Women in Bonsai: Part 1

By: Samantha Holm

Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society

March 2021


“When I dream, I Dream We Are Free” by Kelsey R McDonnell.

Printed with permission from the artist.


To those of you I have not yet met, please allow me to introduce myself. I have been a member of Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society (RMBS) for 3 years and am still very much a bonsai novice. I was introduced to the club by Larry Jackel, whom I met while I was taking my daughter for a walk. He was working on some lovely character pines in the neighborhood. My background is in Ecology with a focus on Conservation Biology, and I was working at Colorado Parks and Wildlife before the life-changing day that I became a mother. Currently I have the exceedingly rewarding and challenging job of taking care of my two daughters (ages: 15 months and 4.5 years).


I have been wanting to write about this topic for some time now. About a year and a half ago I had lunch with some other women from the bonsai club. We talked about how few women were in the club and ways that we could encourage and support our female membership. Feeling inspired, that night I started researching women in bonsai and came across a blog post. The male author asked why there were so few women in bonsai, when in other visual arts the number of women roughly equaled that of men. Some readers posted comments suggesting potential reasons for this disparity. Many of these comments were so incredibly sexist and ridiculous that they completely derailed what could have been an interesting discussion.


As unfortunate as that blog post's comment section was, I really thought that the idea of comparing bonsai to other visual arts was intriguing. Indeed, upon further research I discovered that the percentage of women in visual arts is about equal to men, but I also found examples of staggering inequality for female artists. The National Museum of Women In The Arts has a webpage with statistics that show this disparity. For example, in the visual art world there are fewer female 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).


I wanted to see if the same inequality existed for women in American bonsai. I am still gathering data on a national level for an article that I will submit to the American Bonsai Society's journal. However, this article will focus on data that I compiled on our own bonsai club. I hope this piece will start a discussion about where our club currently stands, and allow us to start thinking of ways that we can continue to grow and improve.


Women As Bonsai Club Members

“Nearly half (45.8%) of the visual artists in the United States are women” (Sunil et al. 2019).


I thought it would be interesting to compare RMBS data to the national data I've gathered so far on other bonsai clubs. In order to estimate the ratio of women bonsai artists in the USA, I sent emails to bonsai clubs across the country requesting their membership data. I used the club information listed on American Bonsai Society's website to obtain the contact emails for 163 clubs (many clubs had missing or outdated contact information).


Since I am still in the processes of contacting clubs and recording data I can only present my preliminary findings. As of today I have received data from 42 bonsai clubs in 18 states. The average percent of female bonsai members was 31%, with a median of 30%. The lowest female percentage that a club had was 15%, and the highest was 67%. There were only 4 clubs where the number of women were equal or greater than men.


So, compared to the other visual arts (at 45.8% female) bonsai does seem to have a lower percentage of female artists. How does our own club look compared to the other bonsai clubs as a whole? Our club currently has 23 women which make up about 15%of RMBS's active members. We are tied with one other club in having the lowest percent of female members of the reported clubs.

Women As Directors and Board Members

“Women hold 30% of art museum director positions and earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by male directors” (Tevino et al. 2017).


Diversity on boards helps expand perspectives in leadership, and gender diversity is just as valuable as diversity in age, educational background, and functional expertise (Arguden 2012). Research has shown that at least 30% female representation on corporate boards brings the benefits of diversity and better outcomes for stakeholders and shareholders (Stuart 2018). There's an expression, “the power of 3” - one woman in the boardroom is a token, two is a presence, and three is a voice (Stuart 2018).


This year 2 out of the 13 board members at RMBS are women: Pat Deutschman and Connie Garrett. This accounts for 15% of the board. It would be interesting to look at the number of women who have held leadership positions on RMBS's board in the past. I was a member when Terril Samuelson held the position of vice president last year. Larry Jackel and Pat Deutschman both confirm that in 1997, RMBS had its first and only female president in the club's 46 year history, Devika Nelson, a talented artist and goldsmith.


Women's Art in Bonsai Exhibitions


“A data analysis of 18 mainstream US art museums show that their collections are comprised of only 12.6% female artists (Topaz et al. 2019).”


“Only 11% acquisitions and 14% exhibitions at 26 major US art museums over the past decade were of work by female artists (Halperin and Burns 2019).”

The stark portrait of gender disparity in art museums sends the unintentional message that artwork made by women is not as valued as men's. Every artist sees the world in a different way, and this diversity of perspective is essential for an equitable society. Art museums must strive for diversity in order to reflect the needs of a diverse community and tell a more accurate art history (McCutcheon 2019). To compare the percentage of female artwork in art museums to our bonsai community, I am looking into the bonsai collections of botanical gardens and bonsai museums across the US.


According to bonsai curator Larry Jackel, the Denver Botanic Garden's bonsai collection currently has about 92 trees, with all but 3 of them acquired by donation. There are zero trees (0%) in the collection created by female artists. Larry said that they are open to female artists donating trees, but that since the collection is already large any new acquisition will need to be based on desired novel tree species.


The annual bonsai exhibitions hosted by bonsai clubs across the country are another way that female artist can showcase their art to the public. In RMBS's last two annual bonsai shows, only 6% of the bonsai were by female artists. RMBS's 50th show displayed 98 bonsai trees, 6 of those bonsai were by 5 women of our club (Terril Samuelson, Samantha Holm, Michi Yoshida, Mary Carrothers, and Florentina Cruz). Of the 78 bonsai trees shown at our 51st bonsai show, only 5 were by female club members (Bernadette Koopman, Terril Samuelson, Samantha Holm). This means that only around 23% (2019) and 14% (2020) of our female members chose to show their bonsai those years.

