Holm, Samantha. 2021. Bonsai - The Journal of the American Bonsai Society. Volume 55, Number 3, Pages 34- 42.
Figure 1: “Trust and Wanting” by Kelsey R. McDonnell
I have been a member of my local bonsai club for four years, and there are two things that I noticed about bonsai culture early on. The first is that most of the bonsai hobbyists/artists that I have met are wonderful, kind, helpful, passionate, and generous with their time and knowledge. The other is that, as a woman in bonsai, I was in a stark minority.
In my club women only make up 15% of the membership, and women are not well represented in leadership, as guest artists, or in exhibitions. Although I had heard that bonsai was a male-dominated art, I wondered why that was, why no one talked about it, and why people just accepted that as the way things were? Was the inequality that I saw in my club also the reality in other bonsai clubs across America?
After investigating the gender disparity in my bonsai club (“Women in Bonsai: Parts 1-3” at rmbonsai.org/blog), I wanted to find out how well represented women are in our national bonsai community. I investigated bonsai club membership, the gender makeup of boards, the promotion and hiring of female artists, the bonsai collections in botanic gardens and bonsai museums, the employment of bonsai curators, and award winners in national bonsai shows.
Bonsai Club Members
Although there are likely many bonsai hobbyists/artists that are not members of a club, examining the gender makeup of our bonsai clubs gives us a rough way of calculating the percentage of women that are involved in the art of bonsai. In order to estimate the ratio of women bonsai artists in the USA I used the contact information listed on American Bonsai Society's website to send emails to bonsai clubs.
I received data from 55 bonsai clubs in 25 states. The average percentage of female membership was 32%, with a median of 30%. The lowest female percentage that a club had was 15%, and the highest was 67%. There were only 6 clubs (11%) where the number of women were equal to or greater than the number of men.
Directors and Board Members
To determine the ratio of women on the boards of bonsai clubs nationally, I reached out to the clubs that had previously provided membership data. I was able to gather data from 39 bonsai clubs in 25 states. I found that the average percentage of women on the board of directors of bonsai clubs was 28%, with a median of 26%. There were 5 bonsai clubs that had zero women on their board. There were 5 clubs where the number of women on the board was equal to or greater than the number of men. The highest percentage in my sample was 67%.
There are two organizations, Bonsai Clubs International (BCI), and The American Bonsai Society (ABS), that foster our local clubs and promote the knowledge of and interest in bonsai nationally. BCI currently has a woman president, Glenis Bebb, and one female vice president. Three out of the 11 directors on BCI's board are women. Women make up 29% of BCI's board members. ABS's past president, Karen Harkaway is currently their vice president and Pauline Muth is secretary, but they are the only females out of the 22 board members (9%).
I also looked into the leadership at bonsai museums and botanic gardens that have a bonsai collection. Out of 25 bonsai museums and botanic gardens that I could gather data from, 48% was the average percentage of women on their board of directors. Half (50%) of the botanic gardens have a woman as their director/president/CEO.
Professional Bonsai Artists
I reached out to ABS and BCI to find out how many professional female artists are hired for their bonsai conventions. According to Pauline Muth, past ABS president, in the last two decades there has been about 2 women out of 8 demonstrators at most ABS conventions (25%). During the last six years (2015-2020), under Glennis Bebb's presidency, 14 of the 74 demonstrators at the BCI conventions were women (19%).
Potters and Accent Artists
American Bonsai Society has a link on their website where you can see a list of American bonsai potters. Although this list is likely missing many individuals, including newer, less well-known, and potters that do not solely make bonsai pots, the list only includes 23 women out of the 102 living bonsai potters in America (23%).
I gathered data from the bonsai curators from 33 botanic gardens and bonsai museums to find out how many collections featured bonsai trees created by female artists. Of these, only 23 had recorded the gender of donating artists. To be able to compare the National Bonsai and Penjing Muesum to the rest of the bonsai collections, I only used the data from their “North American” collection. I found that within the bonsai collections of the museums and botanic gardens in America the average percentage of bonsai trees created by a female artist was 12%. There were 3 botanic gardens with bonsai collections that had 0 trees made by women. The highest percentage of bonsai trees by female artists in a single collection was 42%.
