The right tree can change the landscape. Just look at what's happened outside the Portland Japanese Garden's Pavilion. With Mount Hood and the city skyline as a backdrop, five bonsai are displayed on specially designed origami-like pedestals.
Each tree -- a California juniper, coastal redwood, ponderosa pine, Rocky Mountain juniper and Douglas fir -- has been selected, shaped and trained to grow in custom containers by Ryan Neil, an Oregonian who has an international reputation as one of the best bonsai masters outside of Japan.
His solo exhibit, "American Bonsai: The Unbridled Art of Ryan Neil," runs from May 21-June 19 at the Japanese garden in Portland's Washington Park. In two weeks, five different bonsai will replace the ones now on display.
As one of the world's best at molding collected bonsai trees ("yamadori") in a distinct New World style, Neil looks for trees that have gnarled trunks and interesting features that tell a story.
With scissors and wires -- what he calls "paintbrushes" -- in his hands, he sculpts small, wild pines, junipers and other familiar trees into artistic, natural forms that are bold and nontraditional.
Some of the centuries-old trees he works with are rescued from forest land west of the Rockies that is being cleared. These old wild oaks, cypresses and redcedars are less predictable in form and harder to work with than species typically grown for bonsai.
"We cherish trees that have suffered insect damage and drought for the character they create," Neil says. He nurtures the remaining living veins surrounded by deadwood to create his highly praised bonsai.
After Neil spent six rigorous years apprenticing himself to contemporary bonsai master Masahiko Kimura in Japan, in 2010, he founded Bonsai Mirai, a nursery, garden, workshop and educational facility outside his family home in St. Helens, Oregon.
Now, international collectors and aspiring creators of bonsai make pilgrimages there to watch him train trees into intricate, miniature representations of nature. No one in the U.S. can match his 800-strong collection of high-end bonsai.
Bonsai, which means "tray planting" in Japanese, has a long history in Portland.
The city has been touted as the "epicenter of bonsai in America," according to members of the 50-year-old Bonsai Society of Portland, because almost everything grows in this region and any plant can be trained to thrive in a shallow container.
Lee Cheatle, president of the Bonsai Society of Portland, previewed Neil's exhibit on Friday, May 20. "The trees are outstanding and all native species of America," he says. "In addition, the stands mimic origami while the dynamic framing sets off the trees spectacularly."
Neil designed the stands. He also built an outdoor bonsai showroom with pavilions, stone walls and high bench-like tables, as well as a workshop and educational center at his St. Helens' property.
Cheatle says Neil's apprenticeship and degree in horticulture from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, "creates the ideal instructor."
That, Cheatle continues, "coupled with his dynamic personality and his endless energy puts him at the top spot for a lot of us. Ryan is and has been putting in tremendous amounts of effort to lead America into American Bonsai."
The price of Neil's art – some of which is only a foot wide or high – starts at $5,000 and can easily reach six figures and beyond.
But unlike sculptures and paintings, bonsai trees grow and change over time, and need to be styled and restyled. Neil has trained a Ponderosa Pine Forest, which is part of the exhibit, for eight years.