Awards for Women Bonsai Artists

“In the visual arts, the best-known art award is the Turner Prize, which is given to British artists. Only 29% of the winners of the Turner Prize have been women” (TATE 2019).


We have given the Bob Kataoka Memorial Award for Artist of the Year to a member of RMBS since 1987. In those 34 years only one woman, Mary Kataoka, has received this award. Mrs. Kataoka won the award in 1996 after the death of her husband. That means only 3% of Artists of the Year have been women. The other annual award we give during our bonsai show is the Emerging Artist Award. Record keeping on the Emerging Artist Award has been a bit spotty over the years. The only data we have on women winning the award is Terril Samuelson in 2009, and when I received it (along with Dan Kingery) ten years later in 2019. One potential reason for this disparity can be understood by the previous section. If only a few women choose to show their bonsai, then there is a smaller pool for potential female award winners. I will address some of the reasons that our female club members are choosing not to show their bonsai in Part 2 of this article.


Women As Professional Artists for Conventions/Workshops/Demonstrations

Representation matters in art. When women are given a platform to share their knowledge and art with the world they inspire other women to do the same. Our club usually invites 2-3 professional artists every year to give presentations and demonstrations. As far as Larry Jackel remembers, Kathy Shaner has been the only female bonsai professional that we have had at RMBS. In 2019, Jennifer Price was considered for a workshop, but the money went towards our club's incredible 50th celebration and bonsai show instead. In 2012, Larry was the program chair for the ABS/BCI Symposium in Denver and had a difficult time finding a female bonsai artist. He ended up inviting Young Choe to share her incredible knowledge of kusamono.


If you attempt to search for female bonsai professionals online, your results 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. Only 1 female is listed internationally (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). We know there are more than 2 female bonsai professionals in America; what may be the reason(s) for lesser representation on these sites?


Based on my investigation, I think one issue may be a lack of national advertisement, rather than a lack of female artists or intentional exclusion. I have been compiling a list of female bonsai professionals so that it will be easier to contact and hire one to give a presentation to our club. So far I have 23 potential American artists, and 5 international artists. Of these, only 1 (Pauline Muth) has a website dedicated to her bonsai studio and information on her workshops and demonstrations. If you know of a professional female bonsai artist that we should add to this list, please send me an email (samtolve@gmail.com) with their contact information.


Discussion


In the visual art world there has been a recent effort to reverse the historic marginalization of female artists. The Feminist Art Coalition (FAC), launched in 2019, is a nationwide effort to organize shows of art by women, and 50 museums have signed on to participate (Cascone 2019). As part of its 2020 Vision initiative, the Baltimore Museum of Art, which only has 4% of its art collection created by women, began to rectify this imbalance by only acquiring artwork made by women for the year 2020. The museum also highlighted female artists with each of their 22 exhibits, with 19 of them showcasing artwork made exclusively by women. Director Christopher Bedford said, “this is a declaration of intent going forward of the kinds of exhibits we will have, and the kind of acquisitions we will make. There can be no beginning and no end, just a consistency of effort in the right direction” (McCauley 2019).


The data on our single bonsai club is too small of a sample size to draw meaningful conclusions comparing bonsai to the other visual arts. The article I'm planning to submit to ABS's journal will include a larger sample of clubs and museums across the U.S. so that we can get a more complete picture of the American bonsai community. This article aims to bring the gender disparity of our club to light so we can start a discussion about potential improvements that we can make together.


Understanding some of the reasons why such an imbalance exists would be useful to such a discussion. I'm hoping to write a second Women in Bonsai article where I ask our own female bonsai club members if there are limits on their time, resources, and training that might detract from their goals as bonsai artists. I will also suggest some steps we could potentially take as we strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion.


“No Turning Back” by Kelsey R. McDonnell.

Printed with permission from the artist.


Works Cited


Arguden, Y. 2012. Why boards need more women. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/06/why-boards-need-more-women


Cascone, S. 2019. 50 US museums are teaming up to organize exhibitions of female artists in the run-up to the 2020 election. Artnet News. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/feminist-art-coalition-2020-1695666


Creary, S.J., et al. 2019. When and why diversity improves your board's performance. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/03/when-and-why-diversity-improves-your-boards-performance


Halperin, J., and C. Burns. 2019. Museums claim they're paying more attention to female artists. That's an illusion. Artnet. https://news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/womens-place-art-world-museums-1654714

McCauley, M.C. 2019. Baltimore Museum of Art will only acquire works from women next year: “You have to do something radical”. Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-fe-bma-female-artists-2020-20191115-33s5hjjnqfghzhmwkt7dqbargq-story.html


McCutcheon, S. 2019. Diversity in art: Has the art world become more inclusive? Art Acacia LEVEL. https://inna-13021.medium.com/diversity-in-art-has-the-art-world-become-more-inclusive-ed4e40a979ed


McDonnell, K. R. 2021. Artwork featured in this article can be found on the artist's website: https://kelseymcdonnell.com/section/31149.html


National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2021. Get the Facts. https://nmwa.org/support/advocacy/get-facts/


Stuart, D. 2018. The power of three: Why we need more women on boards. CEO Magazine. https://www.theceomagazine.com/business/management-leadership/the-power-of-three-why-we-need-more-women-on-boards/


Sunil, L. et al. 2019. Artists and other cultural workers: A statistical portrait. National Endowment for the Arts. Arts.gov. https://www.arts.gov/impact/research/publications/artists-and-other-cultural-workers-statistical-portrait


Topaz, C.M et al. 2019. Diversity of artists in major U.S. Museums. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212852


Trevino, V. et al. 2017. The ongoing gender gap in art museum directorships. Association of Art Museum Directors. https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/AAMD%20NCAR%20Gender%20Gap%202017.pdf


What is the Turner Prize? Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/turner-prize

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