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 Post subject: Profile: Matt Ouwinga
PostPosted: Sun Sep 30, 2007 9:28 am 

Joined: Mon Oct 24, 2005 8:51 pm
Posts: 1442
Location: WI, USA
Profile: Matt Ouwinga
Matt Ouwinga is a bonsai artist from Chicago whose work with Trident Maples has quickly become known in the community and whose youth has given hope to all of the younger practitioners. Matt's journey reminds us that one only needs a strong desire, quality instruction, and some talent in order to succeed in bonsai.

Bonsai has been a huge passion of Matt's since he was 17 years old. When he was 21 he visited Japan for the first time and saw the Kokufu-en exhibit and was inspired to follow his dream of going to Japan to study bonsai. About a year later he came in contact with Mr. Yoshi Nakamizu who organized the International School of Bonsai through Mr. Kunio Kobayashi who, at the time, won more Kokufu-ten and Sakufu-ten grand prizes than any other bonsai master. Mr. Nakamizu and Matt talked regularly and eventually Matt decided that going to Japan to study was something he had to do. For one summer Matt lived, worked, and studied bonsai in Japan under Mr. Kobayashi.

Being a high school teacher, the time frame for his leaving the states and going to study in Japan worked out nicely with his 3 month summer vacation. During his study in Japan he was able to work on and see some of the finest bonsai in the world. To see more of where Matt studied,
visit the website
Since his return from Japan two years ago, Matt has been lecturing, giving demonstrations and workshops, and judging several bonsai shows across
the U.S. Where he has received excellent reviews for his professional presentations and vast knowledge of Trident maples.

The following is an on-line interview with Matt Ouwinga

AoB: You have been practicing bonsai since you were 16 years old, what major changes have you seen in the art since this time that you feel have changed the art forever?

Matt: I believe in the U.S. more young bonsai artists are rising up and taking bonsai very serious at a young age. Having traveled to many bonsai clubs around the country I have seen this first hand and it's extremely encouraging for the development and growth of bonsai in the U.S.

AoB: What was it like to be so young and yet so actively involved with bonsai? What kind of opposition or advantages did you encounter that you feel was based solely on your age?

Matt: It's nice to be young and heavily into the bonsai community. Rarely will I get criticized because of my age, more so I feel that the bonsai community embraces those who are young in bonsai and even more those who have studied bonsai in Japan at a young age. Usually after one sees my trees they push the age factor to away and understand that bonsai trees do not understand age but dedication and talent.

AoB: What advice would you give to young people just becoming interested in the art of bonsai?

Matt: Become part of a local bonsai club! Veteran bonsai folks seem to love young people joining clubs and can become a wealth of knowledge for them along with a mentor. These are aspects that books alone cannot teach. Soak up all the knowledge around you from those who are experienced in the art of bonsai.

Of course I always suggest young bonsai people to go to Japan whether on a trip or to study. Do it young when responsibilities are minimal.

AoB: Many people know your name through your work with trident maples. Why did you pick this species in particular to work with and what characteristics do you enjoy the most in it?

Matt: I love tridents! Leaves, trunk, nebari, fast growth habits are all contributing factors toward me choosing tridents to specialize in. Also, when I studied in Japan I saw many growers who specialized in one or two species. I liked this idea a lot, so I began to focus my collection on more and more tridents.

AoB: What native species do you work with and which would you say are highly underrated as bonsai material?

Matt: I have some collected larch from Michigan that are great to work with. Ponderosa pines are a wonderful species to work with also. There are many great species to collect in the U.S. and I believe we will see a rise in different species that will become more popular to work with. Honestly, I work with tridents 95% of the time.

AoB: Can you tell us more about your learning experience in Japan?

Matt: I could probably write a book about this question! Its tough work, no one can put into words until they do it themselves. The days are long, the work is grueling, but the pay off in the end of priceless.


AoB: What are the primary differences you observed in not only the way bonsai is practiced in Japan , but also in the way it is taught?

Matt: In Japan we worked on bonsai 6-7 days a week, 12-16 hours a day. Constant pinching, pruning, and care are done daily. One reason the trees are so nice there is the many professionals and growers that do bonsai full time. This is rarely seen in the U.S.

