Bonsai trees are rooted in a rich history, starting in ancient Egypt and later becoming popular in Japan. In recent years, a new American style of bonsai art emerged. Bonsai artists take particular types of trees and through specific practices, shape and change the natural growth of these trees to their liking.
Environmental horticulture alumnus and bonsai artist Ryan Neil shared his knowledge of the practice when he presented “The Big Picture of Bonsai: How Horticulture, Art, Design and Architecture All Became One”, Feb. 28.
From Cal Poly to Japan
Neil knew from a very young age that he wanted to work with bonsai. After being handed a magazine featuring a story on legendary bonsai master Masahiko Kimura, Neil realized that for him, there was nothing in the world he wanted to do more.
“I didn’t just love bonsai, there was nothing but bonsai,” Neil said.
Neil praised Cal Poly for its encouragement of the cultivation of bonsai skill, art and creativity. After graduating from Cal Poly in 2004, Neil knew about plant life, but felt he needed to visit Japan to study bonsai art among the most highly regarded artists. To really understand the craft, Neil wanted to work with Kimura himself.
Becoming an apprentice for Kimura was no easy task. After being briefly introduced to Kimura during his sophomore year, Neil wrote a letter to him every month for two years before Kimura agreed to an apprenticeship. For six years, Neil worked alongside Kimura and other bonsai enthusiasts in Japan.
He was the first foreign student to finish the apprenticeship with Kimura.
Bonsai is a very difficult form of art and horticulture that takes years — even decades — to master. Bonsais are small trees or plants grown in containers. They are shaped through a variety of techniques including wiring, a technique Neil uses often. Bonsai artists wrap the trees with wire to shape the trunk and branches to the artist’s liking.
Neil returned to the U.S. with a feeling most students have when they graduate college — uncertainty about what to do next.
However, Cal Poly’s motto put his mind at ease.
“The Learn by Doing attitude took out the fear of going into the oblivion,” Neil said.
Neil said his time in Japan built the foundation of his bonsai company, Mirai. Mirai means “the future which has yet to be revealed” in Japanese. Neil decided on the name while washing dirty rags as part of the grunt work in his apprenticeship. He looked ahead to what the world had yet to offer. Just like he did with his bonsais, he was building a foundation to grow and evolve.
Neil decided to create a different style of bonsai for his company than the traditional Japanese styles he studied. Rather than using Japanese culture as inspiration for shaping the trees, Neil took influence from the natural world to create a personality within each tree.
Unlike other forms of horticulture, bonsai trees are not about production of fruit or resources. Instead, they are meant for contemplation and are observed for their aesthetic quality.
Mirai’s bonsai prices range from $800 to more than $50,000.
Since the company’s creation, Mirai has moved its work to museums and galleries that broke attendance records at their venues. Always thinking of the future, Neil talked about the prospect of getting Mirai’s trees in the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney Museum in New York City.
“The important thing for me is that it’s not motivated by money, but motivated by the art form,” Neil said. “You can use plants in the same way you use paint, clay, pencil, any other medium of art.”
Neil spoke at Cal Poly after reaching out to the school’s horticulture club. The club embraced the opportunity, seeing that Neil had tons of knowledge to share about something out of the ordinary.
“He exemplified the combination of art and science,” agriculture and environmental plant science junior and Horticulture club president Lauren Mocettini said.