John's Last Sketch

Throughout the years, John Naka took pen to paper and sketched bonsai. His two bonsai texts are full of his drawings. And throughout the world, hundreds of individuals are fortunate enough to own originals of his bonsai designs for their trees. These drawings were intended as a guide for future development of the trees. And if the tree has died, at least the owner is left with a two-dimensional treasure.

In October 2003, a group of John's students gathered at Larry and Nina Ragle's house for the monthly Nanpukai meeting. This is a club that John created: its members are his students, the lucky ones he invited to join. Once a month, we would gather at a member's house. A tree of the host's choice would be ready for the group to work on. John would examine the tree and decide on a plan of attack. John's army of members would carry out his orders – at least until it was time to eat.

For this meeting, Larry brought out a medium-sized prostrata juniper. But after an hour, the group was still deep in discussion, John was extremely relaxed in a comfy chair on the patio, and some of us thought the tree would not be touched. However, after a particularly delicious potluck, John was energized to turn a green bush into a beautiful bonsai. As always, he was surrounded by his groupies, who enjoyed every morsel of wisdom he offered. Together, they transformed a raw piece of nursery stock. Wire was applied and branches were shaped. The result was immensely different and improved, but John had a plan for its future.

Ragle sketch tree 1 Ragle sketch tree 2
Sherwin Amimoto, Kaz Yoneda, and John Naka
look for a bonsai in the bush.
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Mel Ikeda helping John wire the tree.
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He asked for pen and paper so he could finish his design with ink. The vertical trunk was angled into a slant-style bonsai. More jin and shari would be added. The tree would be potted into a rectangular pot. John began the afternoon with a less-than-ordinary piece of material, but he ended it with a spectacular sketch. Everyone understood exactly how this tree should look.

Ragle sketch
John's sketch of Larry Ragle's tree.
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After the meeting, Larry offered me both the tree and the sketch because he felt the tree was larger than he wanted to tackle. I gladly took the treasures home and used John's sketch to guide and inspire me.

In the spring of 2004, the tree was repotted into a Japanese bonsai pot similar to the one in his sketch. Over the summer, the tree was nurtured and allowed to become lush in preparation for further refinement. Most recently, jin and shari were created or refined, and branches were rewired. At last, this tree is beginning to resemble John's design.

Ragle sketch tree 3
The tree, one year later.
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As I edited John Naka's Sketchbook, I realized that I was the keeper of the last sketch John ever drew. I knew it was important to include that sketch in the compilation. Because Larry hadn't submitted a sketch for the book, I contributed it for him, and then returned the sketch to its rightful owner. The tree still needs several years of refinement; I'm eager to make those changes. Eventually, when the tree has attained John's vision, maybe I'll return it to Larry... or maybe I'll just send him a really nice thank-you card.

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the NBF Bulletin.
© 2006 Cheryl Manning. All rights reserved.

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