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Bonsai Confidential - Pauline Muth - PFM Bonsai Studios

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

As the ice accumulates on the trees outside my window, I’m reminded that the Spring needs the Winter to fulfill its promise of revival and rebirth. And as we await those repotting sessions, how about another installment of Bonsai Confidential? If you’ve been to a bonsai convention in the last 40 years, most likely my next guest had a hand in the planning. Pauline Muth has been an accomplished artist, potter and teacher in the American bonsai scene for decades and I’m excited to bring my interview with her to the PLB readers! We had a great conversation on the role of bonsai clubs, what makes a great bonsai student and of course, the ever evolving role of women in American bonsai. Here is our slightly edited conversation, I hope you enjoy!

PeaceLoveBonsai: Thanks for taking the time for this discussion today. I'm super excited about it. Why don't you start by sharing with me how you got started in bonsai.

Pauline Muth: Well, it was a very long time ago. We used to throw a big plant show at one of the museums around Albany, New York. We would clear out the first floor of the museum and five plant societies, which were popular back then, would put on a show. One of them was a study group for bonsai. We were sitting there on the Saturday morning of the show, waiting for people, and there were these horrendous storms and no one was at the show. So, this gentleman from the bonsai group, Earl, comes over and says, why don’t come make a tree. I thought, well that’s interesting, and I went over and made my first tree with Earl and I thought this is cool. Earl invited me to take lessons at the museum. At the time I was a teacher, full-time mother and wife and I thought, there’s no way I can do these lessons. I went home and mentioned it to my husband, and he said, you’re always correcting papers, why don’t you go do something for yourself. I think he probably regrets ever agreeing to that now!

PLB: Hahaha, I bet!

Pauline: So, I started taking lessons with Earl and pretty soon he asked me to go to a meeting. At that time, I said, I don’t have time for the society itself because when I get involved with things, I get involved! Finally, one day, he says, Look, you’re gonna come to this Sunday’s meeting or you’re not gonna do lessons anymore with our group! So, I went to the meeting and it turned out to be a demonstration with John Naka. They stuck me in the first row and I was like, holy crud, this is bonsai! I have the tree that John worked on that day in my garden. In fact, it was on display at the last National Show when we were honoring John Naka. It’s one of my favorite things.

John Naka Pine
The John Naka Tree from that first demonstration. (Photo credit Brandon Herwick)

PLB: That’s very cool. So, as I was doing a bit of research on your bonsai career, I noticed you’ve done a lot of work with societies and clubs and shows over the years. In your experience, how have clubs and societies evolved? How do they compare today to when you first started?

Pauline: That’s an excellent question. When I started over 40 years ago there wasn't a lot out there. I mean, we didn't have the Internet. We had a few books, but not much else. The study groups in the clubs were the way to share information. The clubs were how we got supplies. There was no internet to order them. People would get together and put in a large order for everybody. That’s how I ended up getting into the bonsai business, because of stuff like that. But the conferences were the thing. That’s where you were learning, that’s where trees were being shown. I have notebook after notebook of notes from Bill Valavanis’ conferences. If you wanted to learn something, you went to a conference and those organizations, whether it was the Mid-Atlantic, the Florida group, the LoneStar group, whatever, those guys brought in the big guys and it was at those conferences that you could really access bonsai. Now, I've got an active club and before Coronavirus, we would bring in five speakers a year and we have a good club, its pretty active, but it’s not to bonsai what is was before. Now you’ve got so many other resources, like these great blogs, or you can fly to study with Bjorn (Bjorholm) or Ryan (Neil). We’ve got all these Americans that have gone to Japan to study. There’s so much more now. We are still putting on conferences and magazines, but the membership in these organizations has topped out. We keep debating it at board meetings, are we still doing something useful?

PLB: And where do you fall on that debate?

Pauline: You know, I think the conferences and the magazines are great. I think the societies have their place in doing the conventions and the big exhibitions. I think the clubs are still good because a lot of new people come and they know everything that's on the Internet. But that's not hands on. And by having the conferences, whether it's a regional or your local club, you can go to workshops. You can get your hands on the trees with those wonderful, wonderful people who know how to teach it. Because I think you can learn a lot from the internet. But unless you're putting your hands on it, it’s not the same.

