fine art

An interview with Ryan Neil

Bonsai is an ancient art-form originating in China and Japan, dating back centuries, even millennia. Although Bonsai became incredibly popular in the West, it never reached the status as “fine art” like it does in countries like Japan. We’re very interested to hear what Ryan Neil has to say about this, as he is currently working on creating an event that might change our perception of Bonsai. Finally.

About 1200 years ago the Japanese took over (or as Ryan pointed out; copied and adjusted) the art of keeping miniature trees from the Chinese. The first graphic portrayals of these trees in Japan were not made until about eight hundred years ago. And it would take until the 20th century for Bonsai to be more or less institutionalized with events like the Kokufu Ten and the establishment of the Omiya Bonsai Village.

The long recovery from the Pacific War saw Bonsai become mature and cultivated as an important native art in Japan. Apprenticeship programs were increasingly popular, greater numbers of shows, books and magazines became available, and classes for foreigners started.

Ryan Neil, as most of us know, was one of the apprentices of the famous Bonsai master Kimura. In this interview we ask him about his life as apprentice there, and how he wants to use his skills in increasing the levels of knowledge in the West. But more importantly, we look at what he is doing bring Bonsai in the West to the next level; the fine arts stage.

Interview with Ryan Neil

Ryan, was the text above a fair summary of how Bonsai developed in Japan?

No, I don’t think so. To assume the Japanese took over Bonsai from the Chinese is improper. The Chinese never stopped doing bonsai; its not like the Japanese took it and it ceased to exist in China. The Japanese took a concept that is authentically Chinese, and then adapted the idea to conform to their cultural concepts and aesthetic values. Even today, Penjing is still a very respected practice of Bonsai. So, when people refer to “ bonsai,” most often they’re referring to the Japanese version of imitating nature in miniature. But it should open the door to seeing how each individual culture can reflect their cultural and aesthetic ideals through Bonsai. The bigger question is, what do we call Bonsai in America moving forward? Let's consider our own Bonsai evolution.

Is Bonsai in Japan considered as a fine art? To what extent?

Bonsai in Japan is considered a cultural art form, which is very different from a fine art. Bonsai is not universally appreciated in Japan, and most people in Japan look at Bonsai as an “old man’s hobby” not as a well-respected fine art form. That’s not to say the younger generation doesn’t identify with Bonsai on a cultural level, but their appreciation of it is waning.

For a few years now, we are hearing that Bonsai has increasingly become a pastime for the elderly in Japan. Why did the younger generation lose interest?

The world as a whole is an ever-evolving place. In Japan, the world of Bonsai isn’t evolving as quickly as the rest of Japan.The sedentary tradition that, in a lot of ways, characterizes Japanese Bonsai is failing to adapt and ignite new passion in the younger generation. So, it is dying. Just like a tree, Bonsai culture has to continue to grow, or it will stagnate and die.

And are things changing recently, is Bonsai making a comeback? How?

Interestingly enough, the Japanese have a very close eye on what’s happening in the western Bonsai world. Whether they would choose to admit it or not, what we are doing is innovative and fresh and new. Because of that, our Bonsai culture is growing and evolving. Japanese Bonsai artists willing to modernize and think about Bonsai in a new way are starting to slowly change some aspects of the way Bonsai is thought of in Japan. This is, and will continue to be, a painfully slow process, though.

If you look at how Bonsai developed in Japan, can you see similarities with how things are developing in Europe and in the US?

Bonsai in Japan evolved over centuries, whereas, in the western world, things are transforming hugely in just decades. The learning curve is steeper in the west, but things are rapidly developing. Culturally, Bonsai in Japan has been more of a status symbol reserved for the socially elite. In the west, everyday hobbyists practice Bonsai because they love it. This is a big distinction. In America, however, we are trying to foster some of the patronage that kept the Bonsai community alive and nourished post WWII in Japan. Any art form must have patrons to support it, to champion it.

What, in your opinion, is the current state/level of Bonsai in Europe? And in the US?

Currently, the European artistry is creating tremendous quality Bonsai. But, the technical know-how to maintain health in these creations and to continue to evolve them over time is still lacking. Although the United States hasn’t had the same artistic growth, in both time and culture, our Bonsai technique is improving rapidly, and our hunger to grow artistically is being further aided by an incredible palate of yamadori.

Bonsai in Europe saw a huge period of maturation during the Ginkgo Awards. The Ginkgo craze really mirrored the economic stimulus that the Kokufu had on the Japanese Bonsai community. The United States, however, hasn’t had a show that’s generated the same level of enthusiasm and call to raise the level. This is what we’re hoping to do with The Artisans Cup this September.

Are we, the West, all still focusing too much on what the Japanese are doing? To what extent did we succeed in creating our own style?

In my opinion, this dualistic notion of Western versus Japanese styles isn’t accurate. The West is comprised of numerous countries, all with distinctive cultural perspectives on Bonsai. Italian Bonsai is not the same as Spanish Bonsai. for example. We are not the same even though we are western countries. European countries are on the verge of finding their own voices, but the European community, as a whole, definitely still has a strong tendency to try and adhere to the Japanese model. As I teach and lecture both in the United States and abroad, I encourage every culture to look inward and define for themselves - what makes us unique? what is our story? what native material can we work with? This is an inquiry students at Bonsai Mirai engage in all the time. In America, more specifically, at Bonsai Mirai, we’re identifying a strong cultural story and aesthetic that is very American - unbridled, wild and free.

