Profile: Ryan NeilRyan NeilRyan Neil was born and raised in Colorado, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Throughout his youth the fantastic array of tortured and stunted trees surrounding his home created a deep appreciation of nature and the resiliency of plants. Upon graduating high school, Ryan decided to pursue an education in horticulture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. He already had the intention of apprenticing in Japan and pursuing bonsai professionally, however it wasn't until he was introduced to Ben Oki of Los Angeles, California that his dream of studying with Mr. Masahiko Kimura became a reality.
Ryan is now in his sixth year of apprenticeship under the guidance of his world renowned master. His time in Japan has been challenging and full of failures and triumphs. However, all of Ryan’s experiences have allowed him to grow and develop as a bonsai professional. Ryan’s objective upon returning to the United States is to continue promoting the art of bonsai and more importantly help raise the level and knowledge of bonsai in America and abroad.
The following is an on-line interview with Peter Ryan Neil. AoB:
Why Kimura? Certainly you could have apprenticed with another master, some even closer to home and with less cultural differences, so what made you choose Kimura? Ryan:
After I past the initial phase of excitement upon discovering bonsai it didn’t take long before I started exhausting my resources for self study. Out of the blue a family friend handed me an issue of Bonsai Today that she found at a garden center and it just so happened Mr. Kimura’s work on a cascading shinpaku was the main article in that issue. I was mesmerized by what he was doing with the tree and the manner in which he brought about such change. It was like watching him sculpt a personality and give life to something already living, a second birth of sorts. As I gathered back issues of bonsai magazines that contained Mr. Kimura’s work I became more and more enthralled with the way he was able to tease so much interest and expression out of a tree. Contrary to the sedentary image of a classical Japanese bonsai, Mr. Kimura’s work had life and vigor, it talked, and moved, and always seemed to tell a story (a theme his work maintains to this day). Like many other western bonsai practitioners, Mr. Kimura’s work opened my mind to what a bonsai could be.
However, bridging the gap between dreaming up a bonsai image and making it a reality proved to be a difficult task. I spent a lot of my free time at college in California commuting to either Los Angeles or the Bay Area to study with anybody who was willing to offer me a few tips and techniques for some youthful labor. I look back on the time spent traveling and chasing my passion with fondness, but in the end I realized that if I were going to achieve the things I wanted to in bonsai I needed to give bonsai 100% of my focus and dedication under the guidance of the very best. Two years into my horticultural education I made the decision to pursue an apprenticeship with Mr. Kimura. AoB:
Stories of your persistence in obtaining your apprenticeship with Masahiko Kimura abound on the internet. Ranging from a dedicated letter writing campaign that lasted for over a year, to having Ben Oki personally introduce you, to just plain old luck, what really led to your approval as an apprentice to Kimura?Ryan:
Hmmmm, all of the above and then some! Not really, I don’t buy the luck thing that much because I went through so much to pave my way here, but Mr. Oki’s personal recommendation to Mr. Kimura and my letter writing campaign that lasted close to two years were both very pivotal in helping me secure a chance at becoming Mr. Kimura’s apprentice.
When I accompanied Mr. Oki to Japan for my initial introduction to Mr. Kimura it was quite clear to me Mr. Kimura was of no mind to accept another foreign apprentice. It is no secret the eastern and western mentality and way of doing things differ greatly and at that time Mr. Kimura was very upfront telling me he didn’t think an American was capable or prepared to do what was necessary to study at his nursery. I left Japan with that as my motivation to prove him wrong.
Once I got back to the U.S. I immediately wrote Mr. Kimura a letter in the best Japanese I could muster, something maybe a stone’s throw from caveman talk, but it was a start. I sent it off with great hopes of a reply but after a month heard nothing so I decided to send him another, this time using a little bit better Japanese. Month by month I received no word from Japan but continued to write with the intention of at least staying in his mind. Low and behold, two months before I graduated college Mr. Kimura finally wrote me back. He apologized for his absent replies and noted he had been busy, something I now know to be all too true. He went on to write although failure was imminent I was welcome to try my hand at serving as his apprentice. So, off I went.
What most people don’t realize is that getting here was the easy part, staying was the challenge. Every apprentice has a three month trial period, a wash out phase of sorts where they are tried and tested and all non-hackers are weeded out. I can honestly say those first three months were the toughest three months of my life, but determination and desire to accomplish what I set out to do proved to be the most important factors in securing my apprenticeship. AoB:
We understand that you made your first trip to Japan with Ben Oki. What were your very first impressions of Japan? Of Masahiko Kimura?Ryan:
My first impressions….hmmm….Japan was ultimately foreign. By this I mean that everything from A to Z was different and completely incomprehensible to me. I’ll never forget walking out of the hotel my first morning in Tokyo right as it started to snow, looking at billboards filled with kanji, and watching a young girl in a skirt and heels riding a moped amongst dump trucks, semis, and taxis.. I didn’t quite know what to make of that situation, but in many ways it summed up everything about Japan that I found to be so drastically opposite.
