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A Short History of Women in Bonsai - Northeastern USA

By John Romano


I wanted to contribute in a little way towards our knowledge of the history of women who have influenced bonsai in the Northeastern part of the United States.  It is the area I grew up in and have some knowledge of, practicing bonsai here for approximately 40 years.  I am hoping that others can expand on this knowledge by contributing their stories about important bonsai women from other parts of the country.  Since I have had strong women in my life – grandmothers, aunts, my mom, my wife (and also helping me raise 2 daughters) – I believe in the importance of acknowledging the contribution of women in bonsai in an admittedly male dominated art form.  Besides focusing mainly on the East Coast of the US, I am also not including the many contemporary female bonsai artists working today.  We have to start somewhere and hopefully their stories will be told by others and by themselves through their contributions in the bonsai arts!


The history of bonsai in Japan (and I’m sure in the rest of Asia) was (and is) dominated by men.  It is changing somewhat but it definitely has a long way to go.  We must acknowledge this to understand the transmission of this knowledge and practice from Asia to the US and its relationship to men and women participating in bonsai here.  Despite this male dominated tradition in Japanese bonsai, it has gone practically unrecognized that women played an ancillary role in supporting and assisting with the daily maintenance of bonsai nurseries in Japan – the ‘silent’, behind the scenes female presence in the bonsai world.  I surmise that wives and mothers of bonsai artists participated in the daily care of the bonsai garden (most of which were located as part of the family homesite).  One woman does stand out in Japan as a pioneer in the art of bonsai. The most famous and influential shohin bonsai enthusiast in Japan, Count Yorinaga Matsudaira, who has inspired many generations of shohin bonsai practitioners all over the world, was equally partnered with his wife, Countess Akiko Masuhara, in their passion.  This was in the early-mid 20th century when it was unheard of for women to cultivate bonsai in Japan.  After the Count's death, the Countess continued to cultivate hundreds of shohin and mame bonsai along with the assistance of the Yoshimura family.  She can be considered a pioneer in that very male dominated culture. 




In more recent years, women have been influential in Japan in the field of kusamono/shitakusa and some women have started to step forward in their passion for bonsai as well.  As an example, there are 3 popular Japanese woman bonsai artists who have regular YouTube videos. Mori Tomomi who, along with her husband (Yusuki Uchida), are both bonsai artists and have a video called ‘Bonsai Iroha’. ‘Kimi’s Mini bonsai days’ has regular videos of Kimi’s shohin bonsai work – she is a younger enthusiast who can hopefully encourage other young women in the art of bonsai in Japan.  Also on the channel ‘Bonsai Q’, Mrs. Ohno is often featured with her work on mini bonsai (she is a favorite of mine!).


Looking at the beginnings of women bonsai here on the East Coast of the US specifically, one must start with the venerable Yuji Yoshimura, Japanese bonsai master.  Yuji actually taught many foreign women in Japan during post WWII reconstruction in the 50’s.  His family had a famous bonsai nursery in Japan.   He and Alfred Koehn, an authority on Japanese art, organized the first beginners bonsai course at the Yoshimura family nursery in Tokyo in 1952. Women who were stationed in Japan (or were the spouses of men stationed there) were able to take courses in the art of bonsai and some of these came back to the US with this interest. 



After Yuji moved to the US, he would teach at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens  and then established his own nursery, the Yoshimura Bonsai Co, first at a students’ home and later at the Detmer Nursery, where he taught many enthusiasts and cultivated beautiful bonsai.  His student and friend, Bill Valavanis, who was first associated with him even before he moved to the US, is a great depository of knowledge of all things Yuji Yoshimura.

 

Marion Gyllenswan

One of Yuji’s students in the US and a wonderful bonsai teacher, Marion Gyllenswan, became the first director of the National Bonsai Foundation.  She was encouraged by Yuji to begin the formation of a National Bonsai organization and a Japanese collection of Bonsai in the US.  The formation of the National Bonsai Foundation and the beginning of the National collection began in 1982 with Marion at the helm. Marion was an ardent promoter of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC and was also featured in a Master’s Bonsai Techniques video series.   Marion taught extensively in the New England area and had a strong influence on local clubs, especially in the New York and Connecticut states.  She was part of the initial founding group of the Yamak ki Bonsai Society in Connecticut.




