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The Importance of Connection: Garden Curator & New Executive Director of Portland Japanese Garden Talk Transition

The Moon Bridge. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

At the end of 2023, Portland Japanese Garden saw the retirement of two seminal leaders: Chief Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama, who also served as Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center, and Deputy Director Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. Taking over their responsibilities are two leaders who have been with the organization for several years.

Prior to 2024, Lisa Christy had served as Chief External Affairs Officer, overseeing the Garden’s marketing, communications, membership, fundraising, and community relations. Now assuming the role of Executive Director, she’ll continue to have oversight over these efforts and will guide the organization’s day-to-day operations and guest experience. Hugo Torii, meanwhile, has served as Garden Curator since 2021 and will continue to oversee Portland Japanese Garden’s physical landscape. Both Christy and Torii will continue to report to CEO Steve Bloom, who has led the organization since 2005.

Left: Executive Director Lisa Christy. Photo by Nina Johnson. Right: Garden Curator Hugo Torii. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Christy and Torii sat down to chat about this notable transition in staff leadership at Portland Japanese Garden.

Lisa and Hugo: What have your respective responsibilities been at the Garden?

Christy: As Chief External Affairs Officer, I had a great job where I oversaw all the departments that communicate to not just our local community here in Portland, but across the country and around the globe. This includes leading efforts in Portland Japanese Garden’s marketing, development and fundraising, membership services, and community relations. It has been my role to receive the thoughts of our visitors, members, volunteers, and supporters and have them inform what we do. It has been incredibly humbling and such a privilege to learn what the Gardens means to so many people in so many different and unique ways.

Torii: A Garden Curator’s responsibility is to continue the world-class quality, maintenance, and aesthetic appearance of Portland Japanese Garden. Speaking abstractly, in my role I carry out the artistic vision of the Garden. I moved to Portland to take on the Director of Grounds Maintenance job, and even when I became Garden Curator, my intentions for coming to Portland Japanese Garden didn’t change. I am here to continue the legacy set by those before me by respecting the past and seeking what could be made better for the future.  

Lisa and Hugo, what accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure with Portland Japanese Garden?

Christy: I am really proud of how we have made the Garden more accessible for people. A phrase that I think about a lot from my previous job is “walk in stupid every day.” I know that sounds a little silly or flippant, but it’s actually a north star for me – a reminder that I have to leave assumptions behind if I am going to understand our guests and community better. Starting on day one I was determined to know what it is like to experience Portland Japanese Garden—whether it’s literally walking through our gates or visiting our website. One significant change I took a leadership role in was the creation of a guest experience department that dives into their needs, studies them, and then, most importantly, translates this information into change. I think this being the heartbeat of what I do was especially helpful during the pandemic. As we all know, it was an incredibly challenging and difficult time to navigate. I am really proud of how we kept the community connected to us when we had to shut our gates. It was a time when people needed Portland Japanese Garden more than ever and couldn’t be here. Hearing that our updates and photos and videos helped provide a respite during such a tumultuous time was especially touching. I know our organization has more to do when it comes connecting with our community and that I will be largely responsible for satisfying those needs—I feel confident that we can because of our staff, Board members, volunteers, and the many incredible partners we have.

Torii: The first thing that comes to mind is that during the pandemic, the Garden Department was reduced to no more than four staff including myself. When we were able to open back up to the public, we had to bring in a whole new team, essentially. This meant more than just overseeing gardening, it meant hiring and training. I’m very pleased with the group we have been able to bring on board and am excited to help guide their professional growth and learn from one another.

Lisa Christy talks to a group of people next to Portland Japanese Garden's Welcome Center before they head off on a tour of the Garden.
Lisa Christy, Executive Director of Portland Japanese Garden, giving a tour in 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Lisa, what will your new role entail?

Christy: As Executive Director of Portland Japanese Garden, I have taken part of my previous position with me and I am now taking on more leadership of the operations at the Garden. So, I’ll continue to oversee our external communications and continue to connect with the community that way. I’ll also have more oversight of the guest experience by ensuring our we are organized, that our facilities are working, and that the physical Garden is maintained to the high standards it always has been.

Lisa, how does it feel to take on this new set of responsibilities?

Christy: It’s humbling, it’s exciting. This process has been in motion since 2022, so I’ve had time to think about how I might handle day-to-day operations. I’m so grateful to have received mentorship from [recently retired Deputy Director] Cynthia Haruyama, an incredibly thoughtful and wise leader. Something that Cynthia expressed that really resonated with me is that, as a woman navigating what can a male-dominated field, there is strength that comes from being female. She, as well as Steve [Bloom, CEO] and Diane [Freeman, CFO] have given me invaluable guidance. I’m thankful for them as well as our amazing staff, volunteers, and members for the insights and support they’ve given me.

Hugo, you’ve been Garden Curator for two years now, but Sada’s retirement marks a notable change for the organization and for you. What thoughts are going through your mind ahead of this transition?

Torii: As Chief Curator, Sada provided guidance on holding to the essence of the Garden. He has guided us to ask ourselves “why” to any addition or new changes to the physical garden while keeping in mind the original intentions of the garden design and philosophy.

Hugo Torii speaks with an artist named Takahiro Iwasaki in the Strolling Pond Garden of Portland Japanese Garden.
Garden Curator Hugo Torii (left) giving Japan Institute Artist-in-Residence Takahiro Iwasaki a tour in 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Hugo, can you describe your philosophical approach as Garden Curator, beyond the day-to-day responsibilities?

Torii: The quintessential factor that elevates landscapes such as Portland Japanese Garden is that they allow the visitor to experience Japanese culture and its emphasis on respecting nature and being in harmony with it. Whether a space is decorative like a raked gravel garden with structured pines or more rustic like a tea garden, they provide a place to confirm our connection and our distance to nature and in this, the opportunity to self-reflect and heal. I am so happy to be part of an organization that wants to provide the gift of Japanese gardens to communities everywhere.

Related: Sadafumi Uchiyama and Cynthia Johnson Haruyama on Their Legacy and Retirement from Portland Japanese Garden

Lisa and Hugo, last year saw the retirement of two seminal leaders of the Garden for more than a decade, Sada Uchiyama and Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. Anything you’d like to share about Sada and Cynthia?

Christy: I’ve looked to Cynthia as a mentor since day one here. She brings this incredible grace, and a balance of strength and softness always underlined with thoughtfulness. She has been very, very generous as both a colleague and a teacher. Sada is incredibly wise. So many of his lessons have continued to stay with me. He once told me that in the first half of your professional life, you save knowledge like its money and then in the second half, you get to spend it. I hope to follow in his footsteps and spend all the knowledge I’ve gained from him and Cynthia on those who will eventually follow me.

Torii: I will miss Cynthia a lot. Aside from making me feel welcome as I moved into a foreign country, her leadership here has been amazing and has touched many. Personally, she helped guide me into developing stronger relationships with individuals and organizations not just in the field of Japanese gardens, but to strengthen internally the department structure as well. As for Sada, he has been a steadfast presence here and is a significant reason why people around the world know and respect Portland Japanese Garden. Having served as an instructor for the International Japanese Garden Training Center, I can attest to his passion for education. I am appreciative of him sharing his perspectives with me to learn the Japanese garden and landscape beyond what I have experienced in Kyoto.

Left: Curator Emeritus Sadafumi Uchiyama. Photo by Nina Johnson. Right: Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. Photo by Jonathan Ley.