WESTSIDE — For my birthday a few years ago my wife surprised me by giving me an odd looking shrub. She couldn’t have been more excited, but I have been. She explained that the weird bush was the beginnings of a bonsai tree.
She bought it at the Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard, and the women who worked there said I could learn about bonsai by going to their bonsai club. It was held at the Venice Japanese Community Center, which was not in Venice. The meetings were held on the second Friday and the fourth Tuesday of the month. I figured that the art of bonsai could not be more complicated than the art of remembering where and when they had their meetings. So I agreed to go.
The Venice Japanese Community Center is in Culver City near Culver Boulevard and Centinela Avenue. When I went to the class, there were about 15 or 20 people working on little trees. I was immediately welcomed and introduced to the three teachers — or senseis. They were Shig Miya, Frank Goya and Ben Oki. I was surprised at how warm and friendly they were. In the movies, senseis were strict and inscrutable. These guys were relaxed, funny and quite scrutable.
One of them took my plant, and in about five minutes magically transformed that ordinary bush into a graceful, ancient-looking tree. The sensei told me to water it every day, and bring it back in about six weeks. After about two weeks, my plant looked very sick. At the next class, I showed it to the sensei. “You watered it too much,” he told me. “But you told me to water it every day,” I responded. He looked at the plant again and said, “Not anymore.” Funny and scrutable.
At the next class, my frustration must have been very obvious, because one of the senseis, Frank Goya, walked over to me and said I should come to his house where he’d be able to help me further.
I was touched by his generous offer and went over there the next day. His backyard was filled with hundreds of fantastic bonsais that he had made over the past 50 years. He said he also had some plants that were good for a beginner to work on. From that moment, he took me under his wing. I’m convinced that trying to turn me into a bonsai artist is a more difficult task for Frank than turning himself into a bonsai master.
Fortunately, everybody who lives in the area has an opportunity to see Frank Goya at work this Saturday, Feb. 1. He will be giving a demonstration of his work at the Pacific Palisades Library at 1 p.m. Because of his modesty and humility, he would never tell you that he’s known all over the world and is considered to be one of the top five bonsai artists in the United States.
In addition to his work in traditional bonsai, Frank is considered to be the “dean” of an offshoot of bonsai called “saikei.” Saikeis consist of bonsai trees, rocks and ground cover. When you look at these living works of art, you can’t help but be transported to a special spot out in nature, complete with trees, hills, mountains, and rivers. When Frank is finished with the demonstration, his saikei will be raffled off, the funds going to the library.
Frank is a very interesting man with a fascinating history. He was born in California, but because of the unfortunate government policy toward Japanese-Americans during World War II, he spent three years in an internment camp. Immediately after the war, he served honorably in the United States Army for three years. Then he returned to Los Angeles where he worked as a professional gardener and started to learn about bonsai and saikei.
In an ironic but appropriate turnaround, this man who was sent to an internment camp by the United States government over 70 years ago was honored by the United States last year when the National Arboretum asked him to donate one of his saikeis. It is now on permanent display there, in our nation’s capital.
If you go
Palisades Branch Library
861 Alma Real Dr.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.