To be an American Bonsai Professional
To be an American Bonsai Professional
todd schlafer shows us what it takes to pursue bonsai fulltime
“Two weeks ago, I got my last paycheck,” Todd gave a nervous laugh.
“You’re on the precipice,” I remarked, feeling the weight of that statement from a man who left a comfortable corporate job to pursue bonsai professionally.
He continued; “Everything has just taken on a heightened sense of importance. If I’m not working, I’m not making money, and there’s no safety net now.”
“I’m sure it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time,” I offered.
“I just wanna see what I’m made of…if this company flourishes and does well, that’s on me and if it fails, that’s on me.”
Todd Schlafer has made the leap. He built up his yamadori stock, booked his calendar with workshops, strategically gave his notice, and pushed off into the void, joining a handful of people in the U.S. who have decided to take this practice and make it into a livelihood.
It is not an endeavor for the faint hearted. As Schlafer will attest, “it’s not just doing bonsai fulltime. Yesterday I shoveled 5 and half yards of pumice and lava rock.” Schlafer is feeling the lifestyle shift. “My back is killing me,” he remarked, “but I knew that was coming.”
Bonsai is not a peaceful profession. You sign up as a slave to the seasons, constantly strategizing and streamlining your workflow. It takes a unique individual to be simultaneously and equally bonsai-savvy, design-savvy, and business-savvy.
“I’m one of those all or nothing people. Moderation doesn’t work for me."
Todd Schlafer’s personality certainly fits the bill. He has spent his life working as a professional creative. From a fulltime musician to an art-director, Schlafer knows all-too-well how to strategically exist in the fickle pit of commercial creativity.
In gearing up to leave his corporate job, Schlafer would get up before dawn, do bonsai, go to work all day, come home and work on trees until past midnight. The next day he would wake up and do it again.
“I’m one of those all or nothing people. Moderation doesn’t work for me,” Schlafer remarked. “I had every minute of every day planned out because it was like, if I didn’t practice 6-8 hours a day, I just felt like I had failed... I needed to put the time in.”
One of the big factors in Schlafer’s decision-making process to commit fulltime was a yearning for a certain level of quality in his work that could only be obtained with professional dedication.
Even in his deep dive to learn and develop his bonsai skills, Schlafer admitted, “a big thing I’m realizing now (with teaching is that)…there’s so many gaps that I’m seeing (in) my knowledge of bonsai.”
Modern bonsai intelligence is built off of, “opinions or speculation or things that are subjective that one person said,” Schlafer commented. He continued, questioning why there is no agreed-upon bonsai canon with the facts, “like in history….in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Schlafer identified this challenge while he was trying to learn and saw an opportunity to shift that dynamic.
Traditionally, bonsai knowledge has been passed down from master to apprentice, without question or query. For those looking to innovate without the direction of a ‘master’, there is no cohesive resource, no bonsai encyclopedia.
Even if there was, you can’t learn how to use your hands on a tree by reading about it. So many pursuers of bonsai are building a foundational skillset on a patchwork of heresay and attempting to use this foundation to train incredibly temperamental living things—they need help.
So there’s a need, a demand for Schlafer’s services— teaching proper technique with native material and providing that quality material. Schlafer’s business, First Branch Bonsai, offers quality Rocky Mountain yamadori, initial stylings, and fully developed bonsai. Schlafer travels throughout the year to various bonsai clubs across the United States, sharing his niche knowledge on native material.
Throughout his travels, Schlafer has noticed a distinct shift in the way the bonsai is being practiced in the United States. People are not only more interested in native material, but they are shifting their understanding of bonsai’s purpose, from a hobby to a form of self-expression.
“There’s so many different things you can pull into bonsai,” Schlafer commented. His inspiration is sourced from aspects of, “old trees…lines on cars…different colors in a painting and how they all work.”
"It is chaos, beautiful chaos…taking that and turning it into something that makes sense is really one of the things that drives me.”
Viewing bonsai as a culmination of a particular individual’s experience is drawing a whole new crowd to the art form. Schalfer describes them as “kids in their twenties on fire.”
But it’s not just the twenty-somethings—it’s a cohort of individuals who use bonsai as a lens through which to understand nature’s influence in everyday life. It is people who want to get their hands dirty while mindfully engaging with questions of form and function.
Schlafer himself is one of those people; “Good wiring…it’s like a puzzle. Your brain hurts…it’s not mindless and automatic. It’s a game that never ends…because the tree is continuously growing. It is chaos, beautiful chaos…taking that and turning it into something that makes sense is really one of the things that drives me.”
Schlafer will give his bonsai, his students, and his business everything he possibly has to offer. His dedication is a testament to the power of this art form. His packed schedule and waning stock is a testament to the National growing interest.
Describing his mind-state as, “optimistically conscious,” Schlafer recognizes that he has committed himself to a profession and practice that is rapidly evolving. “It’s like you lay in bed and your nervous but at the same time your brain is going a million miles and hour because there’s so much to do, but its so exciting at the same time.”