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CCU Atheneum: Keller inspects a campechianum hematoxylon
Keller inspects a campechianum hematoxylon "campeche," also known as a logwood tree, from Puerto Rico.

Bonzai is best for this CCU professor

by Mona Prufer
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Elizabeth Keller is working on a high relief wall piece, a narrative sculpture with birdhouses and fences. It has a dreamlike quality and an underlying spiritual message of stepping outside the rigidity of organized religion and finding your own way.

It's called “Solo Flight,” one of the unique art works you won't want to miss at Coastal Carolina University's Biennial Faculty Art show in September. Everyone knows that Keller, who has been on faculty for 18 years, is a distinguished ceramics artist and professor, but few are aware of her passion for bonsai and penjing cultivation.

In her backyard off S.C. 544, Keller has more than 90 beautiful bonsai trees in her collection, housed mostly in two screened structures for protection from insects and falling branches and the sun's broiling rays.

Bonsai, which means plantings in a tray, is the Japanese art form of growing miniature trees in containers. Penjing is tray scenery, the Chinese art of the landscaping around the bonsai tree, with tiny bridges and wildlife and moss and shrubs. Together, they are a living, 3D work of art, especially when displayed in Keller's handthrown ceramic pots.

Academically and artistically, Keller is known for her narrative ceramics and her whimsical teapot series. She has won awards both regionally and nationally and has been featured in solo exhibitions, ceramics publications and two book publications.

“I am a sculptor, and this is living sculpture,” Keller says, explaining how the practice of growing beautiful, tiny trees nourishes both her green thumb and her artistic sensibilities. “I love trees, but normal trees are so large that they're out of your control. Little trees give you a chance to affect nature, and you can actually play a role through nurture and design.”

She got the bonsai bug about 10 years ago when she purchased a red Japanese maple for the front yard. She liked it so much she bought another, but decided to leave it in its pot. “I looked at it and thought, if I keep it in that pot, it becomes bonsai. Suddenly, it became an obsession.” One tree led to another, which led to another and so on. Now there are tropical bonsais, live oaks, three bald cypress trees, dwarf crepe myrtles, willow oaks, 20 different types of Japanese maples and more. Much more.

But do not think of them as a bunch of trees, she warns, cautioning that every single bonsai has its own personality, whether it's the elegant Trident Maple, which is probably the first tree Keller would save in a hurricane. “Replacing it would be painful, both emotionally and physically,” she says. “It's also the most expensive.”

And then there's the whimsical Fukien Tea Tree, with its attractive dark gray bark, its elevated warty areas and the cheerful white, five-petaled flowers.

But then there's the bald cypress, which is an exquisite, miniature version of the knobby-kneed trees that grow in swampy southern Florida and Louisiana.

While some of the bonsai are in groupings in the yard, most are housed in detached structures with darkish screens for protection from the sun's harsher rays. One structure houses Japanese maples, while the other shelters the tropicals, cypress and oak trees. If inclement weather approaches, such as a hurricane, Keller brings all 90 of the bonsais into the garage for safekeeping. Some are quite heavy.

The trees are kept in small pots. In the spring, beginning in January, they are taken out for root and branch pruning, depending on the variety. The pruning stunts the growth and keeps the leaves tiny.

“I'm an amateur, I am still learning,” says Keller, who is self taught and who keeps a large binder with every tree's name, description and personal needs in terms of light, watering and conditions. “There are a lot of sophisticated techniques.”

It can also be an expensive hobby, as the pre-bonsai trees start at about $25 or $30, and the older bonsai can run upward from $80, often hundreds of dollars for the older specimens. The containers can run $100 or more.

“Making your own saves a lot,” says Keller, who recommends that beginners buy trees from local garden centers like Lowe's. Small azaleas or ficus trees make great bonsai projects for beginners.

When asked whether she would ever sell some of her collection, Keller laughs and says absolutely not. “They're my babies,” she says. “We have been through a lot together.”

 

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