Benjamin Keating tours an exhibition of his sculptures, which combine bronzework with tiny trees, and recounts how he found an in with a secretive bonsai guy by bribing him with tomato sauce and fresh pasta.
By Emma Allen
August 8, 2022
Stocking up on trees at Marders or Whitmores plant nursery to shade your Hamptons manse can cost a small fortune. By comparison, Benjamin Keating’s bonsai sculptures—on view a short jaunt down Route 27, outside Tripoli Gallery, in Wainscott—are a steal at between five and a hundred thousand dollars. Especially when you take into account the obstacles Keating had to overcome in order to get sufficiently inwith the “famous bonsai guys” to purchase their plants and learn the art of the diminutive 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 and has thick sideburns and an old-school Brooklyn accent, said of the nation’s far-flung bonsai experts. “You develop kind of a crackhead-type mentality—I was coming in with five, six grand, and they were still not answering my calls. To buy trees!”
Keating, who wore a snap-button checked shirt, white jeans, and blue mirrored Ray-Bans, stood in front of one of his larger works—a near-horizontal bonsai supported by a bronze sculpture that discreetly featured the words “nothing pinned.” (In addition to making his own sculptures, and writing poetry, Keating owns a foundry in New Jersey, and is a master caster of bronze for, among others, the artists Robert Longo, Nicole Eisenman, and Terence Koh.)
“There’s something in bonsai that’s called the ‘raft style,’ ” he said, gesturing toward the sideways tree. “It happens in nature—a tree falls over, then it grows. What happens in nature, though, when it keeps growing and growing, the plant can kill itself. So the sculpture here becomes integral to the raft for perpetuation—the bronze is going to hold this thing together.”
Artfully arranged around the tree’s trunk were rocks and small plants, including an heirloom dwarf strawberry that Keating had grown in the back yard of his house on Fort Hamilton Parkway, in Windsor Terrace, where his family has 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 kids”—three spruces.
He recalled his introduction to the upper echelons of bonsai society. After taking a Zoom class with an expert in Oregon “to learn the dialogue of trees” (“The tree kind of talks to you—each tree has its own statue in it”), Keating approached Paul Graviano, who has run Bonsai of Brooklyn since 1976, and offered to clean up his “cat-pee-stinking mess” of a garden, for twenty dollars an hour, in exchange for some pointers and a discount. Keating courted another one of his “bonsai trainers,” Jim Doyle of Nature’s Way Nursery, in Pennsylvania, via his belly. He sent him “a care package of tomato sauce and fresh pasta, FedEx style.”
The whole tree-sculpture idea first came to Keating while vacationing in Maine, where he had visions of casting enormous trees in bronze. “But that would cost me a hundred and something thousand dollars,” he said. In Wainscott, he strolled up to a mini tree planted in an aluminum cast of a plastic bag. (Other bases feature cast bricks, baby shoes, and Nike Dunks.) “Ever since I was a kid I always noticed the plastic bags in trees,” Keating went on. “Before plastic was a bad thing, ya know?” A bee alighted on a branch, and Keating smiled. “They attract little predator insects, which is good. I have very few mosquitoes in my back yard since I’ve been doing the trees.”
Keating gestured toward another bonsai. “This tree is an estimated two hundred and fifty years old. The reason we know that? Andy Smith.” Keating explained, “Andy works for the Forest Service. So Andy’s job is to core-sample trees. This hasn’t been core-sampled, but he’s done so much that he can guesstimate by the height of the tree and its elevation. He collected this tree twenty years ago”—six thousand feet up in the Rockies, likely saving it from prescribed burning or clear-cutting—“and I bought this off someone who’s been training it for fifteen years.”
So what happens if an art collector has a less-than-green thumb? “The bonsais are not as complicated as you think,” Keating said. “They need not too much and not too little attention.” And the sculptures come with a certificate that offers restoration services. “All these trees are replaceable,” he continued. “So if this piece is 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 pick one and we would come and reinstall the tree.”
Also, he noted, comparing his sculptures with other fragile art works, “Let’s say you have a Peter Voulkos vase or something, or a Dale Chihuly”—glasswork—“and it breaks. You’re in worse shape. Or a Gober wax! Let’s say your maid moves that into the sun—it’s gonna melt on you.” Regardless, he added, “anyone that buys art has a gardener.”