Mark Fields isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. As a bonsai (pronounced bone-zigh) artist, he’s often found in his home-based nursery watering, fertilizing, trimming, cutting and grafting trees. Although his career hasn’t always centered around working with, exhibiting and teaching others about trees and shrubs, his passion for the Japanese artform started at age nine and took root from there.
“Over the years I’ve studied to learn the plants that grow here. Studying them, knowing what they do, whether they can go in front of a window – I just love the creation of it,” Fields says.
You’ve had an interesting career journey. How did you end up owning and operating a nursery focused on bonsai?
When I was growing up, my dad was a landscape contractor. One day when I was nine, I went with him into the nursery down the street from us and I saw mugo pines the owner was training as bonsai. I saw them growing in the ground and I wanted to know what he was doing with them, how he trained them, and how he kept them so small. That kind of got me hooked. Walter Line, the owner, loaned me his two Brooklyn Botanic Garden books to study; eventually he took me under his wing to teach me.
I went to work for Eli Lilly in 1980 around the age of 21. I started in the lab and worked my way up to the service department. I retired in March 2010 as a technical specialist in the chemical products research and development department.
Around the same time I started at Lilly, I met Lois, Walter Line’s daughter, when my first wife and I moved next door to her and her husband. (Fields is now remarried and has two adult children from his first marriage and 13-year-old twins with his second wife.) It happened when he came over to look at my bonsai and asked me how I do it. He then brought Lois over to explain my story. She gave me two of his books – the same ones from Brooklyn Botanic Garden her dad loaned me years before – and let me keep them.
While I was working nights full-time at Lilly, I also worked full-time during the day doing landscaping. I loved it because I could go into a brand-new home that had nothing and I could design it; I have the gift of seeing a place and seeing what it’s going to look like when it’s done. I also loved building decks.
In 1983, I opened my own landscaping business and started selling bonsai on the side. Bonsai became my sole job when I quit doing landscaping five years ago. To learn more, I studied at the Ginkgo Bonsai Center in Belgium in 2004, 2005 and 2009. Four years later, I went to Japan for the first time and met with a bunch of nursery owners and bonsai artists. I went a second time in 2015 for additional training, then in 2017 I went back for the World Bonsai Convention.
Bonsai by Fields, LLC is the business I started; I now operate it in Greenwood on my home property. In 2018, I built a new studio on the back of my garage. I import pots from all over: Japan, Europe, America, and China, to name a few. I also travel some to give demonstrations and lectures and to teach workshops. I specialize in outdoor trees, but I do have some indoor tropical ones like Ficus. I sell more high-end trees, meaning they’re ready for exhibition or can be shortly.
With so many trees, I collect rainwater from my roof. Rainwater is more acidic and natural; I don’t get the calcium buildup in the soil like I would by using city water. When people buy a tree, I tell them that they shouldn’t use the water from their house if they have a water softener because the salt in it will build up in the soil over the years and eventually dehydrate the tree. I recommend they use distilled or purified water instead.
What is bonsai? Who can do it?
Bonsai is the artificial dwarfing of trees by putting them into a small pot, repotting them every few years, and cutting the tops back. The hobby exploded [in the United States] back in the 1980s when the movie “The Karate Kid” came out. I started seeing bonsai for sale in malls and at roadside stands, and a lot of clubs started organizing around it.
The best way to get into bonsai is to join a club. I’m a member of the Indianapolis Bonsai Club and also the president of the American Bonsai Society. The Indy based group is an educational one, so there’s an opportunity to learn at every meeting. We meet the first Wednesday of the month at the Garfield Park Conservatory.
How does someone get started in bonsai? What tools, training and/or education is needed?
If someone just wants to cut back a tree, they can go with a pair of pruners and scissors. When I’m working with people, I try to steer them toward trees that where you can make the leaves smaller and are proportionate. For example, tulip trees and sycamores don’t work as well because the leaves are way too big; there’s no way you can cut them down to make them proportionate. Shrubs and trees that grow around here and work well are things like the burning bush and quince. You can remove the leaves from them, and they’ll grow back smaller.
I teach people how to wire, shape and graft trees, and what they can prune. I also teach them how to create jin – or deadwood – using wire and pulling down the branches to make the tree look older. I’m trying to get them to create the illusion of age.
Why is bonsai art a good winter pastime?
It’s a good winter pastime if you do indoor trees. You have to water them a few times per week, keep them cut back and you have to fertilize them.
Since I do mostly outdoor trees, the season is a reprieve because I get a break from watering, although I do bring some indoors and style them. In early December I’m usually grafting trees, then for the rest of the month and on through February, I’m styling pines and deciduous trees.
What do you love about living and working on the southside?
The neighborhood I’m in is really peaceful. There are a lot of mature trees. Although my home garden is private, I love it. I always tell people that I live in God’s country on the southside. I just love it. It’s where I was born and raised.
To learn more about Mark Fields, and to see where he’ll be exhibiting next, visit http://bonsaibyfields.com/. The website also includes tutorials and products and services. To see the nursery and purchase items, Fields asks that you call him at 317-439-0678 or by email at [email protected].