The Bernini of bonsai | the new yorker

Stocking up on trees at the Marders or Whitmores nursery to shade your Hamptons rectory can cost a small fortune. By comparison, Benjamin Keating’s bonsai sculptures – displayed on a short jaunt down Route 27 outside the Tripoli Gallery in Wainscott – are a steal between five and a hundred thousand dollars. Especially considering the hurdles Keating had to overcome to get enough in with the “famous bonsais” to buy their plants and learn the art of the small tree.

“It’s like they don’t want to talk to you. They don’t want to deal with you,” Keating, who is forty-five, thick sideburns and an old-school Brooklyn accent, said of the nation’s bonsai experts. “You develop a kind of crackhead type mentality – I was coming in with five, six grand, and they still wouldn’t answer my calls. To buy trees!

Keating, who wore a plaid shirt with snap buttons, white jeans and blue mirrored Ray-Bans, stood in front of one of his greatest works – a nearly horizontal bonsai tree supported by a bronze sculpture that displayed discreetly the words “nothing pinned”. (In addition to creating his own sculptures and writing poetry, Keating owns a foundry in New Jersey and is a master bronze caster for, among others, artists Robert Longo, Nicole Eisenman and Terence Koh.)

“There’s something about bonsai called the ‘raft style,'” he said, pointing to the side tree. “It happens in nature: a tree falls, then it grows. What happens in nature, however, when it continues to grow and grow, the plant can kill itself. So the sculpture here becomes part of the raft for perpetuation – the bronze is going to hold this thing together.

Around the trunk of the tree were rocks and small plants, including a dwarf heirloom strawberry that Keating had grown in the backyard of his home on Fort Hamilton Parkway, Windsor Terrace, where his family had lived since 1898. “My great-grandfather planted a tree for my grandmother when she was born, in 1910,” Keating said. “I planted trees for my children” – three spruces.

He recalled his introduction to the upper echelons of bonsai society. After taking a Zoom course with an Oregon expert “to learn tree dialogue” (“The kind of tree speaks to you – every tree has its own statue”), Keating approached Paul Graviano, who directed Bonsai of Brooklyn since 1976, and offered to clean his “stinking mess of cat pee” from a backyard, for twenty bucks an hour, in exchange for a few pointers and a discount. Keating courted another of his “bonsai trainers”, Jim Doyle of Nature’s Way Nursery, Pennsylvania, via his belly. He sent her “a care package consisting of tomato sauce and fresh pasta, FedEx style”.

The idea for the tree sculpture first came to Keating while vacationing in Maine, where he had a vision to cast huge trees in bronze. “But it would cost me a hundred thousand dollars,” he said. In Wainscott, he walked to a mini tree planted in an aluminum mold of a plastic bag. (Other bases feature molded bricks, baby shoes and Nike Dunks.) “Ever since I was a kid, I always noticed the plastic bags in the trees,” Keating continued. “Before, plastic was a bad thing, you know? A bee landed on a branch and Keating smiled. “They attract small predatory insects, which is good. I have very few mosquitoes in my garden since I made the trees.

Keating gestured to another bonsai. “This tree is about two hundred and fifty years old. The reason we know this? Andy Smith. Keating explained, “Andy works for the Forest Service. So Andy’s job is to sample the trees. It hasn’t been sampled, but it has so much that it can estimate by the height of the tree and its elevation. He picked up this tree twenty years ago “- six thousand feet in the Rockies, probably saving it from prescribed burning or clear-cutting -” and I bought it from someone who’s been training it for fifteen years .

So what if an art collector has a less green thumb? “Bonsai trees aren’t as complicated as you think,” Keating said. “They don’t need too much and not too little attention.” And the sculptures come with a certificate that offers restoration services. “All of these trees are replaceable,” he continued. “So if this piece cost sixteen thousand dollars, if you bought the work and the tree didn’t survive, I would send you three or four different trees and you could choose one and we would come and reinstall the tree.”

Also, he noted, comparing his sculptures with other fragile works of art, “Let’s say you have a Peter Voulkos vase or something, or a Dale Chihuly” – glassware – “and it happens.” broken. You are in worse condition. Or a Gober wax! Say your maid puts this in the sun, it’ll melt on you. Either way, he added, “everyone who buys art has a gardener.” ♦

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