Alan Abbott used to be an actor. Actually, he used to be a lot of things in New York and L.A.: blues musician, Hollywood screenwriter, rock climber, mural painter. Now on Maui he’s a full-time handyman. Oh, and he also makes bonsai treehouses.
That’s little itty-bitty dream homes for Japanese houseplants.
Hey, it may be the only Maui real estate left.
From as far back as he can remember, Abbott’s been obsessed with treehouses—the big kind. His father built one out back for Abbott to cavort in with his buddies, while his sister played with her dollhouse around the base. When they moved, and Abbott had to leave his clubhouse behind, he was heartbroken.
As an adult, Abbott bought some matchstick blinds that were too wide. So he cut them and kept the scraps, thinking he could eventually use them for something creative. Holding up the mini blinds, and eyeing his houseplants behind them, miniature treehouse constructs was born.
Before he finished his first treehouse, Abbott received an offer for it that would pay his rent and bills for an entire month. In no time at all, buyers lined up. But he couldn’t make houses fast enough to actually keep one for himself. And so started his bonsai treehouse making business, “Tree Creations.”
Six years later, Abbott left L.A. and the independent film industry to set up a home for his son on Maui. Since then, his son went to England and Abbott decided to stay on the island.
“The hard part is there’s not people stopping by to play music three times a day,” he said. “It hurts me not to create.”
But his idea to build an artistic community is quickly materializing, as plans to build a space for glassblowing, acting classes and a larger Tree Creations studio gain momentum. I visited Abbott at his small workshop, which he set up in an old horse stable stall in Haiku.
“Soon it’s gonna be in a 200-square foot treehouse,” said Abbott. “I’m gonna put it in these pine trees out here.”
Abbott says he hasn’t found anyone who does what he does. He also admits he’s faced opposition from bonsai purists, who denounced the building of treehouses as “not traditional.”
Bonsai originated more than a thousand years ago in China, but were popularized in Japan. Considered a symbol of prestige, traditional bonsai trees were found in the wild on cliffs and presented as gifts to the emperor.
“Well, nobody does that [anymore],” said Abbott. “They grow them!”
Today bonsai trees are considered more of an art form than horticulture, representing an Asian aesthetic that fuses culture, mythology, imagination, simplicity and harmony between man, the soul and nature.
Bonsai trees typically range from two inches to two feet in height. Abbott sometimes uses other similarly sized trees, building the miniature houses around the plant’s trunk. A complete multi-level, fully furnished and electricity-wired treehouse can take as much as 300 hours to complete. Abbott utilizes exotic hardwoods like Koa, Monkeypod, Ebony and Purple Heart, sawing, sanding and gluing together pieces as minuscule as fingernails with his tiny tools and desktop magnifying glass.
Abbott doesn’t draw elaborate architectural blueprints, preferring to simply study the tree before coming up with a plan. And the intricate feats of arboreal design are constantly under scrutiny by the artist.
Each multi-tiered miniature treehouse Abbott creates must be unique, whether it’s adorned with a spiral staircase and elaborate hanging lights, or offers an octagonal deck, rope bridge and thatched roof.
Doors open, latches shut, knobs turn, drawstrings open and close window shutters, elevator cranes pull up little carts and every ladder is lit.
“I got a thing about ladders,” Abbott said, smiling. “You know, it’s a liability.”
He’s also working on a haunted treehouse, to be placed around a dead bonsai. That house will feature a wrought iron fence with gate and a crow’s nest at the top of a two- or three-story mansion.
“I may even let spiders live there and make their webs,” said Abbott. “Then kick ‘em out.”
He’s tried the effects of stained glass windows—using lighting gels and microscope slide covers rather than actual glass, which is too thick—but was displeased with the outcome.
“It looks too churchy,” he said.
Rooms have mini beds, tables, chairs, rugs, upholstered couches, framed mirrors, shelves filled with little leather-backed books and lampshades of redwood shaved so thin you can see the grains of wood as the light casts a warm glow on its tiny surroundings. No minute detail is left untouched.
“I definitely have my mental shrink gauge,” said Abbott. “I’m constantly running around the rooms and thinking this big.”
For more information, or to purchase one of Alan Abbott’s “Tree Creations,” contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (808) 661-3786, ext. 8. MTW