Cheryl Manning Bonsai Artist Interview

An interview with Bonsai Artist Cheryl Manning

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Cheryl Manning BonsaiWelcome to the bonsai garden podcast where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

BGP: My interview today is with Cheryl Manning a bonsai expert for over 30 years. Her website, Better Bonsai dot com, says that she’s been an artist since childhood and an avid gardener since her teens. Cheryl discovered Murata Bonsai Nursery in 1981 and it was love at first sight. Art and gardening wrapped into one small package. She later became a student and close friend of John Naka the father of American Bonsai. Cheryl has conducted bonsai demonstrations, workshops and slide presentations in the United States, Canada and Australia. She has written more than 40 articles for many bonsai publications and currently pens a column, Trash to Treasure, for the Journal of the American Bonsai Society. Cheryl has also edited John Naka’s sketch book, a compilation of John’s bonsai sketches from around the world. So I’m really excited to have Cheryl Manning on today’s episode.

BGP: Cheryl, welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast

Hello, and thank you so much.

BGP: How are you?

Pretty Good. You?

BGP: I’m really good and I wanted to thank you for coming onto my show.

Oh, it’s my pleasure thank you for inviting me.

BGP: You’re very welcome. I understand that you knew John Naka.

Yes I did, I was privileged. I was both a student and a friend.

BGP: This podcast opens every episode with a quote from John Naka, “The object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai but make the bonsai look like a tree.”

Yeah, that’s a nice quote. One of many nice quotes. Yeah, it’s a good one, I like it.

BGP: I understand that he’s one of the people, or maybe the person who brought bonsai to America.

Absolutely. Actually he was really the first person to bring bonsai around the world, because he was the first person to travel to Europe, Australia, South Africa, Canada, sharing the art of bonsai. He was also one of the very first bonsai masters to teach bonsai to non-Japanese. Back in the day it was kind of an exclusive club of Japanese men that practiced bonsai. But he said, “No it needs to be for everybody.” So he was one of the first to really open his doors and say, “Let’s share this with the world. It’s so wonderful.” That’s why he was given the nickname of the Father of American Bonsai. First he traveled the country teaching bonsai, and also he was considered the world ambassador of bonsai.

BGP: I understand his trees are in Washington D.C. Is that correct?

Right, in the bonsai museum in the national arboretum in Washington D.C., which actually began with a gift from Japan of 53 masterpiece trees, when the United States celebrated our bicentennial in 1976. We were given this gift of trees from Japan, and that started the collection. So we have the Japanese collection. And then we decided….the National Bonsai Foundation said, “You know, we need to honor North American trees.” And they created another pavilion, and it is the John Y. Naka North American Pavilion, named for John Naka. That’s where all the American trees live.

BGP: I’m disappointed because when I was in Washington D.C. I visited it for the first time ever a couple of summers ago. And I found the botanical garden and so, in my mind I was thinking I’ve arrived, this is where they have all the bonsai. I went in and I found 5 or 6 bonsai. They were OK. But when I walked out I thought, that was no big deal, I see better bonsai than that at our local bonsai club. But I had no idea that I was still several miles away from where all these outstanding bonsai are on display.

Yeah, I hope that you got out to see the museum.

BGP: No, I’m gonna have to make another trip because I didn’t realize at the time that there was a disconnect between where I thought I was and where I actually was.

Yeah, it is really an amazing place. It’s gonna be a little extra special this year. August 16th, 2014 is the centennial of John Naka’s birth. And so, this year will be a celebration by a lot of organizations and a lot of people. Yeah, it will be a big deal. I know that the arboretum, the bonsai museum, they are planning something special to celebrate that milestone.

BGP: I understand you had the opportunity to be the editor for John Naka’s sketch book.

Yes I did. Actually, my gosh, it was about eight years ago that the book came out. Actually it started…they began the process in 2000. And it was the idea of two of the board members on The National Bonsai Foundation had the idea of putting this book together. And John loved that idea. So that was in 2000 that Jack Billet and Dorie Froning started collecting sketches. And sketches came in from all over the world.

BGP: How did they get the word out that they were searching for these?

