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Interview with Owen Reich

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Owen Reich became fascinated with plants at an early age.  Visits to his grandfather's garden in Dalton, GA always left him with a sense of wonder and greatly affected his career path.  Summers in his high school years were spent installing and maintaining irrigation systems for private gardens in Atlanta.  His love for working outdoors led to pursuit of a career in the Green Industry.  While studying Horticulture at The University of Georgia, Owen had his first exposure to bonsai; a classmate pulled out a Kokofu ten book one day.  That sealed the deal.  After completing his B.S. in Ornamental Horticulture, Owen moved to Nashville, TN to work as the Production and eventually Nursery manager at Samara Farms Nursery.  He was instrumental in the construction, operation, and expansion of Nashville's top grower/broker.  Over the 6 years at Samara Farms, Owen's passion for bonsai continued to grow.  The decision to formally study in Japan was made.  With the help of Bjorn Bjorholm, introductions were made to Keiichi Fujikawa; a second generation bonsai artist who apprenticed at Mansai-en under the late Saburo Kato.  Keiichi's father was a driving force behind the "satsuki boom" and judge for the Kofofu ten before retiring.

How did you first get interested in bonsai? 

My interest in bonsai started in my Sophomore year of study at The University of Georgia.  One of my fellow Horticulture program classmates, who was already a bonsai hobbiest, had a Kokofu ten book out and passed it to me.  I was bitten by the bug then and there.

When did you decide to become serious about bonsai?

I suppose my senior year of college would be the point I became serious.  By then my collection had grown from my first Home Depot 3 gallon juniper (which I promptly killed) to about 400 trees; most of which were collected deciduous trees, rooted cuttings, and seedlings.  The point at which I realized 90% of what I had was worthless was when I became serious.   

What led you to apprentice under Keiichi Fujikawa? 

After contacting some past and current apprentices, most important being Bjorn Bjorholm, the response was always that Fujikawa Kouka-en was the best possible place for me to study.  The wide variety of species I would be able to work on and the fact that Fujikawa-san doesn't follow the ultra-strict apprenticeship policies like only pulling weeds, watering, and cleaning for a year helped immensely as well (he had to do his first year at Mansai-en).  After meeting my future sensei at the Taikan ten and visiting the nursery in 2009,  I was sure that it was the best place for me to study.

What are you most looking forward to in your studies with Mr. Fujikawa?

Learning the best ways to create and maintain deciduous and broadleaf evergreen bonsai.  Some of the work we do here isn't done at other nurseries in Japan.  We work with conifers here a lot too, but I am most drawn to zouki. I am also looking forward learning how to best run a full service bonsai nursery.  The bonsai business is a lot more than just wiring and dog-and-pony demonstrations; which, while on the subject, are a bit unfair to the tree and the artist.  A complete styling should not be rushed and often the work is carried out in the wrong season.  I would love to see some stats on how many demo trees lose important branches or die.  I am not against demos however, just think they could be more focused if the time available is short.  Or, possibly full day demos when it's safe for the tree at Symposia or other multiple artist shows.

What is apprenticeship like day to day?

My work is different depending on the time of year as some of the physiological windows for working on trees here are quite small.  Lots of cleaning and moving bonsai is always a part of my day as well as watering.  I get a day off a month and work 11-12 hour days usually.  The teaching style here is not always verbally communicated but at times I'm given a task like wiring a white pine but no direction as to what it should look like.  I am given an opportunity to "move up" on the responsibility scale if the work is approved; I'm supposed to pick up on details for styling from other trees there and implement them.  I also am grateful for the tips given by Bjorn and Maeoka-san.  My work is checked a few times a day to ensure quality standards are met.  Success means working on more expensive trees and challenging tasks.  Failure leads to lectures and another tree of similar quality.  I am always pushed to get better but never put in a situation that could really hurt a bonsai.  This especially important for client owned bonsai.  I love to joke and make all the other apprentices here laugh as this path is not an easy one.  However, I take the work here extremely seriously and value this opportunity a great deal.

What knowledge do you hope to bring back with you after your apprenticeship?

I plan to bring back as much knowledge as I can about bonsai and spread it to anyone interested.  There are gaps in the information chain for a variety of species and this has to be fixed.  The care sheets that Randy Davis is compiling are an excellent start.  Additionally, regional care information needs to be available for popular species like in Larry Jackal's Ponderosa Pine book.  I will do what I can for the Southeast.  America is a big country and the same species' needs do change.  I hope to bring back techniques applicable to say Acer palmatum and find ways to adapt and utilize it for Acer rubrum as well.  The Intensive Workshop style of teaching is the way to go without question for serious students along with local study groups that meet regularly.  I will bring this style teaching back to Nashville as intensives are the closest thing to being an apprentice in short time frames.  Normal workshops have their merit as well at exhibitions and the like.  Slow-leaking of information to students for return visits will only continue to hurt American bonsai in the future.  My conversations with students of Boon and Ryan Neil's intensives have always been positive.

What will take American bonsai to the next level?

Aside from working with international species, utilizing our native Yamadori is crucial.  The Japanese have observed the behavior of their native plants and maximized their potential by learning what works in bonsai culture.  We use them in America partially because the leg-work has already been done.  America has a vast diversity of woody plants and a LOT more land to collect on all over the country in a responsible manner. 

What are your plans after your apprenticeship?

I will build a full service bonsai nursery in Nashville. My plan is to focus on deciduous bonsai, improving clients' bonsai, and providing high quality workshop material among other things. Evaluation and promotion of underused species and cultivars is also a goal.  I hope to teach and promote the art in any way possible and look forward to learning from other artists as well. 

Owen even made an appearance in Bjorn's first YouTube video:

Peter Tea:
I met Owen last february at kokufu-ten.  Cool guy and I'm excited to see his future bonsai efforts in the US.  Good luck and gambatte!


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