My first impression of Mr. Kimura was equally as foreign, but without the moped and high heels. We arrived at Mr. Kimura’s nursery right in the middle of a photo shoot for Kinbon, the Japanese bonsai magazine, and had the pleasure of getting to watch him work on a 1000 year old spruce tree. I remember his apprentices being keen to his every need and working in perpetual motion while Mr. Kimura went about the task at hand. Discipline was the foundation of his school of thought and no action was wasted or done in vain. It seemed like every move he made was conducted with one deliberate, calculated, and powerful stroke. After watching Mr. Kimura work for close to an hour I could only begin to understand what being a master truly meant, but it was enough for me to realize his nursery was where I wanted to be. AoB:
What is Kimura like as a man, as a teacher, and as a world renowned bonsai master?Ryan:
This is a difficult question to answer and I find myself going over my thoughts about how to address this question almost daily while I’m working. Unless someone has actually sweat and suffered for Mr. Kimura you can never truly understand any description of the man. For me to sit here and attempt to describe him is like trying to sketch a snowflake before it melts. Mr. Kimura is always changing, by the minute, day, week, month, year as are my feelings and thoughts about my master while he continues to teach me and develop me as a bonsai artist and person.
Mr. Kimura as a man is deceptively light hearted. His characteristic intensity is real in every way, but if you catch him away from bonsai and away from things that he feels deserve undivided concentration Mr. Kimura has a lot of interesting things to say about stuff you wouldn’t assume he thinks about. My perception of him is that his heart truly lies with nature and if he weren’t pursuing bonsai Mr. Kimura could easily turn his attention elsewhere and be equally as intent. That is not to downplay his passion for bonsai, but to say he is a man of many talents and many aspirations that fatefully landed on bonsai as the focus of his ability.
Afterall, the things Mr. Kimura has experienced in his life and the burdens he has had to bear from a young age served as invaluable preparation for a career as the pioneer and leading bonsai professional in the world. It is not my business to discuss the life of Mr. Kimura, but I think it is worth noting that his apprenticeship at Tojuen was obviously one of the most significant events that shaped him as a man and helped define his approach to bonsai and teaching. Thirty-years later he is giving me the same opportunity and I would be lying if I said my time with him will have any less significance in terms of who I am and what I do moving forward.
Having said this it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn the amount of directly related bonsai knowledge afforded Mr. Kimura’s apprentices equates to a very small portion of our education here. He has told me from the beginning being an apprentice is not about bonsai; instead it is a time to strengthen your heart and become a man. It is true he does not go easy on us and his methods of teaching and inducing growth in his pupils often times takes a lot of reading between the lines to understand what it is our master is trying to tell us. But, in the end it all leads down one yellow brick road; he is simply teaching us how to think and how to use our heads to solve problems before we approach a task with our hands. I have learned more about how I think, how I learn, and how I go about improving myself than I have about bonsai. However, I’ve managed to pick up a fair amount of bonsai knowledge along the way as well. AoB:
What was the hardest part of moving to Japan and becoming Kimura's apprentice? What is the hardest part of the apprenticeship itself?Ryan:
The difficulties in moving to Japan and becoming Mr. Kimura’s apprentice are two very different subjects altogether. The hardest part about moving to Japan to pursue bonsai was the overwhelming reality of the unknown. I spoke very little Japanese, had never spent significant time abroad, and had been to Asia once, for two weeks to visit Mr. Kimura for the first time. I didn’t know where I would live, what I would eat, what my daily life would be like….I simply had nothing concrete to stand on. I was not sure when my apprenticeship would actually start or if Mr. Kimura was even going to except me as an apprentice at all. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to study bonsai under the guidance of my master and that seemed to be enough to overcome the unknown and get me to where I am today.
The hardest part about becoming Mr. Kimura’s apprentice was learning to let go of my pride and individuality enough to keep them from blinding me from what my master was trying to teach. It is no secret Americans are very proud, so learning to admit that I don’t know this and I can’t do that was really quite difficult. I have had a number of apprentices below me during my stay here and even Japanese students struggle with this aspect of becoming an apprentice. However, in the end it has proven to be one of the most necessary adjustments I was forced to make. The humility I’ve learned as a result of having to do so will serve me much more than the bonsai technique I have gained as a result.