Oh, you know the bonsai community is a really wonderful community. And when Jack and Dorie contacted a publication such as the Journal of American Bonsai and Bonsai Clubs International and different bonsai publications. They said, “Hey we’re putting together this thing non-profit. We want to put together this book” and these publications said, “You know what, put ad for free. We’re going to give you ad space. Please publicize it.” So that’s how it happened. These publications went out and people from Europe, South Africa, Australia and all over the United States were sending in copies of sketches John had drawn and there’s a few people who actually sent in the original sketches. So Jack ended up having this large collection of sketches. But I had nothing to do with it at that time. In 2002 I was asked to write the history for this book. And then in the winter of 2003…I’m also an artist… I was asked to draw a sketch of John sketching trees for the cover. So I was asked to make the cover of the book. And it was only in 2004 that the person who had the sketches for two years, hadn’t really done anything, asked if I would edit it. So I was asked to do other jobs before that and then the sketches were dropped in my lap. It took me a year to really get the book done but I’m very proud of it and it has been selling now for 8 years and it continues to sell. The money…the profit, it’s all profit now, that goes to the John Naka endowment fund. And John was thrilled about that. Unfortunately he did not live to see the book published but he did get to see the cover. I visited him and showed him the cover of it.

BGP: I had the opportunity to receive a sketch from Ben Oki who, of course, learned bonsai from John Naka. Ben Oki was at our bonsai club and he does these sketches of the potential that he sees for people’s bonsai trees. So that was really exciting for me to get a sketch like that.

Yeah, one of the things I noticed…and when I do demonstrations for other clubs, I usually bring a John Naka sketch book with me. One of the things that I have found is the sketches…I can use that as inspiration and as reference. When I’m looking at a piece of material and I’m a little flummoxed. What should I do with it? And I can just kind of go through the book. When I was creating this book I had over six hundred sketches to choose from and it was un-publishable and there were some sketches of trees that looked like carbon copies and very similar design. And so what I did was to look for the greatest variety of artistic styles by John, bonsai styles, and I wanted to get as many different areas of the world or the United States represented. So there were a lot of different things I looked at. Then I had to make what is called a spread, which are two pages that face each other. The trees on each page had to work with each other. So it was a dance that I had to do. But I wanted to make the book as varied as possible. And what I found was that it’s quit an inspirational book as far as design and setting, where you have your own sketch that is your inspiration, even if you don’t own one of the trees in this sketch book. These sketches are also inspiration. I’ve used it to inspire me.

BGP: During your opportunity to have known John Naka and to have worked with him, what do you think was the best thing that you learned form him?

Oh my, that’s such a good question. One of the things….and I think this is just a part of the personality of John, that the art of bonsai is so joyful. Whenever we were together we just had fun. And we were in a very good place. John would say, if everybody did bonsai there would be no wars because people would be to happy.

One of the things I learned from John…and it’s one of his proverbs that he would say…I heard him say it again and again and again, a live donkey is better than a dead doctor. The meaning of that is that when you’re working on bonsai, it’s better if your bonsai is kind of like that live donkey. It’s got to be alive. It doesn’t have to look as pretty, as special or as important as a doctor who may be dead. You have to do the techniques that you are doing to create a master piece…if those techniques are going to kill the tree…it’s better to have a lesser tree that’s green this master piece that’s….

BGP: That’s dead.

Right, and he was always, always sensitive to the life blood in the tree, and that fact that it needs to be healthy and vibrant. That’s more important than being artistically perfect. And another part of that is that bonsai is a journey. It’s not like you sit down at a tree and it’s beautiful when you’re done. It is a journey that you and tree take. And you as a bonsai artist are going to grow as the tree develops and ages. Like a fine wine, hopefully you as an artist are doing the same thing. You’re learning more, you’re gaining a better eye. And it is that journey that you go on. Not necessarily that end product. But it’s that journey taken together that is so meaningful.

BGP: On your website you said, “It’s the journey that one takes which sets the art of bonsai apart from all other arts.”