"We keep debating it at board meetings, are we still doing something useful?"

PLB: That makes sense. So, before bonsai, you were a teacher, correct? What did you teach?

Pauline: Yeah, my mainstay was as a middle school science teacher. I taught high school here and there as well.

PLB: How has your background in teaching influenced your bonsai career?

Greenhouse at PFM Studios (Credit Brandon Herwick)

Pauline: Oh, I think greatly because I love to teach. I love to work with kids and young people. I’ve always wanted to get people involved at a younger age. I say, let's get them at the high school age or below and move’em on up. I think if we want to promote bonsai in this country, we've got to get the young people involved. My big thing with these organizations and conventions is that we need teachers, not just great demonstrators, but we need teachers. We need the Kathy Shaners and the Bjorn's (Bjorholm) and Ryan's (Neil) and those who speak while they demonstrate and teach and who don't get up there to kill a tree. I worked a lot over the years with teaching teachers, so I want to see great teachers on the stage of our conferences. When I'm setting up conferences, which I do a lot, I always look for the best of the best teachers because not all great artists can also teach.

PLB: Yeah, for sure. You also have a background in botany, correct? Can you share with us some of the botany myths that have permeated the bonsai world for years and years?

Pauline: Oh, my gosh. You know, I started writing a newsletter for a while and I used to put some of those myths in that newsletter. Stupid things like if you water in sunshine, you'll burn your plants or if you fertilize a newly planted tree, you'll kill it. Garbage. I mean, absolute garbage. I was so happy when Michael (Hagedorn) put out his book “Bonsai Heresy”, because he tackled an awful lot of them. I mean, I just sat there and read that whole book in like two nights and went “Thank you, thank you!”. But, yes, there were so many things. Like realizing that we don’t transplant our trees by hosing off that soil each time. Look how long it took the bonsai world to realize that you need mycorrhiza. I was preaching that to the wind years ago. Those kinds of things drove me crazy!

PLB: From a teacher’s point of view, what are the best attributes of a bonsai student?

Pauline: Curiosity. Willing to listen, willing to ask questions constantly. Willing to experiment. Those are the best bonsai students. And I mean really experiment. Use some stuff that's non-stock.

PLB: If bonsai was taught today in school, would it be considered a STEM course?

"Curiosity. Willing to listen, willing to ask questions constantly. Willing to experiment. Those are the best bonsai students."

Pauline: Well, you’re talking to a science teacher, so yes, I think it would be. But it would not be STEM, but STEAM. You got to put the Arts in there. You show the arts and the science and the math. There’s so much mathematics in what we do with bonsai.

PLB: Very true. So, switching gears here a bit, I’d love to explore the idea of women in bonsai. Let me start by asking, because I don’t want to make any assumptions, do you feel like bonsai in America is a male dominated sport, so to speak?

Snowy benches at PFM Studios (Credit Brandon Herwick)

Pauline: To me, it is, in many, many ways. I think it’s because so few women have taken the time to go to Japan and apprentice and study. Kathy Shaner being a notable exception. Kathy and I have had this conversation a lot. There are many good women artists, but first of all, it has been male dominated in Japan. The females in Japan could do kusamono, but that was about it. In this country, we have plenty of really good female bonsai artists. We also have males whose wives are doing a heck of a lot of the background work. And some of them are every bit as talented as their spouses. I have taken part in putting together conferences for decades now and I’ll say to the boards, give me some names of people you want to see at the conference. It’s seldom that a woman's name comes up. Yet, when you look at club memberships, local clubs, they are often pretty even, males and females. I’d like to see more women get involved and we’re getting them. Jennifer Price and others are starting to do more, which is great.

"We also have males whose wives are doing a heck of a lot of the background work. And some of them are every bit as talented as their spouses"

PLB: I’ve talked to Bjorn about how difficult the bonsai apprentice environment is in Japan and how few women there are in the bonsai business. I suppose that’s had an effect in this country, as well?