Figure 2: Olive forest by Melba Tucker. In training since 1972. Donated to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.
Figure 3: Buttonwood by Mary Madison. In training since 1975. Donated to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.
Curators of Bonsai Collections
Of the 33 bonsai museums and botanic gardens on my original list, 6 had a female staff member who was in charge of managing and overseeing their bonsai collection (18%). There is a wide range of bonsai experience in these staff members, from bonsai masters who have received training in Japan to horticulturalists who start with no bonsai experience and have to quickly learn how to care for bonsai on the job.
Awards for Bonsai Artists
The U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition is held every two years (since 2008) in New York. The 6th show in 2018 showcased nearly 300 bonsai trees from 27 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada. There are 11 awards given to bonsais in different categories. Since the first show, only 3 women have received an award (4%). In 2014, Louise Leister won the Yoshimura Award for finest classical bonsai, and Karen Harkaway won the Bonsai Travel Award in 2018 for her bonsai and companion combination. In 2016, Soon Chuah's accent plant, along with her husband's tiger bark fig, won the Bonsai Travel Award for their bonsai and companion combination.
The Artisan Cup took place in 2015 at the Portland Art Museum featuring 71 bonsai from across America. About 10% of the exhibition were bonsais created by female artists (7 trees). Amy Blanton tied for third place for a tree that was created by her late husband, Mike Blanton.
Figure 4: Award-wining Japanese black pine in the 2014 US National Bonsai Exhibition by artist Louise Leister.
Potential Reasons for Gender Disparity
In February of this year I surveyed the women in my bonsai club to get an idea of the roadblocks that exist for women who pursue this artistic hobby (“Women in Bonsai: Part 2”, rmbonsai.org/blog). Although the group of women surveyed were a mix of different ages, backgrounds, employment, marital status, and family life, there were some common issues that surfaced for most women. It seems that the barriers that women face in bonsai are the same systemic barriers (e.g. money, time, resources, education) that exist for women throughout our country.
One potential barricade for women can be access to quality material and financial resources. Women, on average, earn just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men (Bleiweis 2020). Pre-bonsai trees from bonsai nurseries or nursery stock from garden stores planted in production Chinese bonsai pots can be affordable for most starting out in this hobby. However, as you progress in your skill and artistry and develop more expensive tastes, the high quality custom pots and stands, and large, developed trees begin to make this art form too expensive for many. Most of the women that I surveyed were not comfortable spending more than $300 on a tree, making if difficult for them to purchase further developed trees or yamadori. Most of the women surveyed had also not been trained on how to collect their own yamadori.
One reason women may not be as involved in bonsai is that they have less time available for hobbies. Women are still doing the majority of housework when living with a male partner (Barr 2019). This is true even when women are the “breadwinners” of the family (Rao 2019). Married American mothers spend almost twice as much time on housework and child care than do married fathers (Bianchi et al. 2012, Dush et al. 2018). And American mothers - including those with young children - who are more likely to be working now than in past decades, are also spending almost twice the amount of time on child care today than mothers did in 1975 (Bianchi et al. 2012). Among siblings, daughters spend twice as much time as sons caring for aging parents (Grigoryeva 2014). Women may also be more pressured culturally to pursue hobbies that are more “valuable” or “productive” for their families (e.g. knitting, baking), or that they can turn into a side gig (Conway 2019), than creating art for the sake of it.
Another barrier to women can be the culture in their local bonsai club. It is difficult to be one of the only women in a room, especially if you are starting a new hobby and do not know anyone. It is even more difficult if your bonsai club is a “boy's club”. In a “boy's club”, informal social bonding and networking between men results in the funneling of knowledge, resources, and career advancement for these men, while women are excluded and left behind (Kea-Lewis 2019). It may be hard for women to find mentorship or be chosen to serve on a board in this type of environment. The club format can also be difficult for some women with children, who have to find childcare to attend meetings. The switch to virtual meetings during the COVID pandemic has made it easier for many women to be more involved.
