By Samantha Holm
“Demure” by Kelsey R. McDonnell.
Printed with permission from the artist.
Now that we have seen the examples of gender disparity in our bonsai club, the questions that follow are “what are the reasons for this disparity?” and “what can we do as a club to address this issue?”. To answer the first question I wanted to find out more about the women in our club as individuals. In this article I hope to address some of the possible reasons why our own female club members may not be as involved as our male club members. To do this I created a survey for the women in our club to gauge their level of interest in bonsai, to understand their artistic goals, and to discover what creates roadblocks on their path as artists. I considered factors like time, money, support, training, etc. I sent the anonymous survey to all 23 women and received 14 responses (60%).
Getting a Clearer Picture of the Women in Our Club
The majority of the women that responded to the survey are relatively new to the club. I found that 50% have been members for less than 5 years, and 71% have been members for less than 10 years. When asked how many bonsai trees they have in their collection, 57% said they had 10 or fewer. The average number of trees reported was 17, and the highest number of trees was 100 (in all stages of development). There were 3 women who did not have any bonsai trees (one is brand new and the others are part of a family membership). I found that most (80%) of the women who had 20 or more bonsai trees in their collection were also more serious about showing their trees and winning awards.
There seem to be varying degrees of participation by the women in our club. There are some who are immersed in bonsai as an art form, others who just want to enjoy bonsai as a fun hobby, and a few who choose not to work on trees at all. Some of our female club members are part of a family membership. These women are not as involved with the practice of bonsai as their spouses, and many do not have personal trees. Instead they are involved with bonsai in other ways, like serving on the board, attending meetings, and going tree collecting with their spouses. It seems they are primarily involved as support for their partners, which I find admirable. How many of us are as committed to our own spouse's hobbies?
I asked the women about their goals in their practice of bonsai. The most commonly cited goals were to “have fun experimenting with trees” (71%), “attend bonsai workshops to learn from professionals” (64%), “create beautiful works of art” (57%), and “learn as much as I can about horticulture” (50%). I found that women's aspirations of showing their bonsai trees (29%), or winning awards (14%) were not as common. One woman considered a possible future as a bonsai professional.
Although our club has less women than men, we have a portion that is very active in the club. Most of the women (62%) attend 6 or more club meetings a year. Our club has a volunteer group (the Friends of the Denver Bonsai Pavilion) that meets every Wednesday morning to assist curator Larry Jackel with the Denver Botanic Garden's bonsai collection. Larry informed me that the 5 women that volunteer regularly make up about 40% of the group.
What Are Some of the Roadblocks That Our Women Face?
The first thing that is important to point out is that all the women in our club are unique individuals who happen to share a love for bonsai. They have different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. They are of different ages, and have different careers. Some have families, some live alone. We cannot assume that all women face the same constraints on their artistic goals. However, there may be some things that many women have in common that hold them back from committing more to this art form.
One reason our women may not be as involved in bonsai is that they have a smaller amount of time available for hobbies. When I asked the women with significant others whether they or their partners spent more time on their hobbies, 50% said their partner spent more, and 40% said they both spent an equal amount. Only one woman spent more time on her hobbies than her partner. The most common things that took up time that could potentially be spent practicing bonsai were their other hobbies or interests (64%), domestic duties (43%), and time spent caring for children or the elderly (36%). A study conducted by University College London found that women are still doing the majority of housework when living with a male partner. They discovered that women do approximately 16 hours of household chores every week, while men do closer to 6 (Barr 2019). A study from Ohio State University that looked at how housework and childcare was split up between couples with a new child found that men enjoyed more leisure time, especially on the weekends, and fathers engaged in leisure 47% and 35% of the time during which mothers performed childcare and routine housework, respectively (Dush et al. 2018).
One potential barricade for women could also be access to quality material and financial resources. Women, on average, earn just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men (Bleiweis 2020). When I look at images of world class bonsai, I notice a lot of large and spectacular yamadori in beautiful pottery on top of handmade custom stands. Such displays can be quiet costly. If you have not been trained on how to collect trees from the wild (only 2 women said that they were) then you would have to purchase a yamadori. A quick look through Todd Schlafer's online inventory on firstbranchbonsai.com show raw material for $300-2,700. I asked these women how much they would be comfortable spending on a tree and found that 71% would not spend more than $300. Only one woman was potentially willing to spend $1,000-3,000 on a tree (which is what is needed to purchase larger pre-bonsai yamadori or finished bonsai in Todd's inventory).
Another barrier to women is the “boy's club” type of culture that can be prevalent when men outnumber women. 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). From what I have noticed in our club, it is much easier for a new, younger man to find mentorship than a woman. Older, more experienced male mentors take younger males under their wing and share their bonsai knowledge, gift them trees, and train them on things like how to collect yamadori. Some of these younger males even go on to win “artist of the year”, or are given positions on the board. There is also a group of younger men who get together to work on their bonsai trees, but have never invited a woman to join them. I know that some of the women feel left out by this. When I asked the surveyed women how much they felt supported, encouraged and included by members of RMBS the average answer was 3.7 (out of 5, with 5 being “very supported”), but one woman gave a 1 out of 5. I do not think that people are intentionally excluding women, and the “boy's club” culture is definitely not unique to our club, but it does make it harder for women to gain the knowledge and skills they need to advance in their art.
