Jim Bier displays his grand University masterpiece: Japan House Gardens


Patrick Li

Jim Bier has tended to the Japan House gardens for over 20 years at the University of Illinois. He turned 90 years old this December.

By Kayla Raflores, Staff writer

As a teenager, Jim Bier loved art. He involved himself in painting, woodworking, carvings, fine arts and music.

Bier loved music so much that he considered going to college to study music and to continue his training in piano.

In college, however, he decided to work toward an undergraduate degree in geology. He absorbed his studies wholeheartedly and enjoyed every moment of it.

Bier, who just turned 90 in December, is the caretaker of the Japanese gardens at the Japan House.

Bier graduated in 1953 from Case Western Reserve University. After his studies, Bier was drafted into the army at the end of the Korean War. While he was in training, the war ended. It was then that he was sent to Japan.

Bier fell in love with Japan, the culture and the captivating beauty of the country.

He traveled extensively during his time there, from climbing in the mountains to exploring the vast amount of culture.

“To me, in Japan, art permeates everything in their whole culture, and that really attracted me — still does,” Bier said.

When Bier returned, he was admitted to the University to pursue a master’s degree in cartography.

Picking up cartography fit perfectly with his skill set and interest in arts and traveling. Bier actively looks for art in cartography. He graduated from the University in 1957.

“(Cartography) to me was the perfect place to be. I don’t ever regret it; I loved it. Cartography is a hobby, never has been work. I can’t wait to do map work,” Bier said.

He continues to do map work today, traveling to Hawaii biannually. This past December, the ninth edition of his “Maui” map was released.

In addition to Japan, Bier has traveled extensively. He has been to most of Western Europe, Central America, once to Hong Kong, many South Pacific islands and more.

Bier envies many young people who have the opportunity to travel often.

“Traveling is the best thing anybody can do … the more you travel, the more you understand other people. Travel is important, learning how other people live, accepting how they live,” Bier said.

Upon graduating, Bier was offered a job in the geography department at the University.

He began working full time, and after about eight years, he had saved enough to invest in land for a house and a garden.

Bier was inspired by the Japanese gardens and homes he saw during his time overseas, so much so that he wanted to have something similar at his own residence.

At the time, Bier had no prior knowledge of gardening. He bought some land and needed to fill it up, so he started studying.

Almost every time Bier has gone to Japan, he has concentrated on the gardens. He takes pictures, makes observations and talks to other gardeners if possible.

When he visits, Bier stays with a friend of his who happens to have a family friend that maintains gardens throughout Tokyo. At dinner, Bier asked the gardener question after question, while his friend translated for him.

Bier’s studies proved to be worthwhile.  

Once his home and gardens were up to par, they garnered a lot of attention from around the community. People would come in busloads to tour Bier’s home before the newest Japan House was realized.

Bier was familiar with professor Shozo Sato, the original director of the Japan House. They shared a similar passion for Japanese art, and when Shozo retired, Kimiko Gunji took over as the new director.

Gunji planned on teaching “tea ceremonies,” a formal presentation of Japanese tea. This gave Bier the idea of designing the Tea Garden for the Japan House.

When he introduced this plan to Gunji, she loved it; however, the Japan House did not have the funding for such an elaborate garden.

Bier decided to donate his own funds and volunteer his own time to the project. After years of cultivating his own gardens, he wanted to move on to something larger, and of higher quality.

Bier’s involvement and commitment to the gardens only expanded from there.

He also designed the Dry Garden, which relies heavily on rocks and rock placement, and includes the iconic raked gravel often associated with Japanese gardens.

Though seemingly simple, the use of rocks in Japanese gardens is highly complex, Bier explained.

“The rock structure in a garden, the colors of the rock, where they come from, how they’re placed in the ground; many, many things to consider, how to use that rock,” he said.

The first thing he notices when looking at a garden is what the gardener has done with the rocks.

“Geology has been very useful for my gardens. I guess I appreciate rocks and different kinds of rocks, and one of the sins of making a Japanese garden is mixing the wrong rocks together,” Bier said. “You want unity; the idea is to have all rocks come from the same source.”

