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posted: 7/17/2015 12:27 PM

Bonsai curator finds his groove at Chicago Botanic Garden

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  • Video: Bonsai curator Chris Baker

  • Bonsai curator Chris Baker works on a Dawn Redwood in the Frances C. Searle Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. The bonsai collection is one of the most recognized bonsai collections in the country.

      Bonsai curator Chris Baker works on a Dawn Redwood in the Frances C. Searle Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. The bonsai collection is one of the most recognized bonsai collections in the country.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • While a group participates in t'ai chi inside, Baker works on a bonsai tree outside in the Frances C. Searle Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

      While a group participates in t'ai chi inside, Baker works on a bonsai tree outside in the Frances C. Searle Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Chinese Elm is part of the bonsai collection at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Wheeling resident Chris Baker is the first full-time bonsai curator at the Garden and oversees more than 200 bonsai trees.

      AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Chinese Elm is part of the bonsai collection at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Wheeling resident Chris Baker is the first full-time bonsai curator at the Garden and oversees more than 200 bonsai trees.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Baker works on a Hinoki False Cypress in the Mary Withers Runnells Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. At left, he walks around the bonsai collection in the greenhouse. Baker is the first full-time bonsai curator at the Garden and oversees more than 200 bonsai trees.

      Baker works on a Hinoki False Cypress in the Mary Withers Runnells Courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. At left, he walks around the bonsai collection in the greenhouse. Baker is the first full-time bonsai curator at the Garden and oversees more than 200 bonsai trees.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Baker walks around the bonsai collection in the greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

      Baker walks around the bonsai collection in the greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
By Gilbert R. Boucher II
gboucher@dailyherald.com

Snip. Snip. Snip.

With the gentle sounds of waterfalls and birds singing in the background, bonsai curator Chris Baker gently clipped several leaves from a dawn redwood bonsai tree on a cool morning recently at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The 44-year-old Wheeling resident is the first full-time bonsai curator at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where he is in charge of caring for more than 230 bonsai trees. He began this position in April 2014.

"Working on the trees is great. It is an amazing feeling, that idea of creating something that is alive. This living sculpture of representation of nature," said Baker, as he worked around the bonsai garden in the Frances C. Searle Courtyard.

"It can be very tranquil, this feeling of just finding your groove and getting involved with the tree."

Baker developed an interest in horticulture as a career while hiking in the woods in Colorado, but his introduction to bonsai started when he bought a bonsai juniper as a gift for a friend and also one for himself.

"It was just something that appealed to me on so many levels," Baker said. "I had painted for years, so I was into design and style. I had always been interested in horticulture, and then the mechanical aspect I found appealing -- of bending branches and cutting branches and wiring stuff.

"This is a perfect mixture of horticulture and art and mechanics, and when you put it all together it makes bonsai, I guess."

Baker had already been interested in bonsai for more than 13 years when, in 2011, he began volunteering and working with Jack Sustic, curator of bonsai at the U.S. National Arboretum's National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

In 2012, Baker quit his job as a horticulturist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and spent two stints of three months each working as an intern studying bonsai with third-generation bonsai master Tohru Suzuki at the Daij-uen Nursery in Okazaki, Japan.

"The trees require a lot of care. Having bonsai becomes a lifestyle," Baker said, smiling as he worked on an Oriental bittersweet in his workshop in the greenhouse. "They are the first thing that I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night."

Baker proudly mentions that a Hinoki false cypress and a Japanese white pine were exhibited in the "Capital Collections and Collecting in the 21st Century" show by the American Bonsai Society in June.

The Chicago Botanic Garden will feature its own exhibit during the 38th Annual Mid-American Bonsai Exhibit sponsored by the Midwest Bonsai Association Aug. 14-16.

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