By Dory Schrader and Samantha Holm
"Renaissance Woman of Bonsai"
We recently had the opportunity to speak with bonsai student extraordinaire Angelica Ramirez. It was a fun and lively chat, and we’re delighted to share Angelica’s story. (Interview conducted by Dory Schrader and Samantha Holm on August 8th, 2022. All photos are property of Angelica Ramirez, used with her permission).
Unlike the average person in their mid-20’s working to hone specific skills to build their career, Angelica Ramirez is a Renaissance Woman, with many talents and areas of expertise. An accomplished archer, her records include state, national, and international championships and earning a spot on the 2015 and 2016 USA Archery Team. After studying music performance at the University of Florida, Angelica was selected as principal cellist of the Melbourne Community Orchestra. She’s also earned her helicopter private pilot's license and has had success as a fine artist.
“My life has been a fun adventure. I've always had that kind of personality that I really get passionate and really involved in anything I get interested in. There's no halfway, I am fully into it, obsessed when I discover something. It helped too that my parents were very supportive. My father raised me, you could say more like a boy in the sense that any time I had any interest in anything, it didn't matter if it was something that was only for boys, my dad and I went for it and my dad did it with me. We do all these hobbies together. So my dad has been a very big driving force behind my personality in my life. My parents didn't treat me like a fragile, delicate girl. They treated me like you can do whatever you want. You can succeed as much as you want. And that kind of mentality is what helped me."
It wasn’t until she discovered bonsai that Angelica found “the love of [her] life.” I found [bonsai] to be the perfect outlet for my stress. And I just absolutely fell in love with bonsai more than I have with any other hobby or subject in my life." Angelica shared with us what makes bonsai trees special, comparing them to cello, and musical instruments in general. “Every person that plays a specific instrument leaves an impact on that instrument… each person that works on the tree leaves a little bit of themselves with it.”
Angelica was first exposed to bonsai at the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia located in Canberra (pictured right). While she thought the trees were beautiful, bonsai hadn’t really struck her as something she could do. Her true introduction to bonsai began in 2019, when she happened to see a roadway sign for the Penjing Bonsai Garden in Malabar, Florida. She stopped at the garden and met its founder Feng Gu (Gary). Something clicked for her from that first visit; she began watching bonsai videos on YouTube and discovered Peter Chan of Herons Bonsai and Mari and Jerome of The Bonsai Supply.
Not even a year after that fortuitous stop in Malabar, Angelica decided that she wanted to meet Peter Chan in-person. She found a cheap ticket and booked a flight to the UK to spend the weekend learning bonsai from him. That weekend of study had her hooked on bonsai. She considers Peter her “long distance” bonsai mentor and was invited to continue her studies with him…then Covid hit.
Angelica didn’t let Covid get in the way of her personal bonsai journey. She kept watching videos at home and began spending time learning locally from Gary at the Penjing Bonsai Garden. Gary became her first mentor during this time, and she became “more obsessed” and began amassing more trees to work with. She pulled up everything she could from her parents’ backyard so she had material to work with.
Angelica and Peter Chan of Herons Bonsai.
In October 2019 Peter published a YouTube video he had recorded when Angelica came to visit him. The video caught the attention of the Bonsai Society of Brevard, Angelica’s local club, and she was invited to compete in a district level styling competition. Coming from a background of competition in archery and music she was surprised to learn that you could compete in bonsai. "I was like ok, why not to be competitive with it? Let's just have fun and try to experience everything I possibly can and not say no to fun, cool opportunities. It's not going to hurt me to go compete." To her surprise, she won first place, and learned that she would be competing again at the state level at the 2022 Bonsai Societies of Florida Convention Scholarship Competition. She earned second place and a scholarship to help her continue her bonsai studies. She also met her third mentor at this convention, David Cutchin. David is the founder of the Florida Bonsai Collective. He invited Angelica to be part of that group because of her passion for bonsai.
Angelica with David Cutchin and the Florida Bonsai Collective.
