Thanks for tuning in to a very special Artist Spotlight with Ryan Neil. First of all a huge thanks goes to Ryan for finding some time between caring for his 800+ babies (trees) and his 1 new baby (son), to answer all my questions. If you’re in the area you can catch Ryan (or me for that matter) next weekend at the Rendezvous. If not, head over to Bonsai Mirai and see all his amazing garden has to offer.
How did you get started with bonsai?
I was involved with martial arts from a very young age. In an indirect way, I
became exposed to Asian culture through that, including bonsai. I didn’t start
doing bonsai until I’d already stopped martial arts. In fact, my pursuit of bonsai
started when I could no longer do sports at all, due to a serious leg injury. Bonsai
was where I directed all of the energy I could no longer put into athletics. It was
probably a signiﬁcant saving grace for me personally at the time.
How did you decide/ how did you come to the opportunity of working with bonsai in Japan?
I decided when I was 14 that I wanted to study with Mr. Kimura, and after that
point, everything I did was geared toward making my way to Japan. I studied
horticulture in college in California so I could work with several bonsai
professionals. I drove to Los Angeles and San Francisco nearly every weekend to
try and meet someone who could help me get an apprenticeship. Eventually, Ben
Oki took pity on me and took me to Japan to meet Mr. Kimura and arranged my
study in his garden.
How did you decide who you wanted to apprentice under?
Like anyone else who’s developed a passion for bonsai, there weren’t enough
magazines, books, websites to ﬁll my viral hunger. Through all of the reading,
searching and self study, I continued to see the inspirational works of Mr. Kimura.
I quickly realized his talent for maximizing a tree’s character and ability to give it
personality. I wanted to create that kind of bonsai myself. From that point, it was
simply a matter of ﬁnding a way into his garden.
What was the most challenging thing you had to do during your apprenticeship or bonsai career in general?
It feels like every year that I do bonsai is harder than the last. I remember during
my apprenticeship feeling the same way, and wondering if bonsai was ever going
to be fun or enjoyable for me again. Bonsai, in a lot of ways, is simply an
illustration of life on a smaller scale. The struggles that I experienced as an
apprentice also seem to be paralleling and reﬂecting the struggles I am
experiencing as an independent bonsai professional now. Basically, this is a long-
winded way of saying that the most challenging thing that I had to do and have to
do every day is keep doing.
What was the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far?
Marrying my wife and having our son together trumps any bonsai accomplishment I’ve ever experienced. It’s given new meaning to why I do bonsai and what it means to me. If we’re speaking simply about bonsai, however, the creation of Bonsai Mirai, my garden, and it’s 800+ inhabitants (bonsai trees), has been the most challenging and rewarding bonsai-related endeavor I’ve applied myself to.
I know that you work primarily with evergreen species; Pines and Junipers. Is that a personal preference, geographically driven, or a continuation of your experience at Mr. Kimura’s? (maybe a blend)
Conifers offer so much flexibility in terms of creation. I went to Mr. Kimura to
learn how to work on coniferous species. I grew up around coniferous species;
they make up my vision of nature. But, maybe more important than any of these
aspects, conifers have the potential to outlive their creators by hundreds if not
thousands of years. This independent aspect is possibly the most captivating part
of bonsai for me personally.
I noticed you’ll be teaching this summer at the Brussel’s Bonsai Rendezvous, are there any other “tour dates” you have planned in the coming year?
Travel these days is at a minimum. I have a new baby, a wonderful family, a
wonderful garden, a wonderful home. To date, my efforts in bonsai have been
mainly geared towards building a place where a higher level of bonsai pursuit can
be achieved. And now I have that place. Instead of traveling, I’ll be working with
students who come to Mirai to learn the way we do bonsai here.
Are there any particular topics of focus during your teaching in the U.S.? Perhaps subjects that you feel the American bonsai culture is weak on?
Technique, technique, and more technique. Everybody wants to skip learning the
fundamental techniques and talk about the more interesting aspects of design. Of
course design is more enjoyable. But, how can you design well, when you are
limited by lack of technique. I wish designing bonsai was illegal until someone
shows their proﬁciency in wiring, pruning, repotting, watering, fertilizing, and all
the other basic skills that are so signiﬁcant to what we do. Most people would
probably breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not up to me, but I deﬁnitely feel like
this is a focus of my instruction as I teach.
I think we’ve all been following the progression of planning for the Artisan’s Cup and Portland Bonsai Village, any updates or info you’d like to share about your work on those projects?
The Artisan’s Cup is such a double-edged sword. As a professional, I know we
need it. As hobbyists, everyone knows we need it. But, to know we need an event
such as the Artisan’s Cup and to actually contribute to make that event possible
are two very different things. Right now, we’re hoping and working to ﬁnd people
that will contribute.
What is your favorite species? Either to work with or just to view?
This is a very liquid situation. I pretty much fall in love with any tree I’m
currently working on. Right now, as this article is being composed, I have a true
to form upright redwood of amazingly accurate proportion and scale, and I’ve
maybe never loved redwoods more. But, on a daily basis, I’ve always found the
most identiﬁable affection for bonsai when I’m working on a ponderosa pine.
It’s the species that I grew up with; it decorated the landscape where I ﬁshed
with my dad. They smell the best, feel the best, sound the best, and have a
tremendous sense of “home.” They make pretty good bonsai, too.
Is there a species you dislike?
I’m really not a fan of red pine. They always need just a little bit more of a bend.
And then they break.
Is there something or maybe a few typical things that you ﬁnd people in general have the wrong instruction on?
In general, it seems like a lot of bonsai knowledge has come from a perspective
of gardening, rather than from actual, bonsai-speciﬁc instruction. Having earned
a degree in horticulture, the techniques and thought process involved in bonsai
for me are signiﬁcantly different than those practiced in gardening. As a result,
we often mishandle our trees and material for reasons we’re largely unaware of.
Are there any particularly helpful techniques that you think most people in the U.S. don’t practice, but would be especially beneﬁcial?
Proper watering, proper repotting, proper wiring. These are just a few.
Is there anything about yourself or bonsai in general we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about?
Lately, it seems like the necessity to deﬁne a taste, a belief, a loyalty or an
approach has signiﬁcantly clouded people’s ability to objectively view bonsai or
the work of individual bonsai artists. I hope, at some point, we can all realize that
there is no one way, there is no right way, there are only different ways to pursue
bonsai. As opposed to ﬁnding different as frustrating, hopefully, we can ﬁnd
different as interesting. We would really be starting to get somewhere as a bonsai
community, if that were the case.
~Thank you again Ryan and family!