Pauline: Sure. I don’t think any of them are prepared for it. Kathy has talked to me now and then about her experiences there, but it would probably be best to ask her that kind of question.

PLB: Sure, I’d like to.

Pauline: That does remind of a story from a few years ago. We were at the Memphis conference and they had invited Master Masahiko Kimura. The conference set up a lottery for a place in his workshop and one of my friends won a spot. My friend says to me, Pauline, I want to go, but you’re gonna have to do the wiring for me, my back can’t handle wiring anymore. I said, I don’t know if they’re going to allow it, and he says, just sit down in front and when it's time for me to wire, you come on up. I said, OK, but I thought this is gonna be insane!

PLB: Wow, so what happened?

Pauline: Well, I go to the workshop and when it’s time to do the wiring, I go up and help my friend. We explain to Mr. Kimura’s interpreter that it’s a health issue, why my friend can’t wire. And I go ahead and wire the tree. So, I’m about to sit down and all of sudden, I look on stage and Mr. Kimura points at me and asks me to go back on stage and I think, oh jeez, now I’m gonna be in trouble! He comes over to the tree and he looks and looks and looks and he speaks to his translator for the longest time. Finally, his translator says to me, Master Kimura says you are an excellent wiring person and I’m thinking, boy, that’s a really short explanation for all he said. Later that night, I approached the translator and said, I think you left something out of your translation earlier today. You said Mr. Kumura said I was an excellent wiring person, but you left out, “for a woman”. He turned bright red and just stared at his shoes. I said, I get it, that’s the culture in Japan, it’s not a big deal.

PLB: Wow, that’s a great story!

Pauline: I actually ended up having breakfast with Mr. Kimura the next day and he was very gracious. I wrote to him when I was bringing a tour to Japan and I asked if we could visit his garden and I signed it, Pauline Muth, Wire Lady, and he let me bring our whole tour to his place. He was very nice to me.

"But it would not be STEM, but STEAM. You got to put the Arts in there."

PLB: Again, that’s a great story and I think it speaks to the role of women and the Japanese bonsai culture. So, beyond being a bonsai artist, you’ve also done work as a potter. How did that come about?

Pauline: Well, I don't really consider myself a potter. I'm a winter potter. I took it up because I love kusamono. I wrote the little ABS book on it. I like the pottery of kusamono and I thought, well, you’ve got the internet, and you can read up on it, and I have these friends like Ron (Lang) and Sara (Rayner) who are potters. I took a few lessons and I decided I wanted to make these crazy little pots, for accents and such. I took some workshops and I kept reading more and more because I found it was a really good stress reliever in the middle of winter. I basically made them for myself and then someone says, you know, you should bring those when you vend and I thought, I should do that. I can’t really bring trees with me when I teach in California, but I can bring my little pots. I can bring a suitcase full! So, I was accepted as a potter, God knows for what reason. Kathy liked my stuff and gave it her blessing, which I think helped, but it’s been great fun. And you know, there’s no stigma about being a woman in pottery these days.

Larch at PFM Studios (Photo Credit Brandon Herwick)

PLB: True, doesn't seem to be. Well, listen, this has been an awesome conversation. Before I let you go, let me ask you this, as you reflect on 40 years in bonsai, you’ve been a teacher, a potter, an artist. What are you most proud of?

Pauline: Seven grandkids!

PLB: Hahaha, of course. How about in a bonsai sense?

Pauline: Of course, in the bonsai world, I think I am personally most proud of opening the botanical side of bonsai to people, so the trees can live. That and getting young people involved in bonsai. I absolutely love it when I hear from someone in my past, a young kid who comes out here and says, I was in your bonsai club at school way back when, and I'm ready to take it up now as a hobby. I absolutely love that!

PLB: That's great. That's fantastic. Well, listen, thank you so much for the conversation today. I really appreciate it! And I know we can find more about you at your website and Facebook page.

Pauline: You're welcome. It's always fun to talk bonsai, it gets the brain going.

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