Growing U.S. bonsai movement has roots in Glenwood
This is a story of how two Glenwood Springs High School grads and Mr. Miyagi (yes, from “The Karate Kid”) have changed bonsai in the United States from a hobby to a rising art and industry.
Over the weekend in Oregon, the Artisans Cup, the first U.S. bonsai exhibition of its kind, a juried art show with a $10,000 first prize, was held at the Portland Art Museum. Seventy trees were trucked across North America — from Ontario, from Florida, from Los Angeles — and 1,000 tickets to the event were presold to patrons from as far away as Germany, Australia and Japan.
It was the brainchild of Ryan and Chelsea Neil, who graduated from Glenwood High in 2000 and 2003, respectively.
Ryan is the artist, who served a bonsai apprenticeship in Japan from 2004-2010. Chelsea, whose maiden name is Strautman, gave up her career as an immigration lawyer for love. Now she is on a course, her husband said, “to professionalize bonsai in the United States.”
Bonsai, seen by most Americans as cute shrubbery, really is “a living art form that is a representation of nature in miniature and a reflection of where trees come from,” Chelsea said.
The two run Bonsai Mirai, a nursery and school in St. Helens, Oregon, about 25 miles from Portland.
Mirai is the current end point of an unusual path by the Neils.
They met when Ryan was a senior at Glenwood High and Chelsea was a freshman. They didn’t date then, but were friendly — “there was always a spark,” Chelsea said — and became email pen pals when Ryan left for Cal Poly to study environmental horticulture. They stayed in touch when he went to Japan to learn bonsai from Masahiko Kimura, who Ryan said is the “father of modern bonsai.”
When she finished high school, Chelsea went to the University of San Diego, studied in Latin America and England, then went to law school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and became an immigration attorney in Denver.
The two had stayed in touch and had seen each other on and off. Then in 2012, Ryan was in Denver for a bonsai demonstration, and they went out to dinner.
“Six months later, we eloped,” on Dec. 31, 2012, Chelsea said. They now have a son, Taft, who will be 2 in November.
When Ryan came back to the United States from his apprenticeship, he found that American bonsai “was a hobby economy,” in contrast to Japan, where professional bonsai artists prep trees for collectors and exhibitions, and curate collections.
Bonsai had been introduced to the United States after World War II, but it takes many years to learn the intricacies of the art, which simply hadn’t quite taken root here.
“There was no way in the U.S. for professional bonsai artists to make money,” Ryan said. Mirai and the Artisans Cup are efforts to support professionals, educate Americans about bonsai and advance the community, the couple said. The sculpted trees, all North American, shown on the Mirai website sell for $1,500 to more than $50,000.
Ryan has won renown as an artist, having been featured in the latest issue of Bonsai and Stone Appreciation magazine, published by Bonsai Club International.
He “brings to his work the experience of his great master [Mr. Masahiko Kimura], a very modern and natural line, with a naturalness that has always been also sought in American bonsai,” the article said.
Bonsai, Ryan said, is a “horticulture endeavor in stunting the tree’s growth and art in re-creating a miniature of a natural tree.”
“I like creating art and sculpting a living thing,” he said.
All of this — the Artisans Cup, Mirai and the Neils’ role American bonsai movement, started at Glenwood Springs’ Strawberry Days.
“I was into martial arts and the ‘Karate Kid,’ and saw Mr. Miyagi doing bonsai” in the movie, Ryan said. “I was at Strawberry Days and went to the bonsai vendor booth. I thought, ‘Gosh, if they can do that, I can do it.
“I went home and got a juniper shrub,” he said.
A few years later, carefully selected truckers were bringing the best examples of American bonsai to his home.
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