Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Bonsai Kid

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This article by Nancy LeBrun from Craftsmanship magazine is from 2015, but it is still interesting.

t six o’clock on a July morning, during one of the hottest stretches in northwest Oregon’s recorded history, Ryan Neil trots out the door of his hilltop home and down a short gravel path in his nursery to check on more than a million dollars worth of small, delicate trees. Neil is a professional bonsai artist, and he’s borrowed heavily against his trees, his house and his property to pursue a quest for a new, all-American form of bonsai that will be recognized as a true art form. If the trees die, so does his dream.

As a major step in his master plan, the 34 year-old Neil, a fit and even-featured all-American type, is mounting a juried exhibit of bonsai in late September at the Portland Museum of Art—an event he conceived, developed and paid for with a loan against his home and business. He’s not sure how he’ll pay off the mountain of debt, which exceeds $420,000, but he’s all in.

The Artisans Cup, as he calls it, attracted six hundred submissions, out of which only seventy have made it to the final round of judging. The top tree will win the Cup and $10,000. Most of the entries are styled in the traditional Japanese manner, but for Neil (who as founder did not enter any of his own trees) the real prize is the chance to proselytize for a shift to a whole new American form. Neil is intent on breaking away from the fifteen hundred years of Japanese traditions that most American bonsai practitioners follow.

Japanese bonsai generally draws from the country’s relatively calm, homogenous landscape with its limited number of species. Instead, Neil wants to see American bonsai embrace the energy and diversity of the American landscape. To do that, he wants bonsai artists to use “trees collected from the harsh conditions of America’s mountains, deserts, and coastlines.” In Neil’s opinion, this would give bonsai artists an opportunity—untapped thus far—to bring out “the unbridled” quality of American trees through “asymmetry and dynamic movement.” And that, Neil argues, would give bonsai a kind of wildness that “speaks to the freedom in American culture.” These trees may be small, but Neil thinks big.

Bonsai is part art, part craft, part horticulture, and part philosophy. It’s sometimes described as a collaboration between man and nature, but at its core, it is about imagining how a tree might grow in the wild, and interpreting that vision in miniature. Or, as Neil puts it, “Bonsai is supposed to take you to the place where that tree was growing without you having to actually go there.” While this may seem to be the most natural of credos, it’s anything but. The bonsai artists’ ultimate worth is measured by how well they can manipulate a tree—sometimes pushing it to its limits—to make a living, changing thing become something of ongoing artistic value. Neil may interpret those limits rather differently from standard bonsai practice, but his vision grew out of years closely studying classical Japanese technique.

Bonsai (correctly pronounced, “bone-sigh” rather than “bahn-zai”) originated in China around 600 A.D, although there is evidence that it may go back another millennium. In Chinese, it’s called Penjing, which means, rather prosaically, “tray scenery.” After Japanese monks imported the practice from China in the 12th century, bonsai was taken up by the aristocracy, which turned the art form into a symbol of high rank and prestige. When Japan opened up to the West, in the mid-19th century, bonsai’s appeal spread. After World War II and the Korean War, the art form gained a whole new audience when American GI’s returned home with some little trees in their baggage. Today, according to bonsai expert and author Peter Warren, the U.S. is one of the countries in which interest in bonsai is rising the fastest. It’s a good time for an artist like Neil to push some boundaries. . .

Continue reading. More photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2017 at 11:37 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

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