How bonsai is taught is much different. I often get the question at bonsai clubs; "Is it true that if you wire wrong you must cut it all off and wire again?" yes, this is very true. I remember working on a tree for 6 hours wiring it. I made a few small wiring mistakes and had to cut all the wire off and start over again. At times too, you may do the correct way and still get scolded for it. The life of an apprentice is very tough as you live a life of poverty and constant humbleness to the master. His word is never questioned. If he asks you to water, rewire, or redo something then you have already failed.

AoB: How do you see the Japanese way of successfully growing magnificent bonsai material? Will the Westerner be able to translate the cultivation to given locations and climates and to learn the Japanese way of growing great raw or pre-bonsai material?

Matt: Answer in question 7.

AoB: How did you get an apprenticeship with My Kobayashi?

Matt: I met Yoshi Nakamizu who operated the international school of bonsai directed by Mr. Kobayashi. I sent everything up through him. He did all the correspondence for me. It was pretty easy to set up.

AoB: What can you tell us about your fascinating experience studying under Mr. Kunio Kobayashi?

Matt: Mr. Kobayashi is unlike many other bonsai masters when it comes to his apprentices working on his trees. Some masters only let you water and pick weeds for the first year. He will let you work on his trees with his close guidance. Mr. Kobayashi and the apprentices along with me would work on seedlings to kokufu-ten winning trees.

AoB: In your opinion, is bonsai in Japan gaining or loosing popularity? How does the public accept and approach bonsai in Japan? Do they offer classes or other educational means? TV shows?

Matt: From what I was told when I was there bonsai is not nearly as popular as it was say 20 years ago. There are fewer young apprentices that are Japanese who are becoming bonsai professionals. Instead, there are people from all over the world coming to Japan to study. When I was there I worked with apprentices from the U.K., France, Italy, U.S. (myself) and only one native Japanese.

Mr. Kobayashi has a TV show that comes once a week, I had the great privilege to be on this show. I was very nervous as it was my first time on TV anywhere. They joked at how I such a large man yet enjoyed working with shohin and mame sized trees.

AoB: How do the Japanese view American Bonsai?

Matt: They are excited about the youth of bonsai in the U.S. The vast enthusiasm we have for bonsai and what seems like the endless supply of great collected bonsai we can obtain from our large amount of natural resources. I even saw a bald cypress that was imported from the U.S. to Japan at a local nursery. The price tag on it was much higher that what it would go for here.

AoB: What are some of the common problems, if any, for bonsai apprentices returning from Japan to their home country?

Matt: We are not at the point in bonsai in the U.S. where an apprentice can return home and think he/she will become an instant bonsai professional and live well financially. It takes years and even then can be very difficult. I often get asked when I travel to a bonsai club if and when I will do bonsai full time. My response; when I retire from teaching!
Also, bonsai in the U.S. caries many different styles from all over the world and our own unique style. While many embrace the style of Japanese bonsai in the U.S., there are plenty that don't care for it at all.

When a native of Japan goes through an apprenticeship its usually done at a young age and his father may own a nursery. So when he is finished with his apprenticeship then he can go back to his father nursery and use all the resources there. This is extremely rare to find in the U.S.

AoB: There is a noticeable lack of Japanese artists on English speaking forums, besides the language barrier, what other reasons, in your opinion, do you think is the cause of this?

Matt: I don't know, I wish there were more Japanese involved in English speaking forums. Very few bonsai professional, even the young ones, spoke enough English to write on forums here in the U.S.

AoB: As a high school teacher, you no doubt have introduced the art to students, what is the impression younger people have of bonsai and do you think the popularity of the art is growing or shrinking?

Matt: I firmly believe bonsai is growing here in the U.S. We just need more and more young people who are very serious about bonsai and the art will continue to thrive. Recently I spoke at a bonsai club and found they had several young members who were extremely enthusiastic about the art. I was very pleased to see this.

Trident Maple (Acer buergeranum)

AoB: Your trees have won some awards and you are quickly gaining recognition as a talented artist, where do you get your inspiration from?

