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Bonsai seen in a new light

Three years ago a small contingent of bonsai artists joined forces to create what Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai participant Sam Lee described as a monthly workshop. Tonight and tomorrow night the group will host an exhibit that presents this ancient art in a new light.

“Usually bonsai shows are during the day and in natural lighting,” Lee said. “We were searching for an indoor venue so we could display at night under lights — to see it at night gives a whole different effect.”

The 12-year bonsai artist mentioned the group’s desire for an indoor venue to Kaua‘i Society of Artists president Carol Ann Davis.

One thing led to another and Davis helped make the group’s dream into reality — 30 bonsai will be displayed on pedestals with light filtering through their branches from above. There will be narrated tours of the exhibit provided by club members from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Lee discovered bonsai late in life. An incurable water man, Lee spent his youth surfing, paddling and scuba diving. He said that it surprised him how bonsai captivated his imagination.

“It’s released creativity I never knew I had,” said the septuagenarian. “I feel so fortunate — in the senior time of my life that I actually found something that excites me. It’s as exciting and fulfilling as anything I’ve ever done.”

Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai meets once a month, rotating between homes to discuss this common interest.

“We’re not a social club,” Lee said. “We’re a pretty serious bunch — focusing on display capabilities.”

Of Lee’s 200 trees, he is unsure of the actual age since he collects material that has been growing in the mountains

“Harvesting is a common technique,” he said. “It gives you a jump on age and character.”

The laws governing bonsai are simple, according to Lee.

“The principles are of reduction — reduce the most attractive part [of a tree in the wild] then take it home and build a new tree.”

While Lee admits to not knowing the exact age of any of his stock, one tree he can make an approximation on is a bougainvillea he harvested from a Westside woman’s property.

“She said she remembered when her father planted it — that puts it at about 60 years old.”

His other resource for bonsai materials is from Southeast Asia. After a lengthy and arduous process, Lee worked out the logistics with the USDA to import materials that are much older then what he can collect close to home. When the stock arrives from Asia it is all trunk and roots. Within a few months under Lee’s care tiny leaves begin to sprout. Pointing to the gnarled and twisted trunk of one tree he marveled at the superiority of the material.

“Look at the sinuosity of the trunk. A trunk like this is a gift from the gods,” he said, then pointing to the tilt of the trunk, added, “The trunk will dictate where you go with the design.”

A native of Honolulu, Lee moved from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i in 1970 to raise his family.

“To start a new life in a clean, safe, rural community — to a place where we could look within and find fulfillment in what was here for us.”

Bonsai gave Lee one more opportunity to fulfill that intent.

“It’s something to look forward to everyday. I never thought I’d find a thing that gives me that feeling of ‘oh my god.’ It’s indescribable. I spend hours (caring for bonsai) everyday.”

Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai’s hosts three shows a year.

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