck with a sweeping cloud of Wite-Out dots on a layered cobalt background, a kind of Milky-Way backdrop for the tree. Also Japanese-American, he says the imagery represents the ocean or sky and offers a way of connecting with natural elements.
But if bonsai and skateboarding at first seem aesthetic opposites, “Decked Out” highlights some unexpected commonalities.
The first is intention. The art of bonsai, says Packard, is intended to stimulate the viewer’s imagination for the world, to “take them mentally to a different place.” Skateboarding also represents transport. It’s a mode of transportation, it gives a brief but beautiful freedom from gravity, and it offers youth an outlet from the constraints of conventional society. It takes you temporarily to a different emotional place.
The second is ephemerality. A long-revered Japanese aesthetic, the concept of impermanence is ever-present in bonsai trees, which need constant reshaping. But it’s also there in skate deck art, which if actually skated on will eventually wear away to nothing.
Finally, there’s the contradiction itself. Combining bonsai and skating isn’t any odder a concept than turning an enormous cypress into a two-foot-high sculpture, or painting art onto a surface that will eventually face the ground. And again, the juxtaposition of opposites is something that’s part of traditional Japanese aesthetics, where objects are offset by emptiness, and wabi (beauty) is paired with sabi (rust, aging, sadness).
It’s the old and the new together, a fusing of Japanese and American cultures — and that’s what Packard sees as the future of bonsai.
“This is a very traditional art form, and deviations are not often well-received,” says Packard. “But this is where I’m trying to go with bonsai, to take foundational aspects and make it more relevant. … I’m trying to develop (bonsai) appreciators. That’s how bonsai’s going to be carried into the 21st century.”
Decked Out: From Scroll to Skateboard
Where: Pacific Bonsai Museum, 2515 S. 336th St. (off Weyerhaeuser Way), Federal Way.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. third Thursdays, April 30-Oct. 2.
Events: Opening day April 30 includes an art station, poetry station, food trucks, bonsai demo (noon-1:30 p.m.), kusamono demo (2-3:30 p.m.), poetry workshop with state poet laureate Tod Marshall (2-4 p.m.), artist panel discussion (4-5:30 p.m.), docent tour (5:30-6 p.m.) and party (6:30-10 p.m., $10, 21+). Final skatedeck auction Oct. 1.
Admission: Free, donations welcome.
Information: 253-353-7345, pacificbonsaimuseum.org.