Last week, Martin Brown called The News Tribune just to say the Bonsai Club’s annual sale at Gray Middle School would be canceled.
Two rounds of vandalism over the course of a few weeks had left more than half their plants beyond hope.
Not expecting anything more, Brown, a science teacher at Gray, was surprised when News Tribune reporters arrived to hear his club’s story.
He was even more surprised when the local community and bonsai enthusiasts across the country poured out their support.
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“I’m just blown away,” Brown said Tuesday.
As were his students. After showing them more than 40 emails from people offering support to the club and a handful of cards with donations, “Their eyes just bugged out,” Brown said.
From what he’s counted so far, he estimated close to $4,000 has been donated to the club, whose operating cost for a year is about $500.
The president of South Tacoma Way’s Gene Pankey Motor Co. dropped off a check for $1,000 at the school. Pat Feutz said he was moved by the hardworking students, who could have spent their time elsewhere.
“I was really touched by those kids,” said Feutz, whose father went to Gray in the 1940s.
A self-proclaimed bonsai artist from Tucson, Arizona, created a GoFundMe page and a Florida-based tree supplier, Bonsai Jack, donated the $500 the club hoped to make from its annual sale.
By Tuesday evening, the GoFundMe site had raised more than $2,000 between Sunday and Tuesday, surpassing the $1,000 goal posted to the page. A family from a rival middle school even made a donation.
The page’s creator, Robert Mohle, said his emotions turned quickly from excitement about young bonsai artists to sadness for their loss as he read the story about the vandalism at the school.
A quote from eighth-grader Valeria Jacobo-Guzman — “Personally, I didn’t think I could get so attached to a tree,” — moved him to tears, Mohle said.
He said he thought the $1,000 goal was reasonable to cover the damages, but was shocked when he saw the donations grow to more than $400 in a few hours.
Many contributors added encouraging notes to their donations, with Miniature-Bonsai.com of Fairport, New York, summing up the message being sent: “The bonsai community is considerably stronger than a bunch of miscreant bullies.”
Jack Pollock, the owner of Bonsai Jack, estimated there are about 20,000 active bonsai artists in the United States, and most are upward of 50 years old.
Given that, Pollock said, it was encouraging to see students in a world of instant gratification engaging with an art form that takes such patience.
Because of this, he said, he wasn’t surprised to see the community stand up for its younger members.
Bonsai theft — not vandalism — is a common occurrence, according to David De Groot, a former curator of the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way.
Trees can be worked on for decades and sold for hundreds of dollars, so many artists are skeptical about sharing their names and locations, he said.
The museum will hold a bonsai drive for the Gray program in conjunction with its auction Saturday. De Groot said he also plans to donate proceeds from some of his smaller trees sold at the auction.
Brown said the club will use some of the money donated to make sure it has enough money to operate for the next few years. The rest will be saved in hopes of either making the club’s greenhouse fully solar powered or wiring it to the power grid.
Electricity would allow the greenhouse to be climate-controlled, so the outdoor bonsai trees could be kept inside. Being outside was one reason the trees were vulnerable to vandalism in the first place.
Looking forward to next year’s sale, Brown said the club definitely will grow more trees. And where turnout has been a question mark in the past, he expects the sale might blow up, just as his club’s exposure has over the long weekend.
▪ The Pacific Bonsai Museum’s bonsai drive:
When: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday (June 3).
Where: Pacific Bonsai Museum, 2515 S. 336th St., Federal Way on the former Weyerhaeuser campus.
▪ Gofundme page: bit.ly/2rlJq2Y