If systemic sexism is the main reason why more women are not involved in bonsai as practitioners, then it is likely a contributing factor as to why less women choose to make a profession out of it. Becoming a professional bonsai artist usually requires years of unpaid apprenticeship, often in a foreign country. The effort and financial sacrifice necessary to complete this training is difficult for anyone, but various aspects of our society make it harder for women to acquire the time, money, and resources to complete it. Additionally, occupations that require frequent traveling (like a professional bonsai artist) are sometimes more difficult for women who are also mothers with small children.
The general consensus is that there are very few female professional bonsai artists in our country. If you attempt to search for female bonsai professionals online, you will come up with a pitiful few. On Bonsai Empire's website under “Bonsai Experts by Region” there are 0 female bonsai professionals listed in the USA, and only 1 listed around the world (1.3% of the 76 listed), Maria Hajdic from Croatia. Similarly, the American Bonsai Society's website has only 2 women (5%) listed under their “Bonsai Artists and Instructors” tab (Laura Wong and Pauline Muth). What may be the reason(s) for the underrepresentation of women on these sites?
It may be that women are not promoting themselves as aggressively as men on a national level. For example, a website is a fundamental tool for marketing in our connected world, however I believe only a few female artists have a website dedicated to their bonsai profession. Filling out a form is all that is required to be included on ABS's website list, yet even fewer of those have submitted the form to be included. It would be interesting to explore why women seem to be more hesitant to promote and market their artistry.
In my search for professional female artists I have found many more that are frequent guest artists at their local clubs, but not really known out-of-state. This may be because some of the female professional artists in older generations are finding it harder to travel as they age. The female bonsai artists in America may also not be as well known because they do not receive the same amount of publicity and exposure as men. As artist and professor Joan Semmel put it: “... if there are no great celebrated women artists, that's because the powers that be have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there.”
Figure 5: “The Other Side of the Dream” by Kelsey R. McDonnell
How Can Men be an Ally for Women?
Men can use their power and privilege to help make our bonsai community more inclusive. One way you can do this is by speaking up and calling out sexism and misogyny amongst your peers. Sometimes men (and even women) make sexist comments against women in bonsai. Even when such comments are masqueraded as “just a joke”, they still bring women down and make women feel unwelcome. I have found that when women speak up against sexist comments they are labeled as “emotional” or told that they are “overreacting”, but silence signals that this behavior is acceptable. A simple, “hey, that's not cool”, spoken by a male peer, goes a long way.
Another way men can help is by providing mentorship for women in whom you see promise, or giving women opportunities for education and training. If you champion women, stand up for them, and give them a chance in a leadership position you will start seeing a great change in your bonsai club.
What Can Bonsai Clubs do to Help?
Evaluate the Possible Gender Disparity in your Bonsai Club
To get an accurate picture of how your own club is doing it may be worthwhile to do an internal review of your club's history and demographics. Areas to investigate are the gender ratios for your current membership, current and historic board members, visiting professional bonsai artists, and annual exhibition bonsai trees displays and award winners (see “Women in Bonsai: Part 1”, rmbonsai.org/blog as example). The results that you uncover will give you a great starting point and help you highlight areas that you may need to focus on for improvement.
Listen to Your Female Club Membership
A great way to discover if there are ways that your club could improve is to do an anonymous survey of the women in your club. Some important topics to address in your survey questions are whether they feel welcomed and supported by the club, if they feel like they are being treated equally and given the same opportunities as their male counterparts, if they think your club offers sufficient educational and training opportunities to continue their artistic growth, and if they have any ideas for improvement.
Focus on Retaining and Attracting More Women
Many aging bonsai clubs have lately been focusing on how to attract younger members to their club, which is a worthwhile goal in itself. However, bonsai clubs with a lower number of female members should also work on attracting more women. “Women in Bonsai- Part 3” (rmbonsai.org/blog) highlights some ideas for doing just that.