Nancy Mack

Marion Gyllenswan and Yuji also had an influence on Nancy Mack from Hamden, Connecticut.  Nancy was one of the founders of the Bonsai Society of Greater New Haven in 1973 and was instrumental in getting it off the ground and keeping it thriving for many years.  She brought Marion in to teach at the club in 1975 and Marion taught 3 workshops per year for more than 20 years at the club.  Nancy also studied with frequent club guests Jim Barrett and Roy Nagatoshi.  Several long time club members told me that her generosity, teaching and leadership kept them growing in the hobby.  One member said that without her, they probably would not have continued in the hobby all these years.  She had a unique personality and was certainly strong willed but was an enthusiastic teacher and artist with both bonsai and suiseki.



Lynn Perry Alstadt

At the same time that Yuji was teaching bonsai to students in the 50’s while still in Japan, another female bonsai pioneer, Lynn Perry Alstadt, was taking bonsai lessons with Kyuzo Murata, another famous bonsai professional at Kyuka-en garden in Omiya Village in Japan.  Lynn was the first American to study bonsai with a Japanese master for an extended period of time.  For 1-2 days per week from 1960-1962 she would receive instructions from Mr. Murata and was awarded a teacher’s certificate from him at the conclusion.  She was also an assistant on the staff of the Agricultural Attache at the American Embassy in Tokyo. She had formal training in her native Pennsylvania in horticultural studies and landscape architecture.  After her return to the US she would continue with bonsai teaching (including at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens), and was a founding member of the Erie Bonsai Society.  She also stared a bonsai tool import business, Suzu-en Bonsai Co.  She would later lead a 17 person bonsai tour of Japan which also included Marion Gyllenswan and Constance Derderian (who I will mention later) and brought them to Mr. Murata’s nursery for a class.  She was also a director of the American Bonsai Society in its beginning days and would lead other tours to Japan with the ABS. Her book about her studies with Mr. Murata, A Guide to the Methods of Kyuzo Murata, from 1964 is a pioneer description of her time studying with this bonsai master.



Constance ‘Connie’ Derderian

Connie Derderian was another influential bonsai person in the 1950’s -70’s.  She started her bonsai journey with a course at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (her teacher was most likely Yuji Yoshimura or Lynn Perry Alstadt) and continued her association with that institution.  This association led her to be chosen as the editor of a publication by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Bonsai for Indoors (1976).  She was a leading promoter of subtropical bonsai that could be grown indoors.  She had a continued association with Lynn Perry Alstadt, Marion Gyllenswan and other early influencers of bonsai in the Eastern US and was a founding member of the American Bonsai Society.  Her main ‘fame’ in the bonsai world, at least from my perspective, was as an honorary curator of the Larz Anderson Bonsai collection at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.  This is the oldest bonsai collection from Japan in the US.  Larz Anderson was the ambassador to Japan in the early 20th century and was fascinated with bonsai.  He purchased 40 bonsai trees from the Yokohama Nursery Co in Japan in 1913 and had them shipped to his Boston home.  After his death in 1937, his wife donated thirty of these trees to the Harvard Arnold Arboretum.  Because of the lack of professional knowledge of caring for these trees almost 1/3 of them died at the Arboretum, including a Hinoki Cypress gifted from Premier Hirohito to the Andersons.  Constance became a curator of the collection from 1969-1984 and her dedication to their care and maintenance led her to receive a Gold Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1979.  I am sure without her care many more trees would have perished.  She also taught bonsai classes in the Boston area.  One of her students, artist Marjory Delaneus who became a member of our Rhode Island Bonsai Society in the 1990’s told me that she had studied with Connie and subsequently started a Rhode Island Bonsai club in the 1950’s!  I had never heard this and, unfortunately, have not been able to learn any more specifics about this early Rhode Island club but was happy to hear that the enthusiasm and practice was happening here earlier than I originally thought.






Ernesta Ballard

Ernesta Ballard began her bonsai journey in 1960 when she took a class taught by Yuji Yoshimura at the Arnold Arboretum.  In 1962 she wrote what some say was the first book on the subject written by an American, The Art of Training Plants.  Her interest in bonsai influenced her husband to also participate in it.  Both were part of the founding members of the American Bonsai Society in 1967 and she was instrumental in introducing California teacher John Naka to bonsai practitioners on the East Coast.  She was elected to the National Bonsai Foundation Board of Directors in 2004.

