A visitor to Phil Malhiot’s North Riverside home knows instantly he is an artist. There is a painting on glass decorating his front yard and a painted glass cupola atop his garage that he illuminates at night. The paintings reflect Malhiot’s personality and passion for art.
But, Malhiot is not just a painter. He’s also one of the premier bonsai artists in the Midwest.
For his “day job” Malhiot is a builder. Besides renovating other people’s homes, he bought his own house seven years ago and transformed it into his vision of “home.” Rebuilding was long and difficult but now he lives there in peace, with his longtime companion, Vickie Pierce, and 120 bonsai trees.
Malhiot’s passion for bonsai began 20 years ago. But the first time he met one of these tiny trees was in 1973, during high school. He was at a friend’s house and went to the fridge to grab a beer. When he opened the door, his eyes fixed on a bonsai tree. He learned later that some of the trees require cool temperatures but, at the time, he was just surprised.
Years went by and he had almost forgotten this episode. However, when his second son was born, he suddenly realized that something was missing in his life.
“I needed a hobby, or I was going to go crazy,” Malhiot recalled. The memory of his friend’s unusual “companion” came back.
So, he went to the Mid-America Bonsai Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which takes place every August and is a must-see for bonsai devotees. There he saw a whole new world of carefully shaped trees that were hundreds of years old.
“Masterpieces” he called them. Bonsais entered his life and became “part of my DNA.”
He went to workshops for a year or so and, in 1986, took the next step and bought his first bonsai from a nursery. In those days, there were only a few shops selling them and the trees were really expensive.
That led him to stop buying trees. He reckoned that he has only bought a few since then. He began to collect them in the wild instead.
Malhiot started to “bootleg” bonsais, digging up little trees and placing them in pots. At his peak, he had 800 trees. He often went for walks looking around for the perfect stunted tree he could bring home and turn into a show-ready masterpiece.
This habit gently irritated Pierce one time. They were on vacation in the Black Hills and Malhiot was snapping away at the sights with his camera. Pierce later discovered that all the photos were of tiny trees.
Patience is the key to collecting and caring for bonsais.
“It takes three to five years to cultivate a tree,” Malhiot said, “In the beginning, there’s a lot of down time, letting your tree recover from being transplanted.”
When the tree is ready, Malhiot begins to “train the branches” using tie down wires.
“I want them to look old,” Malhiot said, which is the aim of all bonsai artists.
Besides training and trimming the branches, he trims the trees roots.
“This allows the roots to multiply to support more foliage,” he said.
It’s common for beginners to kill their first bonsais. Malhiot had a few early casualties but is proud he has lost only one tree in the last 10 years, and that was to a virus. He said that the species dictates what the tree will become and that, “Each tree is a story onto itself.”
Malhiot showed an indisputable talent for bonsai. In 2006, he won Best in Show at a Chicago-area exhibition.
“I refine trees to be show-ready, to reach their peak at that moment,” he said.
Malhiot also studied under Ivan Watters, the bonsai curator at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Now, he is president of the Prairie State Bonsai Society, serving his third term.
To share his passion with new artists, Malhiot conducts workshops.
“Teaching bonsai for three years helped me learn more about it,” he said.
Teaching forced Malhiot to organize his thoughts and come up with a clear and concise way to explain his art. What seemed obvious to him could be obscure to a student. He emphasizes patience and encourages the students.
“Bonsai is very rigid. You have to stick to the rules, just like in construction,” Malhiot said.
It can be challenging. Even Malhiot admits that “re-potting is scary.”
It’s also necessary. As the tree grows, it needs a larger pot. These pots have holes in the bottom to allow good drainage. Malhiot provides them with water, fertilizer and light.
What keeps Malhiot going with this exacting hobby?
“The psychological benefits, it helps me unwind. It’s something beautiful to look at, calming and soothing,” he said.
Malhiot needs this “down time” because the rest of his life can be hectic. Raising three children and being a self-employed builder can be a lot to handle.
Taking care of trees calms him down. The trees require attention and time. He needs to listen to their rhythm.
“There is always something to do with the trees but rarely something major, Malhiot said.”
Bonsai doesn’t just keep Malhiot relaxed, his trees are a joy for others. Malhiot’s neighbors enjoy viewing his trees in the summer. His garden is a sanctuary, a haven of peace.
Malhiot has spent 27 years caring for his century-old trees and plans to continue his passion for decades to come. However, he decided to downsize to 50 trees. He struggles to sell or give his trees away, “Because I get attached, of course.”
He knows he will keep only the smallest trees, but that doesn’t matter. Malhiot’s love for his bonsais is contagious. Patience is a gift everyone can use.