Put More Women in Leadership Roles
The representation of women in leadership will generate positive change in bonsai culture. An important tool in working towards equality is giving women a seat at the table where decisions are made. A woman in position of Program Chair may be more willing to hire more female bonsai professionals for demonstrations, a female Membership Chair might focus on attracting more women to their club, and a female President may put a stronger focus on equity.
Bonsai clubs vary in terms of how people are chosen to serve on their board; some rely on volunteers while others hand-pick from their membership. Regardless of the method, boards should be encouraging or inviting more women to serve. Research has shown that corporate boards should aim for at least 30% female representation to have better outcomes for stakeholders and shareholders. There's an expression, “the power of three” - one woman in the boardroom is a token, two is a presence, and three is a voice (Stuart 2018). Twenty of the 38 bonsai clubs (53%) in my study had less than 30% of women on their board.
Hire More Women for Club Presentations/Demonstrations
To ensure equality the board of directors at bonsai clubs should attempt to invite more female professional bonsai artists to give talks and demonstrations. They should also make sure that female presenters are compensated equally to that of a male presenter.
Create Women's Bonsai Study Groups
It is difficult to be in the minority, especially when trying to learn a new skill. It may be more comfortable for some women to ask questions, or get advice on their trees from other women. A women's study group would be a great place to help each other and gain confidence in the art of bonsai. A Women's Bonsai Study Group could be part of a larger bonsai club, or one could be formed in a city where no bonsai club is located.
Put on an All-female Exhibition
Bonsai clubs could support these new Women's Bonsai Study Groups by helping the members put on a bonsai exhibition of all-female artists. If your club's annual bonsai show occurs during the fall, this additional exhibition could happen in the spring to celebrate flowering bonsai or in winter to highlight the silhouettes of their trees. This would be a great way to encourage the women in your club, give their art much deserved attention, and attract more women to your club from the public.
Figure 6: “No Turning Back”, by Kelsey R. McDonnell
What Can We Do as a National Bonsai Community About This Issue?
Hire More Women for Conventions
When Jorge Nazario, President of the Bonsai Societies of Florida, was tasked with finding a headliner to replace the male artist that could not reschedule after their 2020 convention was canceled, he had a revelation. Why did he need to find a male artist to partner with his other headliner, Jennifer Price? As chairman of the convention committee, Jorge decided to invite all female artists for their BSF convention in May 2021. He thinks that this was the first bonsai convention to do so. The artists included Jennifer Price, Martha Goff, Lourdes Arnaez, and Mary Madison.
Help Museums/Botanic Gardens Acquire More Bonsai Trees by Women
Perhaps the most common way that the general public comes in contact with a bonsai display is at a botanic garden or bonsai museum. I asked Aarin Packard, curator for the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, Washington, what bonsai museums could do to create a more equal representation of female artists in their collections. “Bonsai museums should seek out and acquire more bonsai from female artists. Museums should also highlight and feature them in their exhibits.” A wonderful way to encourage women bonsai artists is to create temporary (or even permanent) exhibits at bonsai museums and at botanic gardens throughout the country that feature and celebrate women. Aarin Packard would love to put on an exhibition featuring the significant women of bonsai past and present. To do so he would have to borrow about 30 bonsai from across the country to add to the 15 currently in their collection.
Female bonsai practitioners could also consider donating one of their high quality trees to a botanic garden, or consider bequeathing their collections after their death. The highest percentage of bonsais by female artists in my study is in the Texas State Bonsai Exhibit's collection housed at the Zilker Botanical Garden in Austin, Texas. Of the 42 trees created by women in their collection, 26 were donated by Audrey Lanier after her passing in 2015. Audrey was a founding member of the Austin Bonsai Society and the Texas State Bonsai Exhibit.
