Be the best maple tree you can be


My inner control freak loves bonsai! It’s nature, in a tiny, perfectly-designed form.

Over a long weekend in Oregon, I lucked into an exhibit of American bonsai by Ryan Neil at the Portland Japanese Garden. It was charming and beautifully staged in origami-like frames.

What I learned is that American bonsai differs from the Japanese tradition. Japanese bonsai treasures the ideal, training each maple tree to be the ideal maple tree, whereas American-style bonsai brings out the unique characteristics of each individual maple. In the words of Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s what Neil is doing. Incredibly, he does this with wood that’s as much as 600 years old, teasing out fresh life from what seems mostly dead. (Remind me of this if you hear me say I’m too old for anything.)

Why am I talking about bonsai? Because it is a great analogy to how we’ve evolved our thinking on brand and organizational development. The old school way was the “best practices” model — there is a right, replicable way to do things, and we succeed by emulating the ideal.  And, certainly, it is enormously useful to study the success of others.

What this overlooks is that organizations — and people — are not machines made up of levers that can be reliably manipulated just so. They are complex organisms filled with complex organisms, and despite common patterns no two are alike. Human systems simply can’t be templatized the way business books promise.

When we insist an organization must look or act a certain way, we lose sight of the individual characteristics that give it strength and power. And we miss seeing what might be actually better, outside of tradition and beyond our imagination. To be sustainable, brand and culture must be built on what is authentically different, not what is the same.

That’s not to say we can grow wild and still succeed. Bonsai has much to teach us about careful cultivation. But with careful training and pruning, we can become something amazingly unique from the inside out.

What Do You Think?

Over the past few years I’ve seen many museums trying to create reflective, interactive experiences for visitors. This is an important effort considering the pressures on museums as they fight for financial resources in a downturn, not to mention mind share in an age of digital entertainment.

The effort is there, but often the interactive components are not integrated into the exhibits or the museum experience. At the Shanghai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum there was  a small lounge with a few activities such as the prompt pictured, but it was tucked away — nearly hidden — on a separate floor of the museum. Other times, “interactivity” is limited to sending a free postcard or posting a note on a wall.

The best interactive displays I’ve seen locally are at the Oakland Museum of California. My favorite at OMCA is the “Is it Art?” lounge because it addresses an age-old question with a wink. Visitors are lured in by comfortable seating, then challenged to consider their point of view and vote if various objects ranging from a Native American basket to a pink furry thing are “art”. And because you can see the vote tickets in clear plexi containers, you get a sense for the general opinion as well as your own.

Shanghai Exhibit

This week I spent the day in the city with my parents, including a visit to the Shanghai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. There was no photography allowed, so I couldn’t snap my favorite pieces to show here and I struck out finding them online as well:

  • Shen Roujian, During the Great Leap Forward, 1958
  • Chen Yifei, Morning on the Long Canal, 1995
  • Li Hua, A Corner of the City, 1947
  • Shao Keping, Morning toilet on the Huangpu River, 1961

The biggest surprises for me were the Impressionist and Deco pieces. Deco should not have been a surprise, as it was the first truly global design style. I liked the asymmetry and bamboo motifs, which distinguish it from other regional Deco styles. The most intriguing aspect of the Impressionist work was that much of it was contemporary, yet would have looked right at home hanging next to paintings 100 years older.

The last major point of interest was the cultural debate of “national essence”, the desire to preserve tradition, versus “reformist”, the desire to evolve and revive the art scene by blending new and old. I am a proponent of maintaining tradition, but history has shown time and again that doubling down on the past to the exclusion of all other influences is a losing proposition. A giant painting in the last room was a poster child for this squabble, with some critics arguing it could not be considered contemporary simply because it uses a traditional medium. It seemed like a purely academic argument, because it was obvious to me that this emotional, abstract painting was inarguably contemporary in its composition and style. I thought it was an excellent example of blending the past and present into something progressive but still indelibly Chinese. Then again, what do I know? I’m not a critic.

Defining Art

Last weekend there was a highly critical article about the Chihuly exhibit at the De Young that really got my back up. The money quote:

“The history of art is a history of ideas, not just of valuable property. Chihuly has no place in it, and the de Young disserves its public by pretending that he does.”

