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D.C. Gigs: The Bonsai Curator

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Jack Sustic has been the curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum since 2002.  He has been caring for Bonsai trees since 1987.
Marc Adams
Jack Sustic has been the curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum since 2002. He has been caring for Bonsai trees since 1987.

Years ago, a young boy in Japan collected an Ezo Spruce tree on a trip he took with his father to various islands in the area. The boy would eventually grow up to become a third generation bonsai master. Decades later, he yearned to donate the Ezo Spruce bonsai tree he had started as a child to the National Arboretum in the United States. However, with trade restrictions firmly in place, it became a pursuit much easier said than done.

So the resourceful horticulturalist decided instead to give the tree to the Japanese Prime Minister who then, in the mid-1990s donated the tree to President Bill Clinton, eventually ensuring a home for it at the Bonsai Museum of the National Arboretum where it now resides under the watchful eye and loving care of curator Jack Sustic.

"Every bonsai has a story," Sustic says after recounting the story of his former Japanese mentor Saburo Kato who donated the Ezo Spruce.

For Sustic, taking care of bonsai trees is not just his job, it's his passion. A smile creeps across his face every time he talks about the plants. It becomes impossible to hide his excitement. While for some, the trees are merely a few plants in a pot, Sustic sees them as art and nature coming together in perfection. It is his job, as the curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum, to make sure that sense of perfection is maintained in hopes of inspiring onlookers in the same way he has been inspired for more than two decades.

"There are certainly people that are just blown away," Sustic says. "They just can't believe how beautiful the trees are. And then there are people who are not too excited for some reason, and that's OK. We all have our box of rocks as we call it. We all have our own passions. But I think the vast majority of people who come here are just amazed at the trees."

Caring for bonsai trees

"Bonsai" is a Japanese word that literally means "tree in a pot". Each one of those trees in the museum's collection occupies various sized pots sitting on an outdoor wooden platform near eye level and spaced several feet apart, allowing its audience to focus on one tree at a time.

Most of the trees are no taller than 3 feet, giving the appearance of a miniaturized version of a larger tree found in nature. And while bonsai trees are the same species of trees found in natural landscapes, Sustic says it takes special pruning techniques to keep them small. The artist simply arranges the tree to mimic what might be found in natural environments. Each plant is displayed like any masterpiece in an art gallery. The only difference is that in place of a canvas is rocky soil, and instead of paint, there is a living tree.

"It's more than just taking a tree and sticking it in a pot," he says. "There are design considerations. For example, with bonsai, we pay close attention to having a back branch to the tree because when you have a back branch, then that gives you a sense of depth and perception to the tree."

Every day, Sustic waters and trims the dozens of trees in the museum's collection. Some trees require more water than others, but they all need water on a daily basis. And they all need to be routinely trimmed to ensure they grow in the way the original artist intended.

Sustic takes the tasks on with great pride, knowing that he is only the latest in what can sometimes be a long line of people that have worked to upkeep the tree. One tree in the collection, the Yamaki Pine is nearly 400 years old.

"I feel some anxiety and pressure when I think about it too much, but I try not to do that," Sustic says. "If you do what you're supposed to do, at the time you're supposed to do it, then everything should be ok."

A love for bonsai trees

Sustic fell in love with bonsai trees more than 25 years ago. While stationed in South Korea with the U.S. army, he happened across a store selling the trees. It was love at first sight.

"They just captivated me," he says. "I couldn't stop thinking about them."

Shortly after returning to the U.S., he joined a bonsai club, and in 1987, bought his first bonsai tree. Continuing to develop his budding passion, he started interning at the National Arboretum in 1996, and by 2002 he became the curator of the Bonsai Museum there. It is now up to him to keep all the trees alive and thriving.

"These trees are like children," he says. "You know when you have a child that has done well, or has a play at school, and they're on stage, and you're very proud, these trees are the same way. When they're looking good and I have them in the exhibit, I am very proud. When they're not doing well, I worry about them. So they're very much like children."

While Sustic loves his job, he recognizes that he may not be working there forever. However, his commitment and passion for the trees he's helped care for over the years, he says, will be unwavering.

"I don't see myself ever not doing bonsai," he says. "Whether I'm here or not, there will always be a connection for me with these trees.

[Music: "Working for the Weekend" by The Brown Derbies from We Deliver / "I'm Coming Out (As Made Famous By Diana Ross) [Karaoke Version Without Backing Vocals]" by The Original Hit Makers from Sing It Like an Idol: Pure R&B, Vol. 4 (Karaoke Version)]

Photos: Bonsai Curator

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