Is momentum building up to bring Bonsai to the next level, the fine arts stage?

The biggest challenge with getting Bonsai to be recognized as a fine art is presenting it as such. Bonsai practitioners tend to believe that Bonsai is an art form, but not go the extra mile to actually create art that is Bonsai. Just making a tree doesn’t make you an artist; there must be intentionality, a thought behind the process, emotion, reflection, and a greater meaning carried within each piece of art a true artist creates. We have to work harder, as any art form does, before its ever recognized as an art form. We have to explore our boundaries and push the limits.

Art, nature, Bonsai
The Art of Nature and Time, photo by Chris Hornbecker.

The interview continues, what about the Artisans Cup?

In a previous article (The time for American bonsai) we wrote about the event Ryan and his wife Chelsea are organizing this September. This event is promising to be unique in several ways, the most important being a completely innovative way to display the trees. Ryan teamed up with the famous Skylab Architects, who take responsibility for designing the displays. And with the Portland Art Museum as location, things are looking great.

What do you want to achieve with the Artisans Cup event?

The Artisans Cup has two main purposes. For the Bonsai community, it will be an inspirational and aspirational event that raises the level of practice nationwide. Competition is a good, old-fashioned way to entice people to reach for lofty goals, to set their sights higher. The exhibition will shift the perspective of the Bonsai practitioner to be more reflective and intentional about their own design process, to own their artistry. Secondarily, The Artisans Cup will shift the way the general public views Bonsai by displaying it in a curated fine arts context. It will dispel the notion that Bonsai is merely an Asian gardening hobby and show it proudly as living sculptural art.

You have surprised us with the innovative designs, what else can we expect?

You haven’t seen anything yet! That’s all I can say.

What kind of trees are you looking to display?

We will display trees that are the most quality reflection of the current state of Bonsai in America. We’re seeing submissions of all kinds come in - yamadori pines and junipers, some fantastic deciduous, even imported Japanese trees. Some submissions are very old and ramified. Since the art form is still relatively young in America, other submissions are still young, but the potential is clear.

Will we see your trees as well?

I will not be entering any of my own trees in the competition, though several entries will likely come from students who have styled and developed their trees with me. A limited number of tours will be offered to visit the Mirai garden, if you want to see my full collection!

Submissions are still open; why should people submit?

Why wouldn’t you? If you have a tree that you are proud of, that you want to have the chance to see displayed in the foremost exhibition in America, why wouldn’t you submit your tree to be considered?

I can imagine submitting trees to an event as professional as the Artisans Cup is intimidating, would you agree?

Doing anything innovative and competitive is daunting, to be sure. But, as I traveled all around America to lecture and demonstrate in my first three years home from Japan, I heard people over and over lament about the lack of top notch exhibitions and express immense desire to raise the level of Bonsai in our country. So, The Artisans Cup is my best effort to meet that need and to answer those requests. We’ve literally poured everything we have into this show, professionally, emotionally, and financially. The Bonsai community needs to do their part now. Enter trees, sponsor and donate, support members at the club level who have good trees or want to attend the show but can’t afford it, and most importantly, show up!

Anything else you like to add regarding the Artisans Cup?

We’re so excited to see you all in September!

Art, skill, Bonsai
The Art of Resilience and Skill, photo by Chris Hornbecker.

Second interview with Ryan Neil

A few weeks ago we did an interview with Ryan Neil on his experiences as apprentice in Japan, and how he uses his knowledge to progress the art of Bonsai in the West. Oscar did a second interview, this time focusing on what we can expect from the event he is organizing this September. And Ryan has a few surprises up his sleeve...

Around the time of our last interview the deadline for submitting trees for the exhibition was closing, are you happy with the submissions?

The submissions process was a major first milestone for The Artisans Cup. We had no idea what to expect when we opened submissions and Chelsea and I both went into it without expectations but with extremely high hopes. The process of constructing this show, in many ways, has been a gauge of the American Bonsai community’s commitment and sincerity to raising its level. Since coming home from Japan its been clear to me that the notion of a show of the highest level that catalyzes an exploration of Bonsai with an American identity has been an idea that has piqued people’s attention. However, it wasn’t until opening the doors to submissions that we truly knew whether the community would get behind this. We had over 300 submissions for an exhibition with 70 spots and couldn’t have been happier and more impressed with the enthusiasm as well as the quality of the trees. It will take several shows and a tremendous amount of work to find our own path and develop our own vision of Bonsai to a point where it does justice to the potential of the art form but this inaugural show is proving to be a huge step.

So you and Michael had to work through 300 submissions? Can you explain how the selection process went about?

