Living Artwork

Bonsai is a way of life for Kauai Bonyu Kai members Nathan Smith, Tandu Sivanathan and Same Lee.

The living art of bonsai requires immense patience and skill. These are two of the many noble qualities that each member of Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai possesses. Creating miniature potted trees is a timeless craft that Sam Lee has been drawn to for as long as he can recall. However, it wasn’t until later in life that he sought out the opportunity to master it.

“The bug bit me big time, and I’ve been passionately involved every day since I started,” he says.

Lee also appreciates that he has something to focus on after retiring from his position at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“My wife was very concerned about having a caged tiger in our home all day long,” he jokes.

Now, he goes to sleep every night with an idea about what he’ll be doing with his plants the following day. And he greets each morning eager to get outside where they grow.

Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai members Sam Lee

“That’s been going on almost on a daily basis for about 20 years,” says Lee.

He is one of about eight people in the local bonsai group that meet to work on their trees and talk story. The unofficial group started gathering for “work days” during the mid-2000s. Their time together has tapered off in recent years, though they still collaborate as often as their busy schedules allow. In fact, they still attend events like the annual Kaua‘i Garden Fair at Kaua‘i Community College to demonstrate their skills and share their craft with others.

Tandu Sivanathan, for his part, is just as passionate about bonsai. To say the front yard of his Kapahi home is lovingly cared for is an understatement. The adoration he pours into his dozens of bonsai trees is evident. Sivanathan has prominently displayed these tiny wonders at his abode, and each shows off the artful craftsmanship he’s used to make them all so aesthetically pleasing.

Tandu Sivanathan

The tiny trees come from the roots or cuttings of older plants like ironwood and banyan trees, as well as bougainvillea. Sivanathan collects the plants from places around the island, such as Māhā‘ulepū, Kokē‘ē, nurseries or friends’ yards, and chooses them based upon elements including the roots, which he deems the most important part.

“You want big, powerful roots,” he says.

Lee also collects most of the plants he has from places around Kaua‘i, including bougainvillea that came from a hedge by Kukui Grove Center before the plants were torn out to expand the highway. He likes to look for plants that are “old, gnarly and with character.”

“I was able to swoop in there and save the stumps,” he says about the bougainvillea hedges.

A bonsai that is pleasing to the eye must be intertwined (think barbed wire) to help it grow in a way that creates the illusion of a movement. This task is accomplished not only in the original cutting but also in the maintenance of the plants. The mini trees are consistently cut back, leaves are plucked and wires are twirled onto branches to help create a curvaceous look. It’s living artwork, and the artist’s job is never over.

“Bonsai are never completed because they continue to grow,” says Lee.

The art of creating small trees is said to have originated in India thousands of years ago. Before the craft made its way to Japan, the dwarfed trees were also a mainstay in China. Today, some bonsai are 300-400 years old and have been passed down from generation to generation within the Japanese culture. Though Sivanathan is originally from Asia, he didn’t acquire an interest in the hobby until he moved to Kaua‘i about 30 years ago. Still, he hopes that the plants he is currently caring for will be passed down through subsequent generations.

Nathan Smith examines a bonsai plant in the backyard of fellow Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai member Tandu Sivanathan’s home in Kapahi.

One person who is helping inspire younger artists to pick up the craft is Nathan Smith, an eighth-grade math teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. He is also part of Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai and likes to bring his plants to class about once a week.

“(It’s) to offset the monotony of math, and I like having trees around,” says Smith.

He also holds an informal after-school group, where students meet with him to learn about the ancient craft. He’s gotten quite good at his hobby since moving to the island and became an active part of the bonsai community years ago. Though, he admits, bonsai cultivation still has its challenges — like getting a branch to grow in a desired direction. But this kind of difficulty is also rewarding in that it’s something that can be overcome with persistence — one of the many traits he ignites in youth while teaching them how to grow bonsai. Still, he says he doesn’t hold a candle to the proficiency of Sivanathan or Lee, who have not only learned from masters but also willingly and enthusiastically dedicated many hours every week perfecting their craft.

“These guys are legends,” says Smith.

Follow Kaua‘i Bonyu Kai on Instagram (@kauaibonsai).