Punk rocker of bonsai world at work in northern Minnesota

Crust calls this piece The Lichen Tree, an American white cedar.
David Crust named this piece "The Lichen Tree," an American white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), trained since 2005. It is an intensely windswept design made from a smaller piece of an ancient larger tree found dangling from a waterfront rock slope.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Most bonsai trees are not grown around handguns, or animal bones or creepy little Teletubbies dolls. But northern Minnesota bonsai artist David Crust has been breaking the rules of bonsai for some 40 years.

Crust lives down a dirt road near Brainerd where he cultivates hundreds of bonsai trees. He's 60 and he has long hair and hands as gnarled as his tiny trees. He calls himself the punk rocker of bonsai.

"I planted this over an old electric curler heater. I'll grow that for a long time. Then it'll be something interesting," he said. "But just growing little wimpy trees — well, some people really enjoy it."

Most people who grow bonsai trees in Minnesota import them from Asia and follow the specific and numerous rules associated with traditional Japanese bonsai. Bonsai are just regular trees, trained to stay really small.

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Crust raises trees native to northern Minnesota like larch and white spruce that he harvested from tamarack bogs and the shores of Lake Superior.

The Witch Tree is an American white cedar collected from a shoreline.
"The Witch Tree" is an American white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) originally collected from a shoreline. The ring count indicates it is more than 100 years old.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

"This is a windswept form. It's very powerful in that it rises up on the right, and then sweeps back down," he said, pointing to a several-hundred-year old spruce he calls the Witch Tree.

Before he found it, the Witch Tree lived on a rocky shoreline. Every spring for decades, lake ice smashed it into the ground. Every summer it struggled to repair itself. Now big sections of it look dead, like driftwood.

He said that struggle and decay is a reflection of the place he lives, and what it does to things that grow here. Northern Minnesota is not a benevolent climate, he said, for trees or people.

"Where you were brought up just makes this big impact that you carry around forever and it never goes away. It can be a dismal place, but it is a place. It's a mixed, beat down area," he said. "You travel and you go,'Good lord, trees are huge.' Then, you go to Aitkin County and they never get very big. It's cold and the ground is bad and there's no deep black dirt and there are swamps everywhere."

Chasing that dream

When he was 20, Crust wanted to be a professional bonsai artist. He even trained under East Coast bonsai master Nick Lenz for a while. But Crust had obligations.

"I was young. I had kids already, and I had to make a choice," he said. "I chose not to try to chase that dream."

Crust calls this creation The Tellatubby Larch, trained since 2000.
David Crust calls this creation "The Tellatubby Larch," where plastic dolls surround an American larch (Larix laricina), trained since 2000.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Crust got a construction job, and for the next 40 years, spent his evenings crafting wild, strange bonsai.

He didn't show them to many people. His neighbors didn't understand his weird little trees, and he didn't think the more traditional growers in the Twin Cities would understand them either.

Hoover Tree on display
A photo of David Crust's award-winning bonsai "Larch in Kirby" on display the Artisans Cup in Portland, Ore. Crust calls it Hoover Tree.
Courtesy of David Crust

He worked in isolation.

Then on a whim, two years ago, Crust entered one of his strangest bonsai trees — a narrow larch growing out of an old vacuum cleaner — into the national Artisan's Cup bonsai competition, in Portland, Ore.

"I was blown away that they accepted that tree," he said. "So I brought that tree all the way out to Portland, and it sat alongside all these fancy trees."

That vacuum cleaner tree shocked the traditional bonsai world. A famous German bonsai critic published an article comparing Crust to revolutionary artist Marcel Duchamp. He said the tree made him question the whole concept of bonsai.

After 40 years, people were interested in Crust's work.

A bonsai community of three

Crust calls this American Larch the 'George Bush Tribute Tree.'
This American larch, trained since the 90s, is called "The George Bush Tribute Tree," originally conceived in 2001 by David Crust's friend and teacher, Nick Lenz.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Since the Artisan Cup, Crust doesn't spend so much time alone with his trees. There are two other bonsai growers who live 100 miles away in Duluth. They are Terry White and a guy Crust calls Duluth Dave, whose real name is Dave Severson.

Severson came to visit Crust earlier this spring to help transplant the Witch Tree. It was a two man job, Crust said.

Both Daves grow dynamic rough-looking trees. And so does Terry White. He's a pastor at New Life Covenant church, 20 miles west of Duluth, and said his own favorite tree is a cedar that grew for years by the railroad tracks. It was bent and broken every day by passing trains.

He sees bonsai as a metaphor for God and man. Humans are beat down by life. God is the gardener, who turns those flaws into something beautiful.

There are small surprises in Crust’s plantings, like this foot casting.
There are always small discoveries to be made among the David Crust's bonsai plantings, like this foot casting.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

"I bring the people I counsel into my garden," he said. "It's a meaningful thing."

Crust said the three men get together sometimes and talk about trees. The Twin Cities bonsai community is large with events and showings at places like Como Park's Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.

But Crust said as far as they know, they are the only bonsai artists in northern Minnesota.

"We reassure each other," he said. "That what we're doing is normal."