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Bonsai exhibit a hit at Gray natural history museum

Jennifer Sprouse • Sep 8, 2012 at 9:46 PM

The new Education Center at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitors Center at the Gray Fossil Site boomed with bonsais Saturday afternoon.

A constant flow of visitors ducked in the ballroom to see the different stylings and designs of the trees from members of the Mid-Appalachian Bonsai Kai at their invitational bonsai exhibit.

Karl Joplin, associate professor in ETSU’s department of biological sciences and bonsai event organizer, said the group enjoys showing the trees from the youngest to the mature, to show the progression of the trees.

“One of the things we like to show is that there is a beginning to any bonsai. Some of them have been in culture for just a year, some of them have been in culture for many years,” Joplin said. “With a few exceptions, almost all plants, all woody plants, can be put into a pot and styled as bonsai. The difference with bonsai and other arts ... (is) next year the bonsai’s going to be different. It’s going to have new leaves, it’s going to have them in different places and you have to decide what you want to do with it.”

Joplin said the Bonsai Kai, or Bonsai study group, meets regularly and enjoys showing at the fossil site before heading to the regional show in Asheville, N.C.

“We get together usually monthly for our meeting and we’ll discuss things about the bonsai, or what shows are coming up or what it’s time to do,” he said.

On Saturday, Joplin had four of his personal bonsais on display, including the Bouganville, Shimpaku Juniper, Kingsville Boxwood and Common Juniper.

“Each tree has a different style to it depending on ... what it wants to do and yes we can change it, but a lot of times it looks a little forced,” he said. “It’s an art form, so just like any artistic endeavor, you get a reward for having something that looks nice and they’re very fascinating.”

Joplin said while there are various techniques associated with styling a bonsai tree, wiring and pruning are among some of the most common to get a bonsai to lean or shape a certain way.

Warren Hill, former curator for the U.S. Bonsai Collection and teacher at Tree-Haven School of Bonsai near Greeneville, demonstrated the art of bonsai styling Saturday for MABK members, as well as the public.

“Fifty-two years ago, I walked into a show like this one and just fell in love with the art form,” he said. “When I first moved here, there wasn’t anybody doing it here, of course, now we have a hot bed of bonsai out there.”

He said bonsai tree styling originated with the Chinese. The Koreans and the Japanese have since taken on their own form.

“Japan has put their stamp on their version of it and that’s the version I follow,” Hill said.

Hill said maintenance for the trees is like caring for a pet, with food and water being essential parts to the tree’s growth and development.

“It’s like anything living, you have to care for it. It’s dependent on you to take care of it,” he said. “If you do your job right, they should outlive you.”

Hill said his mission with the demonstration was to show people a little about growing a bonsai and to hopefully encourage them to try it themselves. He said even with his long history of bonsai growing, he, too, continues to learn new things.

“I hope the people in the demonstration will come out with a better understanding of what it’s about and some of the things we do,” Hill said. “I think the No. 1 issue here for people being attracted is the love of nature. You almost have to be a nature lover in order to like this art form. We have a high regard and respect for the material we’re working on. It’s living ... so that’s always in the back of our mind when we work with it, that it’s a living organic thing.”

A silent auction, including bonsai and garden items, started Saturday and will close today, with all proceeds going to the MABK. Awards also will be given today from a bonsai judging of the trees displayed at the event.

The exhibit will open again today from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

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