The hardest part of the apprenticeship itself…..great question. For me the hardest part of the apprenticeship itself would be maintaining my mental composure under any set of circumstances and any working condition. When I go home every night I am exhausted, but it isn’t because of the massive amount of physical labor, although there is a fair portion of that. Instead, there is always a tremendous amount of mental pressure that we have to deal with studying under Mr. Kimura and that takes its toll over time. It is all part of his master plan to get us where we need to be so we can succeed in the world of bonsai. I admire the way he walks the line in terms of pushing us up to the point of breaking to induce us to excel, but easing up just before he has gone too far. Mr. Kimura is a master for many reasons and his ability to read his students is one of them. AoB:
What was the first thing you learned to do at the nursery and how long was it before you were trusted to do actual design work on bonsai? What earned this trust?Ryan:
My first day as an apprentice was a bit of a novelty since he had sent all of my senpais to an onsen (hot spring) for a brief vacation (something he has yet to do again) which meant I was the only person there with him the entire day. I showed up almost two hours early, eager, nervous, excited, scared and completely clueless. When he came out of his house to begin work I greeted him the best I could and he simply nodded and walked right by me to begin watering. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do so I did my best to stay out of the way and keep the hose from kinking as I studied his watering methods. He didn’t say anything to me the entire day and I could tell he was more or less using the opportunity to see who I was and what I would do. I was under the impression I would be cleaning for the first two years anyways and was prepared to make the toilets shine, but surprisingly enough he gave me a tree to do rudimentary work on. Mr. Kimura graciously created a sample branch for me to follow and then turned me loose to see what I could do. Afterwards he fixed my mistakes and made adjustments but never said anything to me about the work. At that moment it became quite clear that unless I could learn to study through observation my time as an apprentice would be painful and short lived; and so my education began.
Actual design work is something that has also been present from the beginning but has evolved along with my skills as a bonsai artist. From the first dead branch he had me wire for practice to the tree I wired today, design work is an integral part of what we do and something that always demands consideration even in the smallest tasks. Wire practice never involved simply wrapping wire on the branches, but also creating a pleasing branch shape. Cleaning out dead needles never consisted of simple needle removal, but also adjusting and readjusting the shape of the tree. Design work has been everywhere from the first day I started up to the present. AoB:
Kimura services quite a few customers in Japan, does he board a lot of bonsai for these customers and did your daily chores include caring for these important trees as well as Kimura’s own collection?Ryan:
Surprisingly enough, the majority of the trees at Mr. Kimura’s nursery are in fact client’s trees. Of course a few of his personal trees are intermingled in the mix but as a bonsai professional maintaining a large collection of personal trees doesn’t exactly put food on the table. As apprentices we are responsible for all the trees at the nursery, including clients’ trees which are treated no better nor worse than Mr. Kimura’s personal trees. Instead, they are all handled with the same amount of attention and dedication. AoB:
What is the one thing about yourself and your perception of bonsai that the apprenticeship changed?Ryan:
Before coming to Japan bonsai was obviously a very important part of my life and something I was willing to dedicate a lot of time and attention to. However, never having lived in a culture that has traditional art forms and values history and custom the way the Japanese do made it difficult for me to fully understand the depth and strength the pursuit of bonsai, as a whole, possesses. Although it is difficult to explain and fully understand, bonsai has not only become a major part of my life; while being here, bonsai has become my life.
Working as an apprentice bearing responsibility for living things that have a history much greater than I could ever comprehend creates a mixture of emotions, but the two that immediately come to mind are respect and servitude. The relationship which develops between artist and tree and the respect inherently involved gives me a feeling I have come to depend on and cherish. Even on my days off I find myself gravitating to my own small collection of trees on the balcony of my apartment, as if visiting friends or watching over a child. Bonsai is a habit, a lifestyle, something I now do without thinking about. It is a part of me and something that I have found to be almost as powerful as many people find religion, wealth, and social status.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of my elevated respect for the art comes from knowing others share the same profound impact. Every year people come from around the world to view the Kokufu-ten bonsai exhibition sharing one common desire to view the best trees in the world. Mr. Kimura has had presidents and kings come to his private residence just so they could see the magnificence of his creations with their very own eyes. I’ve seen customers on their death bed, barely able to move, make one last great effort to come and see their most beloved tree before passing away. If that isn’t power, if that doesn’t demand respect and dedication, if something that can’t speak can be so vocal it is no wonder bonsai has become the focal point of my life and a world renowned art form. AoB:
Do you notice a distinct difference in attitude between bonsai practitioners in Japan as opposed to the West?Ryan:
I started to answer this question and stopped midway coming to a conclusion that I feel quite confident about and is rather satisfying. I was going to answer this question the way most people do and drag on about how bonsai is only a hobby to westerners and how much more serious and focused Japanese practitioners are when I stopped and realized that you are asking me about bonsai practitioners and not bonsai hobbyists. In recent years, it seems like in the western world that diversity of terminology demands a greater gap of separation when considering the two groups and probably allows people to draw more similarities between Japanese and western bonsai practitioners. Particularly in Europe, where the level of bonsai and the prevalence of bonsai professionals have increased dramatically, it would be unfair to say that the western world is not taking as serious or dedicated approach to bonsai as Japan. Instead, in many aspects western practitioners might be pursuing the “art” of bonsai with more intensity as we struggle to gain ground in terms of technique and aesthetic appreciation. I know even in the United States it is not difficult to find people who are devoting a majority of their time and resources to the pursuit of bonsai and advancement of their personal ability. It is within this common pursuit that one can find similarities in attitude.
