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Arts & Life

NW Life | Arts

Portland Bonsai Artist Scott Elser Takes Inspiration from the Cascades


The Pacific Northwest Bonsai Clubs Association is holding its annual convention starting today and running through the weekend at the Hilton Hotel in Vancouver, Washington. We visited Portlander Scott Elser to get a sneak peek of the event.

When most of us think of bonsai trees, we think of tiny trees in little tray-like bowls. And while the plants are pruned, wired and cultivated to mimic the shape of mature trees on a smaller scale — some of which measure less than 4 inches in height — many of Scott Elser’s trees are more than 3 feet tall.

A graphic designer by profession, Elser grew up on Portland’s east side, where Mount Hood dominates the horizon. That early love of the mountains attracted him to the rugged beauty of his grandfather’s bonsais, and the feeling of being in the mountains is what Elser aims for in his bonsais.

“What I enjoy most are wild trees, mountain trees — those tend to be conifers, pine trees, spruce trees, hemlocks, fir trees — that are native to Oregon and the Cascades. That’s what I really love to do.”

Elser thinks of bonsai trees as “living sculpture” and enjoys the way that “sculpture” changes with time.

“What makes bonsai so interesting is that next year, it changes, it grows some more, something may die on it, five more branches may grow and I have to figure out a way to keep it alive, keep it growing and react to the way that it develops, much like a person has to deal with injuries they may get. It has to deal with scars, it has to deal with all those things and yet make it to live another day.”

One of Elser’s most striking trees is a blue-green mountain hemlock, which he displayed at this year’s national bonsai convention in Rochester, New York.

“I just had an epiphany when I saw it there and just, I wanted to bow and say, ‘Your majesty’ because it’s so old and it’s so beautiful and it’s the best work I’ve done myself. I was able to bring out the majesty in the tree itself and that’s what really turns me on, when I can get there. I haven’t gotten there with very many trees but that one I have … for today.”

Despite winning several national awards, Elser still considers himself a “hobbyist.”

“I’m a bonsai enthusiast,” he says. “That’s what I like to call myself.”

This year’s convention allows Elser to step into the spotlight as a headliner.

“It’s my first professional gig,” says Elser. Along with co-organizing the convention, he is also working with limber and pinyon pines in a workshop at 1:30 p.m. today, styling a Rocky Mountain Douglas fir at 8 a.m. on Saturday and critiquing bonsai at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.

For more information, please visit the conference website.

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Using native Pacific Northwest trees, Scott Elser’s bonsais evoke a sense of being in the mountains.