Matt Reel – Part 1

Posted by on Nov 19, 2014 | One Comment
Matt Reel – Part 1

After meeting Matt Reel for the first time in February of 2011 in Obuse, at the nursery of his teacher Shinji Suzuki, I was most struck by the environment that he was studying in. The nursery was immaculate and the trees that were housed there were equally impressive.

Here are a few photos of trees that Matt was responsible for in Obuse.

An Ezo Spruce and white pine prepped for Kokufu and ready to go.    The trees that were going to the show were inside a double greenhouse to keep them green during the middle of winter.

An Ezo Spruce and white pine prepped for Kokufu and ready to go. The trees that were going to the show were inside a double greenhouse to keep them green during the middle of winter.

Suzuki's famous needle juniper.   The story goes that he sold his house to buy this tree, then won the Kokufu prize and was able to buy it back.

Suzuki’s famous needle juniper. The story goes that he sold his house to buy this tree, then won the Kokufu prize and was able to buy the house back.

Another impressive pine specimen.   There were hundreds in the nursery.

Another impressive pine specimen. There were hundreds in the nursery.

More recently, I ran into Matt earlier this year while I was taking a workshop at Boon’s place in Hayward. Matt had recently returned from Japan after more than 7 years apprenticing with Mr. Suzuki. I watched him wire and style a semi-cascade sierra juniper that had been in Boon’s possession for many years.

Among bonsai professionals in Japan there is a variety of styles, but sometimes the subtleties of the differences in those styles can be hard to pick up on for a novice. When professionals look at each other’s work they can tell who is responsible for each tree just by looking at the way that the branches are positioned and the wire applied. I’m not a Japanese trained professional , but I’ve come to appreciate the different aesthetic that different professionals evoke when styling and positioning branches.

Matt’s styling of Boon’s tree had an intriguing quality to it, one that I knew was quite different than what Boon himself typically did. That doesn’t make it better or worse, just stylistically different. At that point, I was relatively sure that I’d like to see more work from Matt, so I arranged to have him come to the Bonsai Society of San Francisco to do a demonstration and workshop.

Here’s a before shot of the tree that we provided to Matt for the demonstration.

A moderately old Japanese Black pine, grown by Randall DeRijk.   He had let a sacrifice branch grow out for the last three or four years to thicken the trunk.

A moderately old Japanese Black pine, grown by Randall DeRijk. He had let a sacrifice branch grow out for the last three or four years to thicken the trunk.

Matt looked at the pine in the back of my car on the way to the meeting and said that he was happy to be working on it because it was healthy, had a lot of established branching and he thought that it largely needed a bit of refinement and attention.

After the start of the meeting Matt discussed a bit of pine technique and described the work that needed to be done to this tree now. It was obvious that the sacrifice branch should be removed to re-balance the tree and to make it more practically manageable for the lucky new owner.

Myself and Jay McDonald assisted in some needle reduction and wiring on the pine while Matt discussed a bit more with the crowd.

Matt discusses branch placement and pine bonsai with the group at the BSSF November general meeting.

Matt discusses branch placement and pine bonsai with the group at the BSSF November general meeting.

Once the wiring was complete, Matt sat down in a chair to take a look at the branch structure. He learned from Suzuki to “make the tree the best that it can be.” This means not only carefully adjusting the branch structure after the wiring but also taking into account the health of the tree and adjusting the work to make sure that it is not going to adversely affect the tree.

In the case of this tree, Matt felt that it was important to leave at least one strong branch at the top, which could either be the new apex or be cut off later in favor of a smaller bud at the base. Matt also mentioned that during needle pulling on black pine, that leaving a few of the older needles on the 2-year old branch extensions give the tree a place to bud back when it is decandled the following year.

Matt worked on finishing the branch setting on the tree for more than 20 minutes.

Matt worked on finishing the branch setting on the tree for more than 20 minutes.

Matt’s demonstration was one that will stick in my mind for some time, not because I gained a “tip” on how to fertilize my trees, but because the aesthetic skills that he has with trees are quite extraordinary. If you’re Matt, nearly eight years of hands-on learning in both aesthetics and horticulture turns you into a man who knows his bonsai.

More on Matt’s work to come, including a roundup of the trees he worked on in the BSSF group workshop and some trees that he wired for me.

You can read a bit more about Matt on his blog here

Or check out Jonas’ post recently on Bonsai Tonight.

1 Comment

  1. Thom
    November 19, 2014

    I attended Matt’s demo as well and was very impressed with his overall approach and the time he spent explaining the importance of the aesthetics of bonsai. He truly is an artist – the photos of the trees he has worked on are inspiring. Matt is a raising star and is sure to shine even brighter in the world of bonsai. Hopefully he will be back in the Bay Area soon to share and demonstrate his styling techniques.