That is not to say the west has arrived or that it is time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our efforts. Rather, in some aspects of bonsai western practitioners are stepping up the intensity of dedication to bonsai reminiscent of the focus Japanese practitioners characteristically posses. AoB:
Now that your apprenticeship is nearing its end, are you excited that it is over or do you wish it could continue?Ryan:
Wow, take a deep breath and think about this one type of question. My immediate response would be that I am excited and ready to be free to take all the knowledge I’ve acquired and apply it to the next phase of my bonsai career. For going on six years now I’ve been working under the strict eye and guidance of Mr. Kimura. Although this has been a tremendous opportunity I wouldn’t trade for the world, it’s been necessary to subdue my personal expression and creativity to make room for what I am learning as an apprentice. Disciplined study of my master’s techniques has honed my own sense of bonsai and clarified the ideas and images I already posses. However, the value in all of this comes when I am free to use my new set of tools to pursue bonsai in the manner I personally find reflective of myself.
At the same time, one has to be really careful to not let impatience get in the way of opportunities to continue to grow and learn. This is where I find myself now, at a point where I wonder if the value in staying would outweigh the value in leaving. Mr. Kimura is the best in the world at something that I have a tremendous passion for. It is not everyday one gets to study something that they truly love with the person who knows about that passion the most. I could study under Mr. Kimura until I’m old and still learn something new everyday. Yet, at some point I have to start to walk my own path, develop my own style, create my own bonsai story and it seems like both Mr. Kimura and I agree that time is rapidly approaching. AoB:
What will you miss the most and what won’t you miss at all?Ryan:
Looking back on my apprenticeship there are a lot of things that make me smile. I can smile about the tough times, smile about the failures, smile about the lessons learned, smile about how far I’ve come. There is little immediate satisfaction that comes from being an apprentice, but there is so much to be appreciative of looking back on my time. I will miss the moments spent in the workshop helping Mr. Kimura do things to trees I know aren’t being done anywhere else in the world. I will miss the solidity of my place in his nursery as his right hand man and go to pupil when he needs somebody capable. I’ll miss working at nights with Mr. Kimura and all of my younger apprentices when nothing is being said but everybody is pursuing bonsai with the same objective. And I will miss the undying dedication to the trees that I still feel is a trademark of bonsai at my master’s nursery.
I won’t miss the humidity and heat of a Japanese summer, nor will I shed a tear to be away from the mosquitoes that not only itch but also hurt when they bite. I doubt I’ll look back and long to prepare a few thousand trees for an oncoming typhoon, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anticipating being able to shovel snow as opposed to sweeping it with a bamboo broom. AoB:
When you return to the states, will you begin teaching and if so, will you be taking in students or traveling to give workshops and demos?Ryan:
For someone who has spent time studying in Japan it seems like teaching is a forgone conclusion. I will not be the exception. Returning to the states and using the knowledge I gained in Japan to help raise the level of bonsai in the U.S. may have only been one of my goals upon leaving, but I consider it to be the single most important ambition I have now.
In order to do so there are a variety of things which need to be accomplished. As the saying goes, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step,” and in my opinion the quality of American bonsai will improve one student at a time. Ideally I would like to create a studio and nursery where students can come to seek a higher level of bonsai by working hands on with top quality trees under my guidance. However, demonstrations and workshops will be a good tool to make myself known and introduce people to my ability, thought process, and approach. In the meantime I will remain open to a variety of ideas and look forward to seeing how my students choose to use me as a teacher moving forward. AoB:
Having gone through an apprenticeship, what do you feel is the most important thing a student can learn? What is the most difficult?Ryan:
The most important: There is always more than one way.