Lastly, there may be a few things holding women back from displaying their art at bonsai shows, including the need for additional training, support, and encouragement. In RMBS's last two bonsai shows (50th and 51st) only 14% and 23% of our female members showed a bonsai, respectively. My survey found that only 4 of those that responded have ever shown their bonsai. As I mentioned earlier, a good portion (62%) of our female members attend at least half of our club meetings each year, so they have access to presentations by our members and visiting professionals. A large number of those that responded (79%) have also attended a workshop in the past to receive help from a visiting bonsai professional. But, according to the 10 women who stated they had never shown their bonsai, the most common reasons were “I don't have a bonsai that is show quality” (70%), “I need more help with styling and/or creating a display” (50%), and “my collection is new and I don't have a finished bonsai” (40%). If these women require more training and help then one option could be a women's bonsai study group. A good portion of those surveyed (66%) were also interested (or possibly interested) in being part of a mentorship program. Perhaps we could occasionally have another member of the club give a mini presentation at the women's study group on a topic of interest (for example, tropicals), or lead a workshop. I know of one other all-woman study group that meets three to four times a year in Mesa, Arizona with Boon Manakitivipart as their mentor.
I have mentioned some impediments that I have noticed, and others that were the most common survey responses from our female membership. There are undoubtedly more that I have not mentioned that may be equally as limiting. The question remains, “why are there not as many female bonsai artists?” The answer is not that women are incapable, or lack artistic feeling or talent. It is embedded in the cultural ideas of female roles, power, time, access to resources, and thinking (Thorpe 2016). The question reminds me of the essay written by Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, in response to the question “why have there been no great women artists?”.
“Things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education- education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals” (Nochlin 1971).
How Can We Improve as a Club?
We have a huge opportunity now to lead the way and encourage a shift within the bonsai community. Below are my ideas about changes that we could make together as a club that could make a real difference for women in bonsai. These modifications would make us a more inclusive club, and give us a better chance of retaining our current female members. I am sure that others will think of more ideas, and I would love to hear them. Part 3 of this Women in Bonsai series will follow with other ideas on how to attract more women to our club membership.
More women in leadership roles
An important tool in working towards equity is giving women a seat at the table where decisions are made. In a bonsai club that means having women on the board of directors so that they can have a say in what topics will be discussed in meetings, which artists will be invited to give demonstrations, etc. It is equally important that female board members have their ideas respected and considered, and that they are treated as equals. Of those surveyed, 69% of women said they were (or may be) interested in serving as a board member in the future.
More presentations/demonstrations by women
To ensure equity 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. I am currently compiling a list of women who are bonsai professionals so that our club will have an easier time finding women to hire as presenters in the future. If you know a woman who should be on that list please email me their contact information (email@example.com).
Representation is also important within our club member led presentations. I think we should encourage our female members to present during our meetings. Our women likely have interesting skills or background knowledge that could be used as possible topics for presentations.
More women-led conventions
Another way to encourage female bonsai artists is to host a bonsai convention with all-female presenters. Jorge Nazario is the President of the Bonsai Societies of Florida and chairman of the convention committee. He decided to invite all female artists for their BSF convention in May 2021. He thinks that this will be the first bonsai convention to do so. The artists will include headliners Jennifer Price and Elsa Boudouri, along with Lourdes Arnaez and Mary Madison. The convention website is: https://bsfconvention.com/. We should consider our own all-female led convention the next time Denver hosts an ABS/BCI convention.
More art by women in exhibits
A wonderful way to encourage female 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. After I made inquiries about the gender ratio of the bonsai artists whose trees are featured at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Sarada Krishnan, the Director of Horticulture, brought up the possibility of doing a special exhibit in the future featuring female bonsai artists. To put on an all-female artist bonsai show at the DBG, we would need to ensure that our female club members have the training, support, assistance, and encouragement necessary for them to feel comfortable showing their trees.
More art by women in bonsai museums/collections
We should encourage bonsai museums and botanic gardens (like the DBG) to seek out and acquire more bonsai trees created by female artists. According to Arrin Packard, bonsai curator of the Pacific Bonsai Museum, many bonsai museums and botanic gardens have a “collection plan”, or a list of artists, tree species, or bonsai styles that they would like to add to their bonsai collections. Since the acquisition budgets for such organizations are usually very limited, they rely on the donation of bonsai trees by professionals or practitioners. As many professional bonsai artists rely on the sale of their trees for income, donations by practitioners may be a better option. Perhaps we can contact other bonsai clubs to see if any of their female members have a type of tree or style that is missing at the DBG, and if they would be willing to donate. Another option would be to have a fundraiser or auction with the intent of raising money to purchase a bonsai from a female professional bonsai artist for the DBG's collection.
