Questions to Ryan Neil

A great article! Very grateful to Willem for sharing this post! great questions and answers!

Willem Pretorius posed some questions to Ryan Neil

ran_neil1) You could not visit South Africa in 2013 because you became a father.
How is your personal bonsai doing and are you happy with the nebari, trunk movement on the kid? Will your family be joining you at Africa Bonsai Convention 4 in Cape Town?

Haha! I was extremely disappointed to not be able to join your event in 2013, but the rewards of fatherhood have been tremendous. Our son Taft was born on November 20, 2013, three weeks late but the day before his dad’s birthday! The new addition to our family and to my life has certainly given bonsai a different perspective. I’m really excited to be coming to South Africa in 2015 and I will indeed be bringing my family with me.

 2) Is it true that you wrote a letter ever month for two years to Master Masahiko Kimura in Japan before he accepted you as his apprentice? Please tell us a bit more of the discipline and harshness of an apprenticeship of 6 years with the Master.

It’s true. I wrote him a letter every month for two years. Actually, 23 months because he finally responded a month before I graduated from college. The letter-writing was the least demanding of the things I had to do to become and remain an apprentice.

Most of the stories of my apprenticeship I tend to keep to myself, as the methods behind Mr. Kimura’s teachings don’t often translate in the western world. Although his methods were often confusing and intense, for my education, they proved to be very effective. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being an apprentice wasn’t the discipline and severity of the human relationship, but instead the unspoken foreignness of the culture into which I was trying to integrate, and the isolation I felt being so significantly different. That part of my apprenticeship was unbearable at times.

3) You say the Western world has yet to realise its full potential in the art of bonsai. Where is the West at the moment and do you think it will ever catch up?

The West is trying to gain traction. I still don’t think people have invested enough time into mastering technique and their fundamental grasp of bonsai as an element of design as opposed to a mystical art form.

Bonsai, like any creative endeavor, has a format and components that contribute to its quality or lack thereof. Demystifying bonsai, or mastering bonsai, are one and the same, and come from the pursuit of developing a complete and thorough knowledge of the foundation and fundamental elements of the art form.

Currently, the West seems to be hungry to explore bonsai as it occurs in our own culture and in our daily lives. Nothing could be a purer form of the pursuit of bonsai. If we can see bonsai as a reflection of ourselves and develop the techniques to bring to fruition; the expression of our person in our trees.

Western bonsai will not only catch up, but become something entirely different, but equally as beautiful, from our reference point in Japan.

4) Cultural differences in bonsai make it more and more like Master Chef cooking programmes. Some prefer the Japanese bonsai, some the Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, French, German and some the African styles. Is it a matter of taste or do they all fit in comfortably together under one big bonsai umbrella?

Wow, that’s a good question. I definitely think taste plays a part in how we view, appreciate and create bonsai. To acknowledge this gives us a lot of freedom to enjoy more than one approach and more than one angle of observation. It is tough to deny, though, the fact that bonsai is such a significant representation of culture.

Trying to create “Japanese bonsai” without being immersed in the culture often misses the mark. It loses the level of appeal and quality that same pursuit would have if one were very present in Asian culture. In the end, bonsai is such a wide and open art form.

There is room for every attempt and artistic exploration.

5) Many view Japanese bonsai as classical, rigid and precise while the Chinese seem to have more fun. Yet you saw how Kimura’s trees “talked and moved and always seemed to tell a story”. Is there something critics of Japanese bonsai do not see or understand?

Critics of Japanese bonsai simply have never been to Japan, because to say Japanese bonsai is rigid, classic, traditional, is to underestimate the diversity of each individual pursuing bonsai in Japan. Bonsai in Japan is like bonsai in the United States is like bonsai is in Italy, each artist, each bonsai garden, each individual has a style and an approach that’s as unique to them as it is to their culture. To try and lump Japanese bonsai as one practice, method or principle is underestimating and discrediting the talent of the individuals who the Japanese bonsai community is comprised of. Without a doubt, Mr Kimura would be the most colorful of those individuals, potentially in personality as well as in the uniqueness of his creations. That’s why I went to study with him. But, I also learned an immense amount about the “naturalistic style” from seeing other Japanese bonsai artists work.

This concept of cookie cutter, of classic, of generally-accepted stylistic rules and principles – that’s a western concept applied to a community of bonsai that most people simply haven’t experienced in depth nor understand.


6) How would you describe your bonsai philosophy?

Let’s start out by saying that’s a very complicated question. Not many people ask or really care what my philosophy in bonsai is, but it’s a question that I think about a lot as an individual for one main reason: every person has limitations as well as strengths that allow them to create things other individuals can or can’t.

