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Charming Childhood Figurines Become a Captivating Art Exhibition

The Coonan Family recently donated a collection of over 200 netsuke to Portland Japanese Garden. Gardening runs deep through the Coonan family roots. Jim Coonan, a new Board Member, and his wife have been Garden members for years; his grandmother donated Filoli Gardens to the National Trust; his mother was a master gardener (her garden was archived by the Smithsonian); one sister is a trained landscape architect and the other continues the family tradition of being involved with her local garden club. When it came time to pass the netsuke collection on, Portland Japanese Garden was a natural recipient for the family.

Jim Coonan

The collection – displayed in the art exhibition, Fashion and Fantasy: the Art of Netsuke Carvings – was amassed by Jim’s great aunt and uncle, Harold and Josephine Mortenson, beginning in the early 1900’s and continuing throughout their lifetimes. It’s not entirely clear how the passion for netsuke began. But it is known that Harold and Josephine were childless and lived a life that afforded travel around the world. There they developed a deep appreciation for Japanese culture and grew their expansive netsuke collection.

For Jim, seeing the collection publicly displayed for the first time was an incredible educational experience. When Jim was a child, the figurines always captivated him in their display cases; but for the first time he developed a greater understanding of the significance netsuke play in Japanese culture, the nuanced stories behind each piece, and the intimate connection each piece has to its original owner.

When Jim reflects about the history of the Coonan’s netsuke collection, he sees a story parallel to Portland Japanese Garden. His great-aunt and uncle lived in a remote community in rural Oregon but developed a strong connection to Japanese culture. Their passion for netsuke opened a door to
understanding a culture vastly different from any they could have encountered in their everyday lives. Jim says, “much like the experiences guests have at the Garden, there is just a greater good in understanding
different cultures. It is these deeper connections that makes the Garden more than a garden. Our family is proud to pass this collection on and hope it continues to inspire for generations to come.”

Fashion and Fantasy: the Art of Netsuke Carvings are on display in the Pavilion Gallery until April 17, 2022.