 Ernesta was also the Executive Director and President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for eighteen years from 1963 to 1981. During a difficult period in which organizers were threatening to suspend the show, Ernesta guided it to international prominence and financial stability as it became one of the largest indoor flower shows in the US.  She was also involved in other horticultural endeavors in the Pennsylvania area.  She was also an ardent feminist and founded chapters of NOW in her area.




Dorothy Young

Dorothy Young was another influential female bonsai activist during this time.  She was the original editor for the American Bonsai Society Journal ‘Bonsai’ (which grew out of the ‘Bonsai Bulletin’ of New York).  Dorothy was, along with Ernesta Ballard and Lynn Perry Alstadt, on the initial board of directors of the American Bonsai Society.  Connie Dederian was the Secretary and Marion Gyllenswan was the Treasurer.  Along with Lynn Perry Alstadt, Dorothy published a pamphlet for the American Bonsai Society called ‘A Manual for Appreciating, Judging and Buying Bonsai’.  Dorothy also published a book ‘Bonsai: The Art and Technique’ that was a popular manual for cultivating bonsai and was quite comprehensive at the time.


Doris ‘Dorie’ Froning

Dorie Froning, the ‘Mame Mama’ (as some affectionately called her) was a well known bonsai artist specializing in mame and shohin sized bonsai.  She co-founded the Brandywine Bonsai Society and was President of that organization as well as later serving as President of the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society.  She also served once as President of the American Bonsai Society. She received the Ben Oki Award from the ABS for her service to the bonsai community in the US.  Once a year for 13 years she would participate (along with 11 other bonsai enthusiasts) in week-long bonsai sessions with John Naka that took place in Eire, PA.  Froning presented workshops around the country, did demonstrations at various bonsai conventions and was the first foreign woman to view the Japanese Emperor’s bonsai collection in Tokyo.  She was particularly expert in shohin bonsai, with trees from her collection currently displayed at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC and at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.   For a long time she volunteered once a week at Longwood, helping maintain their collection.  She is probably most well known for her shohin bonsai column in International Bonsai magazine that ran for many years (“Dori’s Shohin Bonsai Tips’).  When she was ready to give that up, I asked for her blessing to carry on the column and I have done so now for many years myself.  Prior to authoring these columns, she would mimeograph and mail a newsletter ‘Mame Growers of America’ to subscribers.  She, along with Jack Billet, also conceived of the ‘John Naka Sketchbook’ which was later refined and published with the work of Cheryl Manning of California. 




I want to reiterate that this is a historical focus on the women bonsai pioneers from the Northeast US and that it does not include the many contemporary artists out here in the Northeast or elsewhere in the US.  I would hope that others might explore and contribute historical articles pertaining to other parts of the country.  Florida alone has the legendary Mary Madison and Mary Miller.  There is also Kathy Shaner, the first woman and non-Japanese citizen to be honored with a professional bonsai certificate by the Nippon Bonsai Association after a 5 year apprenticeship with Yasuo Mitsuya.  And there are many more.  I also want to apologize in advance if I’ve left anyone out.  Feel free to contact me if you have more information on any of these (or other) early woman pioneers in the Northeast US bonsai community.



References:


Magical Miniature Landscapes, Robert Baran (https://www.magiminiland.org/Days/Days.html)

International Bonsai magazine (various), William Valavanis

Bonsai: Trees and Shrubs: A Guide to the Methods of Kyuzo Murata, 1964 Lynn Perry Alstadt

Bonsai for Indoors, 1989 Constance T. Derderian

Early American Bonsai: The Larz Anderson Collection of the Arnold Arboretum, 1989 Peter Del Tredici

Special thanks for information about Nancy Mack and Marion Gyllenswan from members of the Greater Bonsai Society of Greater New Haven – Ed DeNardis, Anthony Alario, Peter Hlousek and Gail Briggs-Malanson

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2 Comments


Gracias por mostrar parte importante de la historia de mujeres en el mundo del arte del bonsái.

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John, what a wonderful history of the influential and talented women who have shaped the practice of bonsai in the Northeast US into what it is today. I had heard many of their names over the years; it is a pleasure to understand their histories. Thank you so much!

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