A Visit To Sean Smith’s New Bonsai Studio

Formal display alcove

A few days ago, Mark Arpag and I took a road trip to see Sean Smith’s new bonsai studio in Marysville, Pennsylvania, a short 4-5 hour auto trip from Rochester, New York. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Sean for 30 years and he has traveled to Japan with me on multiple occasions. 

Semi-formal display alcove

Sean Smith is a gifted artist who has trained in furniture and bonsai display table construction, suiseki daiza carving and bonsai, both in the United States and Japan. With an extensive background in construction, he combined it with his passion of bonsai and started his Custom Oriental Woodcraft business (bonsai display tables, suiseki daiza and Japanese rooms) and now his Three Mountain Bonsai Studio- Sanzan Bonsai Gakkou (bonsai instruction, bonsai display and Japanese aesthetics.)

Suiseki and display tables for sale

Throughout the decades Sean has studied suiseki in Japan and with a small group of friends sponsored seven International Stone Appreciation Symposium every two years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from 2002 – 2014. Suiseki authorities were brought in from around the world. The first headliner was Arishige Matsuura, a past chairman of the Nippon Suiseki Association. Upon arrival Mr. Matsuura proclaimed Sean as the number one daiza carver outside Japan. And, if he lived in Japan would be among the three top daiza carvers in Japan. Sean studied daiza carving with the foremost artist Koji Suzuki, who sadly passed away a few years ago, raising Sean’s position to a higher level.

Containers and display tables for sale

In Japan he studied with the foremost artists and authorities on aesthetics and display with Seiji Morimae and Mr. Negishi. His suiseki daiza carving teacher and mentor was Koji Suzuki, his only student. In the Tokyo area wooden storage box construction was taught by Akira Shiraishi, scroll making with Seizi Mauroka and container repair with Nakada Tomohide. They were also the top leading masters of their fields. Seiji Morimae made all the arrangements as well as studying Zen at the Hoshyu-in which is a sub-temple of the Daitokuji temple complex where Mr. Morimae recently opened a high-level bonsai garden and display in Kyoto. Sean’s well rounded, unique background has made him a sought-after teacher and workshop leader around the world.

Suiseki, water basins and other art display items for sale

Sean’s life-long dream to create a studio where he could teach bonsai, display, as well as handmake display tables and suiseki daiza has become a reality. Two years ago, Amish carpenters constructed the shell of his 28 x 42 foot studio. Two-thirds is dedicated to carpentry and bonsai instruction. He can fit 50 people in the room for a lecture/demonstration. The remaining one-third of the new studio is dedicated to formal Japanese display and aesthetics to teach bonsai and suiseki display. Sean has designed and constructed three authentic alcove display areas of the three formality levels: informal, semi-formal and formal.


Informal display alcove in tea room

Tea bowls and items used in the tea ceremony

Also included in his new studio is an authentic tearoom, which also has the informal alcove for displaying ikebana during the tea ceremony. Antique tea ceremony cups and tools used for the actual tea ceremony are proudly displayed. This room is not quite finished yet, as are a few final touches to the main display room but will be completed for his first Open House on May 6-7, 2022.

Amish carpenters

The studio shell before Sean started his magic

Woodworking and bonsai instruction room

After the Amish carpenters completed the building shell they left, leaving Sean alone to design, construct and finish the studio alone, although he had a bit of help hanging the large pieces of ceiling drywall. Using his skill, craftmanship and background Sean did all the electrical, plumbing, insulation, wall treatments, heating as well as finishing the three different alcove display areas. All trim lumber is number one clear cedar from the Pacific Northwest area of Canada of the highest quality. All dimensions and aesthetics in the formal display area are according to Japanese standards.

He is now designing and constructing a new outdoor bonsai display area garden, behind his studio on an upper level. Rocks and mature plants are awaiting the leveling of a larger area. Knowing Sean’s refined taste, I’m looking forward to a stunning new garden to display his bonsai, as well as a sales area.

I felt like I was entering a small quiet bonsai museum upon entering the formal display room. Visiting Sean’s new studio is only second to Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Tokyo featuring 11 display areas, and only one knot in the entire museum. Sean Smith’s passion for Japanese aesthetics has led him full circle from carpentry to bonsai to suiseki and now focusing on bonsai display. His fine taste, skill, craftsmanship and creativity are now shining for the bonsai and suiseki community.

Visit the First Open House where Sean Smith will formally be opening his studio. Bonsai artist Pedro Morales will be presenting free demonstrations as well as Sean on both days. Take a day off to visit the formal bonsai room, its closer than Japan.