Create a Bonsai Scholarship for Women
Bonsai is an expensive hobby, and the cost of training can be limiting. Currently, there is the California Bonsai Society's Ben Oki Bonsai Scholarship Fund where winners are awarded a $1,000 grant to be used to attend classes, workshops, study with a professional, or other bonsai related educational activity. A scholarship specifically for women to study bonsai would be a great way to make our art form more inclusive to women in lower income levels.
Create a National Women's Bonsai Society
A national women's group could be helpful in organizing, focusing goals, bringing attention to issues, and highlighting talented female artists. According to Glennis Bebb, “in 2019 the BCI China Group formed the first Chinese female bonsai artist organization. The Committee has a representative from each province in China. At the convention there were 200 bonsai trees on exhibit represented by 80 female artists, and all 20 of the demonstrators were female.”
I am currently working with Carmen Leskoviansky, bonsai collections manager at the University of Michigan, on founding a national women's bonsai society. The purpose of our organization will be to support, encourage, and inspire female bonsai artists and advocate for diversity and inclusion of all underrepresented groups within the bonsai community. We hope to work on increasing diversity within bonsai collections in botanic gardens, and highlighting the important women in bonsai (past and present).
Figure 7: “Now We Can Touch the Sky”, by Kelsey R. McDonnell
How Does Bonsai Compare to Other Visual Arts?
Bonsai, like many other visual arts in America, suffers from inequality. In the visual art world there are fewer female museum directors, museums acquire and exhibit art created by women at lower percentages, women win fewer art awards, women artists make less money, and art created by women is sold for less at auctions (NMWA 2021). The table below demonstrates how the findings in my study compare to what has been calculated in other studies on women in the visual arts. Research is needed on how much bonsai artists of each sex make for demonstrations and workshops, and how much their finished bonsai sell for in auctions or to private buyers.
Comparison of the Gender Disparity in Other Visual Arts VS Bonsai
Other Visual Arts
Percent of women involved
Sunil et al. 2019
Percent of female museum/botanic garden directors
Tevino et al. 2017
Percent of artwork by women in museums/gardens
Topaz et al. 2019
Percent of female award winners
Average compensation for every $1 made by a male artist
Sunil et al. 2019
Percent of money made at auction by female works
Halperin & Burns 2019
Where we can most improve in bonsai culture is how much value we attribute to works of art by women. We need to consider the message that we send to women, and to the world, when the artwork of women is acquired, exhibited, and awarded at a significant degree less than that of men. In the visual art world there have been recent attempts to rectify this imbalance. The Feminist Art Coalition, launched in 2019, is a nationwide effort to organize shows of art by women, and 50 museums have signed on to participate (Cascone 2019). Some art museums in the US are also deaccessioning (selling off) works by male artists to be able to buy artwork by women or underrepresented groups (Kenney 2020). Similar efforts are needed in bonsai, and will be a focus of the future national women's bonsai society.
Figure 8: “Balance” by Kelsey McDonnell.
The purpose of this article was to uncover the gender disparity in American bonsai, and to determine the areas where this issue is most severe. I wanted to start a discussion about the possible reasons why this disparity exists, and to come up with ways that we can make improvements as a community. This is not an issue for women to solve alone. In order to make bonsai a more inclusive art in America we must all work together.
Although I have focused this article on women in American bonsai, we need to ensure that our bonsai community is inclusive to all underrepresented groups. Bonsai must be a safe and welcoming space for women, people of color, people of any sexual orientation or who are transgendered or non-binary, believers of all religions, people with physical or mental disabilities, and immigrants.
American bonsai is still becoming. As a bonsai culture we are still developing our American style and identity, and the voice of each artist contributes to what defines us. Our country is a crazy-beautiful mixture of people of every ethnicity, gender, and religion. Let's ensure that the amazing diversity that makes America so uniquely wonderful is being represented in our beautiful art form.
Thank you to the many bonsai club contacts who shared with me their club's membership and board of directors data. Thank you to all the bonsai curators and horticultural directors who looked into their collections for me. And thank you to Aarin Packard, Jorge Nazario, Pauline Muth, and Glennis Bebb for taking the time to speak/write to me.
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