Encourage women and newer members to show their trees
Many of the men in our club have been practicing bonsai for many years, and have bonsai that they have trained for decades. Others know how to successfully collect yamadori, or have the money to spend thousands to purchase a large collected tree. When first starting off in bonsai, most new members experiment with nursery stock and have mostly young, undeveloped bonsai in their collection. It is understandable that some of these newer members would feel hesitant about entering their small tree in a show, and displaying it next to a 200-year-old giant yamadori. The most popular type of tree in our 51st bonsai show was a yamadori conifer. In a subtle way, this projects to the public, and to our club members, that yamadori conifers are the image of “what a bonsai is suppose be”.
I think it is important for newer club members, and the public, to see bonsai in different phases of development, and to see what can be accomplished in a short time. It makes the art more approachable. You also learn so many skills when you get a bonsai ready to show, including developing the artistic eye needed to create a beautifully balanced and cohesive display.
Create other award categories for our annual show
One way to encourage our newer members (male and female) to show their young bonsai at our annual exhibition is to create an award for the “best bonsai created from nursery stock”. Since our shows are heavy on yamadori conifers, this might encouraged more use of novel species. An award for “most creative display” would make people feel more comfortable trying new things. An award like “best accent” would encourage more thought and creativity into our displays as a whole. These are just examples, and these awards would not have to be given out each show, only when the judging committee thinks that a tree/display/accent deserves one.
Create a Women's Bonsai Study Group
In my survey 75% of female club members expressed interest in being part of a women's bonsai study group. As temperatures warm, we may be able to meet in person for monthly outdoor activities. We could, for example, do a nursery crawl for material, go to see mountain tree stands, go tree collecting, or have backyard get togethers to work on trees. I found that, especially in the newer club members, women who have not shown their trees felt they needed more help styling or getting a tree ready to be shown. A women's study group would be a great place to help each other and gain confidence in our art.
More training for women
My survey also found that 64% of women did not have any yamadori in their collection, and that 79% of women expressed interest in receiving training in the field on how to collect a tree. Our club could potentially form a yamadori study group (open to everyone) which could meet for a spring collection field trip. We would have to find out if the forest service (or other public land agency) would be open to issuing limited collecting permits for educational purposes. The study group could also meet for repotting and styling workshops the following year.
Foster an environment that is supportive and inclusive
The art of bonsai is full of tradition, but sometimes there are attitudes or phrases that are now old-fashioned, and a hinderance to inclusivity. Some bonsai artists use the terms “masculine” or “feminine” to describe a tree. These terms seem harmless, but they are unintentionally sexist. To be “feminine” is to be tall, skinny, curvy, elegant, graceful, smooth, and light and airy. To be “masculine” is to be powerful, rugged, dense, angular, squat, and heavy. In reality men and women can be an endless combinations of qualities and characteristics. This is the same for our trees. If we categorize our trees by exaggerated caricatures (like a ballerina or a sumo wrestler), then we are really limiting our thinking of what are trees can become.
As a club we must acknowledge the “boy's club” culture that exists and take steps to counteract it. It is important to be inclusive to all, and encourage and foster talent or enthusiasm in whomever we see it. Together we are on a journey of discovery, education, and artistry. Let's move forward together and not leave anyone behind.
Diversity in the arts is important. White men are not the only ones with stories to tell, and our society is richer when other voices are also heard. Women have unique experiences that shape a different way of seeing the world, and it can result in new, distinctive styles if they are given the chance to create. Our bonsai exhibitions could be even more lovely, creative, and diverse if more women shared their art with the world.
Throughout history women have faced a barrage of obstacles when trying to become artists. Today some of the same social, cultural, and institutional barriers make it difficult for women to have free time or money to spend on artistic pursuits. Consider supporting some of the causes, like equal pay for women, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare, that would alleviate some of the hardships placed on women. We should come together as partners, friends, family, neighbors, and a bonsai community to support our female artists and give them the opportunity to succeed.
Although I have focused these articles on women in bonsai clubs, there are other minority groups that equally need support. I encourage our club and the rest of the bonsai community to be helpful, welcoming, and encouraging to LGBTQ, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists. The more diverse our bonsai artists are, the more enriched our art will be.
“Balance” by Kelsey R. McDonnell.
Printed with permission from the artists.
Barr, S. 2019. Women still do majority of household chores, study finds. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women-men-household-chores-domestic-house-gender-norms-a9021586.html
Bleiweis, R. 2020. Quick facts about the gender wage gap. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/03/24/482141/quick-facts-gender-wage-gap/
Dush, C.M.K, et al. 2018. What are men doing while women perform extra unpaid labor? Leisure and specialization at the transitions to parenthood. Sex Roles 78: 715-730.
Kea-Lewis, K. 2019. 6 uncommon signs your job may have a boys' club. Inhersight. https://www.inhersight.com/blog/insight-commentary/6-uncommon-signs-your-job-may-have-boys-club
McDonnell, K.R. 2009. “Demure” and “Balance” can be found on the artist's website. https://kelseymcdonnell.com/section/49329-Women-and-Trees.html
Nochlin, L. 1971. Why have there been no great women artists? Artnews. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/
Thorpe, J.R. 2016. Why supporting female artists is so important. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/articles/184795-heres-why-supporting-female-artists-is-so-important