Oh absolutely. All other arts…they are finished. You do it, you’re finished. But in bonsai it continues. I studied bonsai in Japan for a year. I worked on a tree that was a huge pine tree that took four of us to lift. It had been collected in the mountains two hundred years earlier. It had been owned by a previous prime minister. And the current owner paid one point two million dollars for it. I had never worked on anything that had bonsai artists caring for it everyday for two hundred years. That was kind of a mind bender for me, that this has had that kind of attention. Imagine the journey. All the different people that have touched this tree. And the tree has outlived all of us. It was just fascinating. It was healthy and vibrant and there was a lot of TLC that had gone into it. And it was still changing. I would love to have seen what it looked liked two hundred years earlier. Impossible but I’m sure it was quite different.

BGP: I’ve heard it said that for bonsai, the people who care for a bonsai remove lightning, fire, insects, and disease. They remove all of that from the tree’s environment and thus theoretically a bonsai could live forever.

In many cases trees will live longer in the pots, on the other hand, confining roots to a small pot…one really hot day will stress it. Trees confined to a pot are stressed. The very nature of temperature changes, humidity, water content…All of that is a lot more difficult to maintain in a pot than in the ground. So yeah, it goes back and forth but its history, it’s art, it’s culture, it’s all these things. And it’s also social to. I have traveled and I have met some of the most amazing people because of this shared love of trees.

BGP: You’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world teaching bonsai. Is that correct?

Not around the world but I’ve taught bonsai in different parts of the United States, in Canada and Australia. A few places. I’ve gotten around a little bit.

BGP: Well, I would definitely call Australia, “around the world”.

Well actually the reality of that is, my husband was working in Australia. They didn’t fly me over there. I just happened to be there and they were excited to have me there. And I met some really wonderful bonsai people in Sydney Australia. Yeah, that’s one long flight.

BGP: Tell us about your personal collection.

Oh well actually we were talking about John Naka’s collection in Washington D.C., those are just a few of his trees. I was just in my backyard looking over things…I’m going to be writing a special article for the Journal of American Bonsai Society. They are putting together a special commemorative issue about John Naka slated for the summer. The article that I’m going to do is about John Naka’s trees that reside on the west coast. Because many of John’s trees are still alive and well. There are some at the Pacific Rim Collection. A number of the most important trees are in Washington D.C., but in Southern California the Huntington Gardens and Library has a few, the Naka family have a few, and actually right now in my back yard I’m babysitting 14 of John’s trees. So a fair number of John’s trees are in my backyard and I’m going to write an article. So get a hold of the American Bonsai Society’s summer issue and you’ll get to peak into my backyard, at least the John Naka trees that are there. So, actually at this point, a lot of my collection takes a back seat to John Naka’s trees. But I’ve got trees that I’ve designed from scratch. I’ve got some California Junipers, I’ve got some pine. Another bonsai artist that I’ve actually got several of her trees is Gloria Stuart the actress who played old Rose in the movie Titanic. She was a bonsai artist. She was also a student of John Naka’s, and she was a dear friend of mine. When she passed away a couple of years ago I ended up inheriting some of her trees. So I’ve got a variety of trees but I live in Southern California, so I’m unable to add to my collection things like the Rocky Mountain Juniper and the Ponderosa Pine or the Lark. There are many trees that I could never have, so I have to look at books or other people’s collections when I travel. But I have…I’m lucky…Most tropicals are happy here; of course the California Juniper is great and Pines and Quints. We’ve got a lot of Pomegranates, which is one of John Naka’s favorite trees. John had given me some cuttings from a bonsai and so I’m developing some nice twisted Pomegranate trees that were gifts from John. So the John Naka trees and the babies of John Naka’s trees are all over my yard.

BGP: What advice would you give to the bonsai artist who’s just getting started in this hobby?

