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The man behind the tree

There was a time when Kaleb Bollen thought success meant monetary wealth and job security. These days nothing makes him feel more successful than eliciting a smile from a shy child or world-weary stranger.

The 26 year-old, who Adelaideans may recognise as the ‘human tree’ from Rundle Mall, quit his lucrative mining job two years ago to busk as a living statue around the world.

“I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it because you can imagine how it feels to say, ‘Hey – I’m going to dress up as a plant’,” Kaleb says.

“But (while working) I really felt like I was being influenced by other people’s values. I was earning lots of money but I wasn’t happy.

“I was thinking every day, ‘What’s the point? I’m not fulfilling my desires’ and my relationship was struggling because of it.”

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Having quit the job and craving meaningful connections with the people around him, Kaleb sought an outlet that could brighten their lives while easing his own sense of loneliness.

Developing Bush and Bird, his first statue character, gave him one.

“There ended up being this whole storyline behind Bush and Bird which I think is an expression of where I was at back then,” Kaleb says.

“I’d lived with some really severe depression and anxiety and the bluebird that’s on my shoulder was the character I created to help pull me through.

“In my imagination we’d fly around together and my anxiety would go away, kind of like me and Bluebird against the world.”

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Five weeks later he was on the road, first busking as Bush and Bird around Australia and then progressing to Asia and Europe where he created a second character: Pink Man.

“It just sank in that I go could where I wanted, do what I wanted,” Kaleb says.

“The concept was ultimately about a simple exchange and still is – I want to make people happy and if they want to, they can exchange some kind of value in the form of money.

“It might be in gratitude or to support me so I can continue doing that for other people. I love the beauty and the simplicity of that.”

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His recollections of this newfound freedom can sound idyllic, but Kaleb also remembers feeling overwhelming panic and self-doubt as he left his familiar routines and the security of a regular income.

“Going out in the street and busking, it almost killed me to do,” he says.

“I went from having a very structured life – I was married, had money, a job – to this.

“Standing out in front of all these people and being suffocated by this costume was terrifying but it made me determined to go on and push through the fear.”

Kaleb believes the challenge of accepting that fear alongside the joy he took in making people smile made him more open to expressing emotion.

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Bush and Bird amplifies a very vulnerable part of myself,” he explains.

“I felt like the world was against me and then I ended up having all these beautiful connections with people who engaged with the character.

“Behind the safety of the costume I was allowed to express the part of myself that really wanted to connect with people, to make them happy.

“And I think that’s what everyone wants – they want to love, they want to connect with other people but feel like they need some kind of permission.”

When Kaleb is in costume, people approach him for high-fives, hugs, kisses and photographs, sometimes taking up to half an hour from their schedules to dance with him and ‘water’ his leaves with the watering-cans he keeps in his space as props.

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“No one does that to me on the street without a costume,” he says.

“If you’re a character or an actor people can give themselves that permission to treat you differently.

“So that’s what I try to help them do – whether it’s using my words or whether its through art in the form of a plant, I’m giving permission for people to feel and to express their authentic selves.”

In each country it has been the children who engage most readily with his characters, while adults can initially be hesitant.

“With children there’s just have endless curiosity, nothing holding them back,” Kaleb says.

“A few kids are a little bit scared of the character and you’ll see that they’re scared to approach me at first, but then curiosity wins.

“I watch them overcome that fear and it’s so rewarding to see.”

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Helping adults rediscover a childlike state of appreciation for the world is one of his goals with Bush and Bird.

“We can have so much fun right now if we just amplify that child in us,” he says.

“I think a big part of happiness is being present and fascinated and learning to enjoy the small things.

“I see people all the time walking like they’re in a haze, maybe thinking about their job, that they’re tired or whatever.

“And then they see Bush and Bird and they stop – it’s made them feel something different that’s outside that grey area.”

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Kaleb has recently returned to more traditional employment, combining his busking with a part-time retail job and university study in Psychology and Marketing.

He stresses that working is a positive experience when the work aligns with your values.

“I love the chemistry with people in this job,” he says.

“When I get customers I’m genuinely interested in helping them find what they want and helping them look good so it’s ended up working really well for me.

“It’s a different facet of my character … when I’m with the customers I’m amplifying a more comedic part of myself.”

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While he’s committed to spreading smiles, Kaleb’s not convinced that happiness and comfort go hand in hand.

“We’re brought up in western society with the idea that pain and discomfort are bad,” he says.

“So what we do then is spend the majority of our lives running away from them.

“Once we get really comfortable and everything’s too easy there’s not a big enough contrast between pain and pleasure.”

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Kaleb’s busking journey has exposed him to both and he values simple pleasures all the more for it.

“When you rock up in Paris, you’ve never been there before, you know maybe one or two people in the whole country and you’ve got fifty dollars – it’s tough to figure things out,” he says.

“I had to lug all my stuff around and stand around in a pink costume not knowing if I was going to eat the next day.

“It was very uncomfortable but then when I did succeed, that felt amazing.

“And when I stop to appreciate life I think about that and just feel so lucky that I’m right here – to be exactly in the place I am now blows my mind.”

Images: Brenton Edwards

Founder of the ‘A Million Smiles’ project Mike Worsman, who has previously talked happiness with Stories Well Told, also captured Kaleb’s story in this video:

If you or someone you know needs assistance managing anxiety or depression, please talk to a GP or health professional.

Helplines: 

SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263), www.sane.org

beyondblue support service line 1300 22 46 36, www.beyondblue.org.au

Lifeline 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au

Specific information for people aged under 25 (including students):

headspace 1800 650 850, www.headspace.org.au

ReachOut.com, www.reachout.com

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelp.com.au

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