I think Michael and I both realized how delicate the jurying process of The Artisans Cup was going to be. We both have a lot of relationships and friends in the Bonsai community, but we really needed to separate ourselves as much as possible from letting external factors impact the trees we selected to exhibit. We had a third party separate the names on submissions from the photos and additional information. We then sat down and went through each tree’s photos and artists statements. The first pass took us more than half the day, but when we finished and stepped away for a moment, both of us felt really uplifted by the quantity of quality entries. We resumed the process in the early afternoon. With the second assessment we started separating trees into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No” folders. There were so many factors that contributed to our decision-making besides the simple quality of the tree, but the overwhelming theme that surrounded trees put in the “Yes” folder was that the owner went beyond simply thinking of the tree and put time and consideration into all aspects of the composition, including its container and their artist statements. By the time we were finished with the second round we had selected 65 “Yes” trees. We took the remaining few hours of the day to break down tree size and species to make sure we had a well balanced show and a clear representation of Bonsai in all its forms. Knowing what we had or needed allowed us to select the remaining five trees, plus 5 alternates.

What can we expect from the trees that made it through? Is it a complete overview of Bonsai in the USA you think?

We did our best to compose a show that provides an accurate snapshot of American Bonsai at this very moment. It’s tough to say whether we accomplished that or not until all the trees are present and the show is set up. One thing people can expect is a uniformly high quality of trees, represented by a wide variety of species and sizes. I think people can also expect to see some historical pieces that enhance the depth of the show, as well as some cutting edge Bonsai design, both in the trees and in several of the displays. I’m really excited to see the show constructed to witness the diversity of American Bonsai and all its parts.

Art, Patience, Toil
The Art of Patience and Toil, photo by Chris Hornbecker on the Artisans Cup website.

There seems to be a lot of information on the submitted trees. Will visitors of the event be able to learn more about the trees and their history?

How we use the tree information submitted by entrants is still in development. There are any number of ways to present written content in the show, and then there is the thought that it might be best to let the trees speak for themselves. I think pieces that have historical significance will need to present the history to fully appreciate what the tree means to an exhibition of this standard. Beyond that, you will have to wait and see.

I understand the judges, including yourself, will record critiques on the exhibited trees; that sounds really interesting so can you tell us more?

Just to clarify, I’m not a judge, nor is Michael. We were the jury members whose job it was to select the trees for the exhibition, but we will have nothing to do with selection of the winning trees. Instead, we brought in Colin Lewis, Dave DeGroot, Boon Manakativipart, Walter Pall, and Peter Warren to make those decisions for us. We wanted an eclectic group of respected professionals to have the best, most objective judging possible. While doing this we started thinking how cool it would be to be a fly on the wall and hear what they actually thought about the trees as they were judging. That led us to the idea of having the judges record a short critique of each tree and then posting all five judges’ critiques along with the tree photos in the online exhibition gallery. The critiques will be a 60-90 second recording of the judges’ opinions on each tree and composition. It should be really insightful and interesting to hear their thoughts.

One of the key innovations will be the way trees are displayed in the exhibition. Are these designed by the owners of the tree?

It’s been very tough to separate our goals of innovating at Mirai from the fundamental purpose of The Artisans Cup. They are not one and the same in any way, but they do feed into each other. Ultimately, The Artisans Cup is designed to be a prestigious show that motivates the Bonsai community to raise its level, while also inviting a wider audience in to see the art of Bonsai as it is being practiced at its highest level in North America. That snapshot of American Bonsai includes innovative design as well as many examples of a more traditional approach. The most important thing to us was that the show be honest and true to form. We want people to see what American Bonsai is, was, and what it’s becoming and let them make their own decisions.
We did manage to satisfy our innovative urges by bringing on Skylab Architecture to create a show where the environment is consciously designed and constructed to create a truly unique, innovative art experience. It’s our hope that seeing Bonsai in this context will elevate the art canon as a whole.

Will there also be live demonstrations of artists?

No. It’s about the trees. However, there will be interesting panel discussions through the weekend.

Will you publish a book after the exhibition with all the trees?

No, we are doing something even better. We will be uploading the show gallery to The Artisans Cup website along with 60-90 second critiques of each tree from all five judges. Viewers can pay for access to view the show album, listen to the critiques, as well as access to other footage and coverage from the weekend.

Finally, anything else you’d like to share with us?

Over the past 4 years I’ve been working on this show, its design and intention have evolved into something only hard work and time can generate. Through this whole process, our team was able to design a show that not only touches on the cutting edge of architecture and Bonsai design, but also carries with it the ability to reflect iconic elements of whatever culture or country it is displayed in. This stylistic capacity makes The Artisans Cup a show that can travel the world. We are so excited to debut the show in Portland this September 25th-27th, but we are also looking forward to its first international debut in the next few years. We have big plans to host The Artisans Cup to Sydney, Australia and we are so excited to see how the Australian culture and landscapes can be represented in Bonsai. We hope to see you all in September 25th-27th. Come join us for the inaugural Artisans Cup!

We thank Ryan Neil for doing these interviews with Oscar from Bonsai Empire. Be sure to follow the Artisans Cup on Facebook and Instagram for updates leading up to the event, held September 25-27. For more information, check the artist profile of Ryan Neil.

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