When you look at a truly dedicated and ultimately respectable professional, that person has broken down the foundation of their skill set to their most basic and adept talents.

My bonsai philosophy centers around craftsmanship with creativity, with the beating heart and epicenter consisting of the simple fact that I’m an American. That fact gives

rise to much of what I think, feel and who I am. I don’t want to create bonsai that look like anything other than what I see in the mountains that I travel in, that I grew up in, and the areas and environments that have made me who I am.

7) What is your favourite tree and species to work on?

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.


8) At most shows the big trees and the ones with flowers seem to always attract the prizes and attention. What is your view on size? Does it matter?

Ahhh, the size argument. I say argument because every person will have something radical and dramatic to say about this subject. A very controversial thing, bonsai is! It’s hard to deny the visual impact of a large, impressive tree.

When you walk into an exhibition, they’re the first trees you see and the trees that ultimately dominate the skyline of the display space. You don’t have to try and see a big bonsai; it’s simply there. And because of this, their judging value is significantly higher. However, a larger size also makes problems and flaws a lot more noticeable. The work to improve a tree is significantly greater. The sheer logistics of handling large bonsai are daunting to say the least. So, is there a tradeoff between the visual dominance that makes them an easy pick versus the workload that’s required to make them at all?

In the end, judging should always come down to objective criteria used to analyze any bonsai in terms of its quality. Is the tree aesthetically attractive in terms of it’s use of common and fundamental aesthetic principals? Were the techniques used to create the tree well executed and well-practiced? There is no such thing as good work that is sloppy; there is only sloppy work that could have been good.

Finally, was the bonsai handled and displayed with an attention to quality, detail and some level of personal reflection? If the answer is yes to all of these, we’re probably talking about a bonsai worthy of attention.

9) What is your favourite bonsai quote?

There’s always a better way. Mr. Kimura used to tell me, “there’s always a better way.” This quote haunts my pursuit of bonsai. It’s the ultimate eliminator to passive complacency. I wish I’d never heard it. Not really :)

10) What is your vision for bonsai?

I don’t have a vision for “bonsai.” I have a vision for bonsai in the United States. I have a vision for Bonsai Mirai, my garden. I have a vision for bonsai in the western world. But, bonsai, as an art form, is what it is, regardless of anyone’s opinion. People assume too much when they think that whatever they think matters, really, when it comes down to bonsai.

My vision for bonsai in the western world is for the individual cultures to embrace their contributions to bonsai as it exists in each practitioner’s culture. My vision for bonsai in the United States is for a self-sustaining community to work together, to support each other as we all grow toward a common goal of raising our level beyond a competitive point, but to an appreciable level on an international scale.

My goal for bonsai in the Pacific Northwest of the United States is to pave the way for the establishment of this community. My goal with Bonsai Mirai is to educate people who share the same hopes and goals in bonsai so they can pursue bonsai at the level they aspire to achieve.

11) If you had one big lesson for beginners, what would it be?

Pick an approach that speaks to you, and master that approach before exploring other avenues of bonsai. One of the most inhibiting things about bonsai in the western world is that we’re not forced to believe or learn all we can about one approach.

Although it may be fun to explore, to have freedom, to bounce from one instructor to another, it’s counterproductive from the perspective of actually achieving any level of

competency. That method of learning impairs your ability to gather an entire scope of one approach. That foundation, that reference point, is the starting line for the pursuit of bonsai. My apprenticeship with Mr. Kimura was the very base line point of my education in bonsai; it was not the pinnacle, by any stretch of the imagination. That’s my reference point, but I have to go out and expand my knowledge, refine my techniques, develop my system of beliefs, and define my approach as bonsai occurs in me.


12) In the age of Google Bonsai where everyone thinks they can becomes an expert in a few days, what is the lesson to be learned from personal training and masters?

I think you’re referring to people who watch a bunch of YouTube videos and then think they know what they are talking about with bonsai. They are the ones who relay slanderous and unfounded opinions on the internet about the work of people who are actually doing bonsai. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those kinds of people.

The first thing that I really learned in my apprenticeship, a year in, was how much I didn’t know. As a student of Mr. Kimura, he waits to start teaching you until you realize that. He didn’t give me an actual task until I admitted, “I don’t know.”

Generally, people that claim themselves to be experts haven’t taken the time to realize how little they know, or what they can’t do or don’t understand.

Humility, seeing yourself as you really are – the good and the bad – is critical to bettering yourself. This requires daily reflection and practice. It means taking time each day to improve upon those weaknesses.

About Satori Bonsai

Bonsai all day ; everyday
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