The most difficult: There is always a better way.
Being a westerner studying with a very traditional Japanese master such as Mr. Kimura brought about challenges which served as tremendous engines for growth. Dealing with a different thought process, different tools, a different language, a different lifestyle, different everything opened my eyes to the fact that there is no “right” way; instead there are a lot of different ways. After all, my apprenticeship is founded on the idea of studying Mr. Kimura’s approach to bonsai and comparing it to my own in order to find a personal approach that is superior to what I possessed before. Learning to understand his way or that of anyone else only allows me to take what I find appealing and use it to improve myself and the way in which I style and manipulate a tree. Often dramatic improvements result from this type of dedicated study and the discovery of such gems of knowledge allows me to continue to grow.
Mr. Kimura himself feeds off the discovery of new methods, approaches, and techniques, which is one of the things I have come to respect about my master most. He has yet to be too proud to search for another answer, a new angle, or something to improve a technique he developed himself and knows can be made better. Being at the pinnacle of his profession, Mr. Kimura has served as a great example to me of how one manages to excel and continue to improve as difficult as that may be. He will be the first to tell anyone who asks, there is in fact always a better way.AoB:
What is the general consensus of the Japanese bonsaists you talked to about the state of bonsai in the West?Ryan:
In the past it might have been possible to get a consensus on “bonsai in the west” with an opinion that encompassed the Americas and Europe. However, in recent years, and to the satisfaction of many westerners, Japanese bonsai professionals are more aptly prone to identify quality western bonsai with individual countries and not as a generalized mix. This is in large part do to the tremendous rise of bonsai culture throughout Europe; most notably Italy and Spain, where the quality of trees are highly regarded among Japanese professionals and at times, appear to be nipping at the heels of Japan. Within the past year even a select group of German and English bonsai enthusiasts have caught the attention of their eastern counterparts and from the looks of things the gap between eastern bonsai and European bonsai will continue to close.
In terms of the Japanese’s’ regard for American bonsai…well, it pains me to say that the overall opinion of bonsai in the U.S. is a bit more humbling. Japanese would agree the natural resources for bonsai greatness are abundant throughout the eclectic landscape that is the United States. The dedicated individuals and monetary tools seem to be in place to drive the formation of a prospering bonsai culture. And, most Japanese bonsai enthusiasts would agree at one point the United States was well on its way to becoming a perennial bonsai nation. However, somewhere between the late 90’s and early 2000 America’s bonsai culture lost its momentum. From that point on the eastern consensus views American bonsai as being in a state of stagnation.
Culturally speaking Americans may appear to lack a strong presence of art and deeply rooted history in our culture, particularly when compared to Europe and East Asia. To the eastern mind this dramatically impedes the advancement of aesthetic quality in any art form, including bonsai. In the same breath, looking from the outside in, the world seems to view American culture as being founded upon mass production of quantity for less as opposed to minimal production of quality for more. However, the most overwhelming opinion expressed to me regarding the state of American bonsai refers to shared complacency which seems to have trickled down as a result of America’s rise to dominance as a nation. I find this to be the most interesting point expressed, and also the hardest to take. Have Americans lost their hunger and ambition? If so, is complacency what is holding the quality of bonsai in the United States down?
Perhaps we should each ask ourselves these questions, but in my mind to identify American bonsai as being in a state of complacency would mean you were looking at bonsai in the United States as of yesterday and not today. Why? Hope is on the horizon. It was the desire to improve the level of bonsai in the United States that drove me to study in Japan and I believe it is the same ambition that is also driving other Americans to do the same. Perhaps 2010 sees the reformation of a bonsai nation? If you ask me the wheels of change are already in motion and I am confident in the near future the Japanese will agree. AoB:
Do you plan on going back to Japan and if so, will it be to visit, to further your studies, or both?Ryan:
I will absolutely be coming back to Japan, hopefully multiple times a year if life as a bonsai professional affords the opportunity. One of the most important aspects of my apprenticeship for me personally, is the idea of being part of a select group of individuals that were able to fully grasp what it was Mr. Kimura was trying to teach us, and who value that knowledge enough to honor the tradition of remaining close to our master. As I mentioned before, I could study under Mr. Kimura until I was old and senile and still learn something new everyday. As long as the opportunity presents itself I will continue to visit my master and study whatever it is he has to teach me.
I would like to thank the Art of Bonsai Project for providing me with the opportunity to share my thoughts on something I feel most passionately about. I am very much looking forward to pursuing bonsai with all my heart and I’m anxious for the opportunity to offer people the type of knowledge and ability that will be representative of the time I have spent studying in Japan. I hope to see you all soon.