‘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

Survivor makes convicted offenders of drunken driving hear her story

By Jamey Cross

She saw it coming. The pair of bright, white headlights had drifted across the center line and were coming at her head-on.

With no time to think, she cut her steering wheel to the right, pressed both of her feet into the brake, closed her eyes and braced herself.

Jodie Anderson had been in car accidents before. But the impact the then-51-year-old felt when the drunken driver’s pickup truck slammed into her car at 50 mph was more intense than anything she’d ever felt before.

Shock filled her body. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Moments later, as her husband dialed 911 from the passenger seat, the pain hit.

“It was beyond comprehension,” she said.

Dec. 5, 2007 is a night that would haunt Anderson for over a decade. She would spend a year undergoing seven surgeries and recovering from her injuries, but the pain would never fully go away. Now, the single, 63-year-old woman is sharing her experience with others, supporting victims and advocating for drunken driving awareness.

Anderson is originally from Chicago and has the accent to match. In August 2007, she and her husband moved to Charlotte, North Carolina with two of their three sons while their oldest stayed in Chicago with his wife and their new baby.

Her sons started their freshman and junior years at the local high school that August, and Anderson started a new job on Monday, Dec. 3, 2007. The Wednesday that followed changed her life forever.

The battery in her husband’s car died that morning. When Anderson returned home from work around 9:15 p.m., she and her husband decided to go to Target for jumper cables before it closed at 10 p.m.

The store was only 5 miles from their house, but they never made it. A drunken, 23-year-old girl unconscious behind the wheel of her pickup truck would stop them only a mile from their driveway.

The hardest year

The air bag broke Anderson’s neck. The seat belt crushed three of her ribs and lacerated her liver. Her right femur shattered and ripped through her thigh. Her left femur and tibia were broken in several places.

Her 5-foot-3-inch stature and the fact that she braced herself for impact with both feet on the brake contributed to the extent of her injuries, Anderson said. Her husband was able to walk away from the accident with a few chipped teeth and a sprained ankle.  The other driver was unharmed, aside from her sentence of two years on probation and a $500 fine.

The ambulance and emergency medical technicians were half a mile away, but Anderson said it felt like they were there instantly. They were faced with the nearly impossible task of getting Anderson and her shattered limbs out of the driver’s seat without causing more damage.

Anderson said she must have lost consciousness because she has no memory of being removed from the car, placed on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. She remembers feeling a pressure across her leg, as if it was strapped down or trapped. It was the tourniquet.

Her memory of that night resumes during the 30-minute ambulance ride to Carolinas Medical Center Main Hospital in Charlotte.

“That was the longest drive of my life,” she said.

 The next year was the hardest of Anderson’s life. A self-proclaimed “girly-girl,” she gets upset when she has so much as a hangnail, and the only physical trauma her body had experienced was childbirth.

 She spent the next six weeks in the hospital. After her first surgery, she was admitted to the intensive care unit. There, the pain became unbearable.

“I was dreaming that I was either being murdered or I was in hell,” she said.

Anderson spent most of her time in the hospital crying. After all, she hadn’t so much as broken a bone before.

Her accident was in December, so it wasn’t long until carollers and visitors began crowding in the halls outside her room. She remembers an elderly woman who played Christmas carols on a flute for patients.

“I so badly wanted her to shut up and go away,” Anderson said. “I was in no mood for noise, and hospitals are the noisiest places ever.”

When she wasn’t crying or on the phone with her friends and family in Illinois, the pain medicine kept Anderson asleep.

The hardest thing for her to find during her six weeks in the hospital was hope, Anderson said. She couldn’t shake the fear that she would die in a few weeks.

“You hear these stories about people getting into an accident and dying a month later,” she said. “So I thought, ‘If that’s going to be me, just let me die now.’ I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

The aftermath

When she was finally sent home, after seven surgeries, she was still non-weight bearing for four months. Then, she had to learn how to walk again.

First, she began to walk with a walker. The first time she stood after the accident, the physical therapist asked Anderson’s husband to stand behind her for support.

He said no. That, Anderson said, was the first indication she got that their marriage wouldn’t survive her recovery. But the morphine took away her pain and her ability to care about what was happening around her.

When Anderson transitioned from the walker to a cane, the physical therapist requested her husband’s help again. He refused.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You can figure it out yourself,’” she said.

So, she did. A year later, Anderson could walk without assistance again, and she divorced her husband of 30 years a few months later.

During her recovery, her sons remained focused on school, sports and their friends, her middle son, Austin Anderson, said. They were used to their father being the primary caregiver, so not much about their lives changed. He said it was a weird time for himself and his younger brother.

“I could tell she wasn’t all there,” he said. “The drugs turned her into kind of a shell of the person she was before. But I don’t think I could comprehend what was really going on.”

Not all of her injuries were physical. Anderson’s oldest son was living in Illinois and had just welcomed his first son into the world. Before the accident, Anderson was able to meet her first grandchild, but missed many of his milestones during the first year of his life.

“I didn’t get to see him crawl or learn how to walk,” she said. “A grandmother wants to be there for those things.”

Moving on

The job she started only two days before her accident couldn’t hold her position while she recovered for a year. After she recovered, she divorced her husband, sold their home and found an accounting job.

Anderson remained on morphine for four months and on fentanyl for another eight. With or without the medicine, Anderson said she still experienced pain in her legs over the years.

Five years after her accident, she began seeing a physical therapist who performs myofascial release, a type of massage therapy that works to improve posture and ease muscle pain. Anderson began seeing the therapist once a week, and still sees her once a month.

Nearly 12 years later, Anderson is still living in Charlotte and is virtually free of pain.

Becoming an activist

Anderson developed a deep friendship with the physical therapist who treated her during her time in the hospital over a decade ago. When that friend, Sherry Simpson, suggested she get into victim advocacy, Anderson took her advice.

Soon after, Anderson met Rosaana Hudson, a victim services specialist with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and became a victim advocate with the organization.

Anderson participates in a monthly victim impact panel put on by MADD and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. In front of convicted offenders of drunken driving, Anderson shares her story and how someone else’s choice to drive impaired has affected her life.

She is also able to talk with other survivors of drunken driving accidents when they need support coping with their injuries.

“I didn’t have anybody when I was recovering,” Anderson said. “I was so broken, I had so much healing to do and I honestly didn’t think it was worth it. I don’t want anyone else to feel so alone during their recovery.”

Simpson said she thinks Anderson’s willingness to share her story and her passion for advocacy is admirable.

“When negative things happen in our lives, you can sit around and sulk and be bitter, but Jodie isn’t doing that,” Simpson said. “She’s taking this horrible event and turning it into something good. I think it’s really admirable.”

Anderson sometimes feels a tightness in her chest when she’s driving. She’s filled with dread when she drives past the scene of a car accident. She still feels some pain in her legs.

But there’s one lingering effect of the accident that she said outweighs the others: No matter what she might need, she cannot force herself to go to Target at night.


Edited by Natasha Townsend