A report from The Artisans Cup


One of Ryan Neil’s biggest fears was that The Artisans Cup would be met with indifference. “My wife and I put a lot on the line,” Neil said, just a half hour before the event opened. “We’ve pretty much risked everything to do this show. It’s scary to think that you put yourself out there and that it’s not going to be well received, or that people don’t even acknowledge it or care. I think I’ve been up for something like 58 hours now to try to finish this show.”

Forty-eight hours and over 3,200 tickets later, with people attending from across the United States and from 17 different countries including Brazil, Germany, Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K., The Artisans Cup had already surpassed Neil’s expectations. The Portland Art Museum saw two and a half days of lines out the exhibit doors, whispered wonderment from amazed guests, and a constant, strobe light-esque flashing of cell phone cameras illuminating more than 70 of the finest bonsai trees in America.

From an intricately gnarled Ponderosa Pine that appears to grow upside down to the otherworldly symmetry of a Japanese Beech, the event seemed to achieve Neil’s goal: to establish a uniquely American approach to bonsai, with an aesthetic that reflects our exuberant energy and boldness. One of the Cup’s judges, Peter Warren, went so far as to say that “easily 50 percent of the trees here would get into the National Exhibition in Japan [the most prestigious competition in bonsai], if not more.”

The Bonsai Kid | Craftsmanship Magazine

The first place tree.

The $10,000 top prize and trophy—an elongated pair of shears that resembles a ballerina mid-pirouette—was taken by a local: the prominent American collector Randy Knight, for his Rocky Mountain Juniper. A standout among standouts, Knight’s winner invoked the sharp sunlight and rugged beauty of the mountain climes which this tree calls home. Knight’s victory was no easy feat. “The quality [of the competition] was just off the charts,” Knight said. “This will be done again, but The Artisans Cup sets the bar very, very high. This is some sort of a milestone.”

The success of the exhibition made a large dent in the $420,000 in loans the Neil’s took out to finance The Artisans Cup. “We came out of The Artisans Cup with half of the monetary debt that we had anticipated,” said Neil. So where will the rest of the money come from? “We’re going to have to grind a little bit and get to work to continue driving Bonsai Mirai forward as an engine,” Neil said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board in terms of educating people”—in hopes of creating a new level of demand.

Unfortunately, given how slowly bonsai trees grow, this is not an event that can be staged annually. If it were, every artisan’s top trees would become redundant. (Trees already exhibited could always be withheld from competition; but that would mean featuring an artist’s less glorious trees—not an ideal way to stimulate demand.) As a result, Chelsea Neil envisions The Artisans Cup as “the Olympics of bonsai,” a competition run every four years that can consistently showcase world-class trees. If an endeavor of this nature takes hold, The Artisans Cup’s worth will be measured on a scale of years rather than months.

But progress, like bonsai, grows slowly, which Ryan Neil certainly understands. “I think this show took the first, major steps toward opening people’s minds to a place where there is flexibility,” Neil said after the show was over. “I don’t think that American bonsai is an art form yet. But we are getting there.”

The Bonsai Kid | Craftsmanship Magazine

This Japanese white pine placed third.

© 2020 Walker Macmurdo, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016