We wanted to learn more about Angelica’s experience with her local club, the Bonsai Society of Brevard, beyond their initial invite to the styling competition. While she’d heard stories about women being treated unfairly in some Florida bonsai clubs, her experience in Brevard has been wonderful. She’s found everyone welcoming and hasn’t had any experiences of being treated differently or discriminated against.
"That's so great that I can say that in bonsai, I've never had a bad experience. No one has treated me differently just because I'm a woman. I'm living proof that improvement is being made."
Angelica's Green Island Ficus on display at Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival (March-June 2022).
Angelica used her scholarship winnings to return to Herons Bonsai for a week-long course with Peter in May 2022. For Angelica, this was a fantastic experience. “[Peter] really pushed me hard. He had me work on things that I'd never worked on before. So, I did my best. I think that’s the whole point.” They recorded this second video together Angelicas visit to Herons Bonsai.
From there, Angelica began a six-month bonsai internship with Chris Baker at the Chicago Botanic Garden (pictured left). She didn’t set out to intern in Chicago; while she initially had her sights set on interning at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., her research into the application process lead her to a conversation with Chris Baker, who happened to be starting his own apprentice program in Chicago.
Angelica offered some great advice for anyone interested in taking a similar path, “I used every connection I’d already made in bonsai to try and connect myself even more, just to get advice, to get information from more people.” By using her existing contacts to help grow her bonsai network, she ended up sending Chris an email, which lead to a phone call and eventually, the internship.
We asked Angelica what a typical day looked like during her Chicago internship. While for her, the “best part” was working on any one of the 270+ trees in the collection, most of her day was spent watering. She began at 6:00 AM, checking each tree and watering by hand, and repeating this activity around noon. "I love it because there's a lot of [tree] variety and there's always something to work on. So you're never bored. [Chris is] always willing to give advice or show you how to do something, but what's great is that he doesn't make it feel like I'm below him. So I feel very respected. It feels like we're all part of something bigger, and everybody is working together to make something great. It's a wonderful work environment."
The bonsai courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden and some of the 300 trees in the collection.
Now that this internship is over, Angelica has applied for the bonsai internship at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. She also plans to return to Heron’s for a month-long internship with Peter in the near future. "A lot of people ask me what I want to do with bonsai to make it a career. And I think my current mentality is part of the reason why I've been able to get to where I am so fast. The only thing I think about is enjoying it and learning the most I can out of it. And then just by doing that, I've gone and visited Peter, I've had my internship here. I have all these connections with people that I never thought I would've had. And everything feels like a nice surprise. It feels like an honor to be able to meet all these people and get all these opportunities. I'm letting them come. I create them, but I also let them come to me."
Angelica has also developed an interest in bonsai pottery. In February 2022, she launched Discover Potters, a free online database of active bonsai potters worldwide. The site currently includes nearly 400 potters in 47 countries (plus 1 territory)! Don’t be surprised if you start seeing bonsai pots in a few years with an AR chop, as Angelica is interested in learning how to make her own ceramic containers.
We asked Angelica to reflect on how her past hobbies and professional experiences have contributed to her style and approach to bonsai. “The only thing that guides me is my passion. And if I like something, right? Because at the end of the day, if I'm working on my own tree, I'm the one looking at it. I'm the one enjoying it in my own garden, I have to like it. And I like to see people kind of expand that and push the boundaries, go outside the box." She’s open to learning as much as possible; if she already knows one way of doing something, she believes she can always understand it better or learn another way, to expand on her knowledge. “I’m still learning, and I want to learn as much as I can from everybody around me and see how each person has their own kind of vision and impact on their trees. And then over time, I'll develop my own, but I'm not in a hurry for that."
We closed our conversation with these inspiring words from Angelica, in reference to guidance she would offer women interested in bonsai. "The only person stopping you is you. There will always be people that do not like to see you succeed. There will always be people that will try to stop you. And a lot of times honestly, it's that you doubt yourself. Either you don't see someone like you that you can relate to, or there's a bunch of men and you feel intimidated. Just ignore all of that and just plow through. It doesn't matter. If you like [bonsai], go for it."
(Angelica's Green Island Ficus on display at
the Chicago Botanic Garden.)