I have my own criticisms of Chihuly — primarily that his work can be overly gilded and that commercial success has led to excessive repetition — but there are ways to critique an artist without declaring his work isn’t art. The author’s main arguments seemed to be that the exhibit is a spectacle and not serious enough, and that Chihuly’s work is too flamboyant and decorative to be considered “art”.

The former is more than a little puzzling. Yes, the exhibit is a spectacle and the gift shop is indeed “barnacled” on. But this criticism could easily be made of much modern culture and art, and it is unfair to single Chihuly out. His work is flamboyant and showy, but that just makes a theatrical exhibit seem all the more authentic. On the other hand, despite the spectacle the author claims “educated viewers” will get bored because is not enough intellectual content to hold their interest. That must mean I’m not educated, because there were plenty of beautiful visuals to keep my attention.

It’s also seriously misguided to claim that art must be high-concept. We do have rough categories of fine art, decorative art, craft, and the like, but the lines are blurry at best. Going by the author’s yardstick, we’d have to disregard half of the “history of art”! Dutch and Flemish masters are a good example — the technique is remarkable, but in the end it’s often just a painting of of a dead rabbit, a rich patron, or a vase of flowers. Where’s the intellectual statement there? And yet we don’t question those paintings as art.

Perhaps more importantly than how he defines art is the arrogance of claiming to define art for others. As the resident creative in my family I spend a lot of time defending art, and I think it’s important to take a broad view of it. If it expresses something, even if I don’t like or understand it, it can still be considered art. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but it’s generally not appropriate to define someone else’s experience. That’s not to say you can’t ever draw a line, but you should draw it as generously as possible.

The entire article felt like a thinly veiled assertion that if the masses like it, it can’t be art-with-a-capital-A. Enough people already question and dismiss art without elitism like this to alienate them further. It occurs to me artists complain art isn’t appreciated, but often they seem to work very hard at preserving image of the starving, misunderstood artist. After all, if the plebeians get it, it can’t be any good.


Zhan Wang’s stainless steel sculpture of San Francisco was an impressive installation, even though it was hard to visually sort a sea of shiny stainless steel and in a few places it felt like the artist ran out of steam and just started throwing in extra tea kettles.

What I like most about it is how accessible it is. Even if a viewer is not interested in the sociopolitical theme, they can still appreciate it visually and admire the ingenuity behind it. Everyone I saw enter the room spent at least 10 minutes looking at it, and some even talked to each other about it. Art that inspires people to become engaged and discuss it with strangers is the best kind.

I also love that once it’s dismantled, the pieces can be reused for another sculpture or be used as originally intended.

Glass Raindrops

The de Young and the Asian Art Museum are arguably the best art museums in San Francisco, although the bar is not as high here as I would like.

The installation shown above is by Kiki Smith, and it was commissioned specifically for this space at the de Young. I didn’t see it overhead when I was below in the room (maybe I was distracted by the upside-down dog planter bed by Chihuly). Rather, I found it by accident when I was in another gallery and became curious about an overlook at the end of the hall. There is a second hanging sculpture that is a part of this one, but the glass teardrops felt very separate to me and I only saw them as a whole in the shadows on the wall. At the time I thought it is not a good sign about a collection when the best thing in it is shadows. However, after some research I learned the artist fully intended the shadow play, so perhaps it’s simply the best piece in the room. It takes a little bit of work to find the second-floor viewing balcony, but it’s worth it to see this piece.


I can’t wait to see this sculpture in person! The city of San Francisco, replicated in stainless cookware. What’s not to love? I especially love the interpretation of docks and piers. From the Asian Art Museum site:

“For his exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, Wang has selected rocks from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, alluding to the nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant experience of mining gold during the California gold rush. Both the actual rocks and their stainless steel versions will be exhibited. The artist will also create a topographic San Francisco cityscape–one of his ‘urban landscape’ series– using steel rocks, mirrored surfaces, silverware, and stainless steel pots and pans.”

Bird Mural

One night recently an old friend was in town, and we met in the Mission for dinner. It was one of those rare nights in the city where the weather is perfect and there isn’t a hint of the usual chilly wind. We just started walking with no destination in mind, chatting and giggling over tacky wares in the windows. At one point we ducked down some street or another — I probably couldn’t find it again — and we happened on this fun mural around the corner from an antiques store I’d love to have gone in if it had been open. I’m attracted to the cartoon quality of the mural, but what really sold it is how it incorporated the ugly, omnipresent city power lines into the scene.