Brooks Kolb

Brooks Kolb is a Seattle writer, artist, and a landscape architect.


January 2, 2023

In the November 21, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, my eyes were drawn to an article called “Deadwood – An American’s brutal apprenticeship in the delicate art of bonsai.”  While I have at least a cursory interest in bonsai, what really captured my attention was the phrase “brutal apprenticeship.”  It turns out that the young American, one Ryan Neil who is now a bonsai artist in Portland, Oregon, trained in Japan with “the so-called magician of bonsai,” Masahiko Kimura.  It was not fun.  In fact, it was more like torture.  When Neil began what would become a six-year apprenticeship, Kimura told him, “Apprentices are like dogs.  I don’t care where they sleep or what they eat, so long as they show up every day.”  

Nonetheless, he submitted himself to the exacting requirements of his master with the fervor of a novitiate in a Zen monastery.   His tasks began with watering thousands of existing bonsai plants more than once a day, a labor that took several hours, and his instruction advanced ever so slowly from there.  The punishments he received, which included body blows, also call to mind an initiation from a Zen master.  Reading the account, I couldn’t help but picture rows of Buddhist monks sitting in the Lotus position in deep meditation when the master comes by and suddenly smites one of the men with a hard blow to his temple.  The novitiate jumps up in pain and anger, tears running down his cheeks.  “Pay attention,” barks the master, moving on to his next victim.

What is the point of this servility; this type of servitude?  The idea is that given sufficient repetition and a little luck, sometimes genius can be squeezed out of mediocrity like juice from an orange.  All of us start out like Salieri, but if we work hard enough, so the theory goes, maybe one of us will become Mozart.  (Remind me again, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?)  Imagine a ballet dancer who repeats the same positions, the same steps and the same leaps year after year, until suddenly and unaccountably, he soars with freedom.  In this way, a successful apprenticeship is expected to result in the apotheosis of the art, whether it is bonsai or dance.   Eventually, the apprentice transcends the repetitive discipline, forging his own unique style on its foundation.  Kimura’s mature style moved beyond that of his master, Motosuke Hamano, and Neil’s evolved beyond Kimura’s.  Each one was able to do so only after successfully copying the style of his master.

What does this have to do with my experience?  At least a little.  While I was never formally apprenticed like Neil, my graduate studies in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania led to a job working for two of my key professors.  Everybody, teachers and students alike, called that first job an apprenticeship.   All of us students, part jokingly, part seriously, termed the professors who became our bosses “the Masters.”   Our informal apprenticeships were not extreme and they were not cruel, but they did involve the same practice of mimicry.  They revolved around the idea that if we could successfully draw a line and then an entire sketch exactly like our professor did, we would eventually earn the right to be called a master in our own right.

Enshrined by the famed “Beaux Arts” School in Paris, this concept of an informal apprenticeship was passed down to my class by previous generations of architecture and design students.  My father, Keith Kolb, was trained in architecture by Lionel Pries, whose life has been documented in Jeffrey Ochsner’s biography, Lionel N. Pries – Architect, Artist, Educator.  On the first page of the introduction, Ochsner sets the scene:  “On a Friday afternoon in fall 1941, the sophomore architecture students at the University of Washington were hunched over their drafting boards, working feverishly.  Most were running watercolor washes on their presentation drawings.  The tension in the room was palpable.”  Then he goes on to recount a story that my dad told my brother and me many times before Ochsner published it: 

“Keith Kolb looked up nervously, checked his watch, and smiled to himself.  He was ahead of schedule and was well along in his watercolor drawing of the stair hall.  There was a dance on campus that evening, and he had a date.  He knew he could work until just after 6:00, then get cleaned up, have dinner, pick up his date, and get to the dance on time…

Kolb’s reverie did not last.  Pries, who had been looking over Kolb’s shoulder at the project, interrupted: ‘Boy, you got a sponge?’

Kolb’s ‘yes’ was hesitant.  Pries picked up a big sponge, dipped it in Kolb’s water bowl, and washed out the entire center of the drawing… “ (signaling that Dad should start it all over from scratch – my note.)

“Kolb was ashen.

 Pries asked, ‘What’s the matter?’….

Kolb answered, ‘I was thinking I would go to the dance tonight.’

 There was a brief pause as Pries stared at Kolb, dumbfounded.

‘Dance?’ Pries’s voice rose; the studio grew quiet, and everyone could hear what he was saying.  ‘Dance?  I thought you wanted to be an architect!  Do you want to be an architect, or do you want to go to the dance?’”

Dad did go to the dance, but afterwards he returned to the studio, worked all night and got the drawing done on time.  Then, Ochsner continues, “From this experience he drew the lesson that architecture demands devotion that cannot be short-changed.”  Or to put it another way, apprenticeship points the impressionable student to a high bar, then challenges him to jump up and vault over it.  If he cannot do so for any reason, he is condemned ever after to life as a mediocrity.

Of course, my brother and I drew a different conclusion.  We didn’t buy the ‘either/or’ dichotomy, architecture or the dance.  I didn’t see why someone couldn’t become an exceptional architect and also enjoy dancing without guilt.  My brother, Bliss, and I watched our father in action and, while we readily admitted that he was a talented architect and an excellent watercolorist, we saw that his tutelage under Pries had made him stubborn and dogmatic.  Few were the watercolors or buildings he admired, and this highly attuned sensibility had not only turned him into an elitist, it had left him unable at many times to enjoy himself.  In his journey through life, the view ahead was always marred by the presence of one, if not many, ugly buildings.  They were mediocre and they stained the world.

I have always felt that encouragement is more effective at motivating people than the fear of failure instilled by a bullying master.  Of course, I admit that nothing would be accomplished by coddling a student, telling him his watercolor is beautiful when it is substandard.  That said, if a teacher told me, “Congratulations, the top right corner of your painting shows good technique, now see if you can extend that to the rest of the picture,” I would be more motivated than if he rubbed out the other three corners and barked, “Start over.”  In Neil’s case, his six years of badgering by the master, Kimura, left him unable to sustain intimate relationships.  “He fucked me up bad,” Neil told the reporter, Robert Moor.  But then, asking himself if he would have preferred an easier path, Neil concluded, “No –give me the harder path.”

There it is again, Robert Frost’s famous poem about two paths diverging in a yellow wood, which my father had hanging up on the wall in his studio.  Which path did I take when my landscape architect masters challenged me?  I like to think I chose the path less travelled by, but I wonder at times if the lighter form of apprenticeship I experienced failed to bruise me enough to vault me to the rank of a master.