Matt: From bonsai artists I have met over the years.
Bill Valavanis has been a huge inspiration to me and has greatly encourage my growth as a young bonsai artist in the U.S. His trees are fantastic and it was great to see them first hand last year at his nursery.

Suthin is also one of my favorite bonsai artists. I love his style and his dedication to bonsai is clearly seen in his great trees.

Peter Warren who was my Senpai (head apprentice in Japan) taught me a phenomenal amount about Japanese bonsai growing. We are great friends in bonsai and I feel that I am forever indebted to him for what he did for me. He is back in the U. K. now and I hope that America embraces his as a young, upcoming bonsai professional. He is dripping with talent and his personality is addicting. I wish him the best in his future career in bonsai.

AoB: What would say is the most important thing for a novice to learn about bonsai?

Matt: Hard word, dedication to the art, and an endless amount of bonsai study are all key aspects.

AoB: You have grown some remarkable Trident Maples from mere stumps over the years, what techniques would you say are primarily responsible for your success? Would they apply to other species as well?

Matt: We have the idea of growing out branches and we have the idea of making good ramification in branches, however I rarely seen both done at the same time. I ramify branches while letting one leader grow strong and thicken the branch. Doing two things at once cuts the development time down in half. I talk about this to every bonsai club I visit and hope to see more of it done in the U.S.

Also I constantly pinch and monitor growth. Every tree has a certain amount of energy, focusing the energy in the right place is key. Every shoot or leaf that is unnecessary is a tap of energy that is wasted. It just takes lots of dedication.

AoB: How would you rate the current quality of demonstrations and workshops in America and if given the opportunity how would you setup such activities to assure quality education?

Matt: We have many great bonsai artists in the U.S. and lots of opportunities for many learn. Bonsai people need to continue to attend as many shows as possible and learn from those experiences.

I am glad the many clubs that invited me to their clubs gave me that chance. You see many of the same names are big shows and conventions, it's nice that the bonsai community has expected in the new generation of upcoming bonsai artists. I hope that other young and talented artists get the same opportunities I have received.

AoB: How does the judging system for bonsai In Japan differ from that in America , what are the major advantages and disadvantages of the judging system in both countries?

Matt: In Japan there are strict requirements in many different areas of bonsai. I recently judged a show (in the U.S.) for the first time and explained how I critiqued the trees and how this process is done in Japan. I received a lot of great feedback and I think many will make changes in the presentation of their bonsai. If we are to take bonsai seriously we must take presenting them equally seriously. I believe America is making great strides toward this.

AoB: Is it true that you will go to any bonsai club for free?

Matt: Yes, I will travel to any club for free, just travel expenses. I encourage clubs to donate to the national collection in Washington D.C. because I saw the collection when I was 18 and it really inspired me to do bonsai when I was very young. The collection means a lot to me and what it has done for me in bonsai.

AoB: Why do you do this?

Matt: Several reasons; I have met some wonderful friends in bonsai, that is something a price tag can never be put on. I also get to travel during my three months off in the summer. Also, many clubs have little money so I give them the opportunity to have a bonsai artist who studied in Japan come to their club.

I also feel this is my time to prove myself to the bonsai community in the U.S.

Trident Maple (Acer buergeranum)

AoB: How many clubs have you traveled to?

Matt: Since I returned from Japan 2 years ago, maybe 15-20 or so. I am almost booked for 2008 and already have stuff for '09 '10 and '11.
The biggest honor has been going to more that only bonsai clubs, but large shows and conventions. I have several on the list that we are currently working out details for.

AoB: What are your presentations like to bonsai clubs?

Matt: I teach computer classes so I put together a 58 slide powerpoint presentation on trident maples. I use only my own trees in the presentation and show grafting, pruning, re-potting, and pot choices along with many other things in the lecture. I also give every club a CD with my presentation to put in their library free of charge.

I usually then have the club bring in their maples, and we critique them and work on them. I demo on anything, but prefer a trident. Not the usual demo tree one would pick, but I wish to choose that species because of my background with them.

AoB: Do you have a website?

Matt: Yes, it is; You can read more about me there.

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