The first thing I’d say is join clubs, go to conventions or symposiums, and get out there because it can be a lonely art if you’re just playing with trees in your back yard, but it is some of the most wonderful people that I’ve ever met are bonsai artists. It’s a really good supportive community. So I would say get out there and get to know bonsai artists, fellow bonsai enthusiasts. Another piece of advice I would give is in the beginning, and I would say for the first couple or three years don’t spend big money on bonsai because inevitably it’s a very big learning curve in this and the last thing you want to do is purchase an expensive tree and then end up not knowing what to do with it and killing it. On the other hand I have an article I write for the Journal of the American Bonsai Society, which is also on my website and is called trash to treasure, where I’ve taken half dead trees or almost dead trees and re-vitaled them. Kind of bringing new life to an almost dead tree. That’s one thing that I would like to…and I try to pass this along…is that if a branch dies on a tree, you may want to give it a second look. This has happened to me in the past that something devastating has happened to a tree, for instance we had a very rare freeze many years ago in Los Angeles and I had a bougainvillea that almost the whole tree died. It was just left to the base. I said “Oh woe is me, there’s one tree gone.” It was just a stump. But I put it in the ground and over time I let it grow wild and did some trimming. The tree that has developed is so much better than the original flawed three that I started with. And this is what I try to impart with my Trash to Treasure articles is that sometimes adversity is something to use to your advantage in bonsai. Take adversity, throw in a little imagination and you may be able to create a bonsai that is even more enjoyable and impressive than before. So don’t beat yourself up. When you’re learning you’re gonna make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes can end up being something even more beautiful.

BGP: It’s funny that you’re saying this because I relate to this exactly. Just recently I had a ficus that I had been working on for years and I really got it to where it really looked good. Then we took a trip somewhere and it didn’t get watered for a couple of days and literally, half of the tree died. I was really mad about it. But my dad, who is also into bonsai, he looked at it and said, “No, let’s just do this.” He took and did some pruning and shaping and brought it back and said, “Now look at it.” And I said, “Oh yeah, look at that.” So yes I relate and it’s exactly what happened to me.

I was in Texas last September and at one of the workshops, a man brought in a Ficus. That exact same thing happened. Whenever I do a workshop I ask the participants “Please tell me what you like about your tree and what you don’t like about your tree.” We want to make the most of the features and we want to hide or remove the flaws. But this was the first time that I had somebody say, “There’s nothing I like about the tree. I hate this tree. I don’t know why I bought it. I really can’t stand this tree.” And it really was quite full of flaws, but we turned it around and found that from this one spot there was a nice root but all this other stuff if a problem. And we did some serious surgery of this tree and I sketched out a drawing of what the tree could be. Then he walked away saying, “Oh my gosh, now I love this.” So we went from hate to love in one little workshop. It was quite memorable for me, and I thought “OK my job is done.” Sometimes, like you had your father look at it, sometimes you need another pair of eyes. Sometimes you’re a little to close to it and it may be hard for you to see it. And it’s often helpful to have a bonsai community. Sometimes people will give you a little bit of a hint. And I think that’s, for me, one of the most joyful times is having that AH HA moment when you say, “I know what to do with this tree.” For me, my favorite parts of bonsai are doing that initial design when I see the tree and I’m making it happen. And then my other favorite time is when is doing that refinement on the last little bit while getting trees ready for a show, and kind of dressing them up. But in between there’s lots of years of that journey to get there. But it’s all wonderful.

BGP: Well Cheryl I think that’s all we have time for….

Well thank you for having me. I really enjoyed this.

BGP: Thank you for being willing to come on and talk about bonsai.

My pleasure, you know me, you know I like to talk about trees. Thank you very much and best bonsai wishes.

BGP: Yes, thank you.

And do look out, when you can get to the museum…actually in the spring, that’s when the NBF has their board meeting but the Potomac Bonsai Society has their convention there, so it is usually in April or May. If you can get to D.C., that’s usually one of the big times when you’ve got vendors, you’ve got demonstrations and you’ve got the bonsai museum, so it’s a big weekend of bonsai. Where are you?

BGP: I’m in Florida.

Where in Florida?

BGP: In Brevard County, on the East Coast, near Cape Canaveral.

Oh OK, is that Kind of central or south-central?

BGP: It’s central.

OK, yeah, you’re east of Orlando. My father was born and raised in Jacksonville and my father-in-law lived in Naples. So I’ve been to Florida….Well thank you very much, this has been a pleasure.

BGP: Thank you.

Well you take care…Looking forward to the podcast.

BGP: OK, thank you. Bye.