Though he uses some techniques of Japanese origin, he adds his own flair to the gardens as well.

For example, he has sculpted a continuous hedge to mimic the backdrop of hills or mountain ranges for a “body of water.”

Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, daughter of Gunji, has started her seventh year as director of the Japan House following her mother’s retirement.

Gunji-Ballsrud has known Bier since birth; she grew up visiting his garden at home on South First Street, a taste of Japan in Champaign- Urbana. 

Gunji and Bier had a very push-pull relationship, as described by Gunji-Ballsrud. They were strong-headed, yet, as friends, they challenged one another to make better decisions.

Tea gardens are an integral part of tea ceremonies; participants in tea ceremonies always go through the garden first. This time is used to free oneself, and have a moment of tranquility in surrounding nature.

Gunji-Ballsrud described the stepping stone path as rugged, rather than smooth — this ruggedness meant to ask the walker to slow down and take in the moment as it comes.

“The gardens, what Jim has done, has actually been the magnet for people to want to understand what Japan House is,” Gunji-Ballsrud said. “So, because it’s such a unique garden, and because it’s so beautiful, I can’t tell you how many people are out there, every day, walking … there’d be times where I would work on a weekend here, and I literally count, two, three hundred people walking by.”

When looking at his gardens, Bier sees the imperfections. Yet, guests at the Japan House see the opposite.

Bier said he likes to talk to visitors of the Japanese garden, but not as a designer, rather as a typical worker. He does this because he likes to hear their true opinions.

Bier does garden work on Mondays and Fridays for several hours each day. He directs his volunteers with patience and delegates duties for them to complete.

Rebecca Wauthier, a volunteer under Bier, graduated the University in 1982.

Wauthier said she started volunteering for Bier because she’s always had an interest in the back of her mind. 

She finally let that interest blossom when she joined the Illinois Master Gardeners after retiring.

Wauthier had been aware of Bier for a while; she was familiar with Japan House and his work with the gardens. When she discovered Bier was looking for more volunteers, she leaped at the opportunity and has volunteered there ever since.

“I showed up to help with my prune rs in hand. Actually working with him was a treat; I still enjoy it. I learn something new every time I’m out here,” Wauthier said.

Volunteers under Bier work the same hours Bier does. Wauthier described the seasons as a partial delegator for work, as there is more preparation in the spring when volunteers are “waking up the garden.”

Wauthier is appreciative of Bier’s impact on her as a gardener and as a person. She has become more patient as a gardener and has applied those lessons to life.

She is in the process of decluttering, downsizing, but scaling up her garden, adding more forms and the textures she admires dearly from Bier’s gardens.

Wauthier admires Bier’s willingness to share his knowledge of Japanese culture and gardens. He teaches by example and shares a background of why certain tasks are important to do a certain way.

“Here we want a perfect plant, but it’s okay that it has some imperfections. That’s how we are, as we grow older too, we have grey hair, we have a little bit more wrinkles … imperfections are fine in plants, in us, too,” Wauthier said.

Her time with Japan House has strengthened her grounding in nature and connection with her Japanese culture.

“You wouldn’t think just playing in the dirt, trimming and pruning, is such a big component of your heritage. There’s a place for everything, bones and structure; the trees and bushes are planted for a reason. It’s about appreciating nature and the serenity of this garden,” Wauthier said.

Bier looks forward to springtime, where more work on the gardens will be done, and the Japan House’s 20th anniversary.

He has ordered new plants and is planning on updating a few of the older bamboo fences in the Tea Garden.

Someday, he hopes, Japan House will be recognized nationally for its Japanese gardens.

Bier encourages others to follow in his footsteps; not with gardening or cartography, necessarily, but with life.

“It’s not work, it’s a hobby — it’s just plain fun. Working on the gardens is the same way. It’s hard work; sweaty, dirty. But I love it,” Bier said, “And what is icing on the cake is that other people love what I’m doing.”

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