‘You can use the tree to create what you see’: Bonsai master cultivates art and imagination

By Laura Brummett

Harold Johnson, bonsai enthusiast and member of the North Carolina Bonsai Society, opens every class that he teaches with the same question.

“Who here has killed a bonsai tree before?” he said, maintaining his blank stare.

None of the seven moved at first, giving the room cautious glances to see who would react. A woman in her late 20s wearing hipster glasses and ballet flats was the first to take the bait, sheepishly lifting her arm.

Two more, a young dad in dirty Converse and a lively grandmother both raised their hands.

Johnson finally let his smile crack through the seriousness and added his hand to the count.

“I know I have,” he said.

Growing a love for bonsai

The first bonsai tree he bought was from an open-air market in Charleston, South Carolina, over 25 years ago.

Johnson and his wife each bought juniper bonsai trees. His tree quickly died of “natural causes,” but his wife’s tree is still alive and thriving.

Combined, they now have close to 40 trees at their home.

Three years ago, when the North Carolina Museum of Art announced its plans to highlight plants as an art form through the Art in Bloom Festival, Johnson jumped at the chance to have the N.C. Bonsai Society included.

The museum agreed, stipulating that the trees be placed outside so that the art inside wouldn’t be exposed to anything harmful.

Every year since, the Bonsai Society has displayed its best trees in one of the small, back gardens during the festival.

For the festival, floral arrangements are designed to mimic a painting or work of art in the museum’s collection. They sit proudly in front of their chosen artwork, matching its colors and shapes.

The bonsai, however, are a representation of their owner’s mind.

“Monet and Picasso just saw the world differently,” Johnson said. “You can use the tree to create what you see.”

Johnson’s favorite part of participating in the festival is watching children react to his work. When he asks them what they see when they look at the trees, he said they always come up with creative ideas.

“That’s something we lose as adults,” Johnson said. “That ability to look at art and use our imagination.”

The ‘Mr. Miyagi’ of North Carolina bonsai cultivation

Children weren’t the only ones transfixed by Johnson’s bonsai at the festival.

Rosa Cajahuaringa first saw the bonsai trees at the museum, where she works as the head of the housekeeping department. The trees instantly brought her back to watching “The Karate Kid,” the live version, in a Chinese store in New Jersey.

On the installation day, while the exhibit was being constructed, Cajahuaringa found Johnson and begged him to teach her how to grow a bonsai tree.

“I saw the exhibit, and I just wanted to take a class so badly,” she said. “They make me feel calm.”

She sat at the front of Johnson’s next class and listened intently for more than 3 hours.

Sitting next to her was Joyce Snapper, a festival attendee and bonsai enthusiast. She collects mosses, which are used to cover the base of bonsai trees, and grows them on rocks in her yard.

Snapper spent the entirety of Johnson’s class with a peaceful smile on her face. She thought the class was engaging and informational, despite the “brief time allotted.”

Afterward, she waited for Johnson to finish helping the last student. She wanted to marvel over the mosses he had growing around his personal trees.

The two bonded as they closely examined the tiny green spores.

Adding moss, Johnson said, is the finishing touch to a bonsai artist’s work.

Choosing the pot color, shape and size is the first step. Next comes cutting off branches and leaves.

Johnson instructed his class to use the “scientific term” of cutting off the “sticker-upper” and the “hangy-downy” branches.

Finally, the branches are wired to the tree trunk to form different visual effects. Johnson likes a harmonious arrangement of branches.

What’s left is a mix of harsh lines and rounded clusters of tiny leaves, creating a multitude of designs, each different from the last.

As he teaches the mixed crowd, he delivers a healthy dose of corny jokes, intertwined with intense information and facts.

He’s so eager to share his abundance of knowledge that his nametag starts creeping toward the middle of his collared shirt, hanging lopsided. With every enthusiastic movement, the tag gets closer to falling off.

He pays no mind to the nametag, nor to the soil that coats the floor. Every time he works on a student’s tree, the dirt pours out around him. Johnson walks right through it.

A resolute beauty

Just as it did at the festival, Johnson’s oldest bonsai tree stands stoically in front of his class.

Although his tree appears calm, it’s a work of Johnson’s pure and glowing passion for his art. The devotion shines through each minuscule, spiky leaf.

The old bonsai tree has now watched the masses stream through the exhibit for three years, and sat through countless hours of Johnson’s preaching.

And yet, its calmness remains.

Edited by Mitra Norowzi and Natasha Townsend