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Artist Spotlight - Jaime Harrington

Interview by Samantha Holm

(First photo is property of Samantha Holm, all others belong to Jaime Harrington)

Jaime Harrington with her Purple Pot Society ABS Learning Seminars Scholarship Award (sponsored by Issho-en).

This Artist Spotlight highlights Jaime Harrington, the winner of the Purple Pot Society's 2023 ABS Learning Seminars Scholarship Award (sponsored by Issho-en). We created this scholarship last year to support more women in the continuation of their bonsai education.

When did your bonsai journey begin, and how did you get into bonsai?

I started practicing bonsai about 3 years ago with a small Chinese elm that I’d picked up from a local vendor.  Like many others at the time, I needed a creative outlet during the shutdowns, plus it felt like a way to try and connect with my Japanese heritage. After making it through that first winter, I began acquiring what I could for more to practice on, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2022 when I really got serious about the hobby. I had an accident at work, and during my recovery really devoted myself to the trees I had at the time. Working on them was the only thing that brought me any peace during that rough time. I met someone local online, who helped to make the hobby more social and he spent several months convincing me to check out our local club, The Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society. Since then, the hobby has been given more and more of my time. 

Do you have a favorite tree species to work with?

Blue Spruce Forest, planted at PPS workshop, after first styling. Pot by Linda Paul (Summer ‘23)

This is a tough question for me, I prefer some of the more “traditional” species, but they can be difficult to track down on a budget at times. I have really developed a fondness for Spruce trees in general over the last couple of years, but I will admit that locally they tend to be styled in a “sub-alpine” form and I kind of struggle seeing how they would look in some of the more classic styles. I have been trying to make a point to work with all the maples and cherries I could get my hands on, though the Prunus ban in Colorado has made it kind of difficult never mind the cost of a quality maple. The tree I am most proud of is a little Ume I got 2 summers ago, the poor dear was hit with a heatwave shortly after I got it in the mail, and really struggled the first year I had it. A few months ago it bloomed, and it was just so rewarding to see the flowers after everything we had been through together. 

Which workshops did you attend during the 2023 ABS Learning Seminars?  What things did you learn from the instructors in those workshops?

Ponderosa Pine styled at ‘23 ABS with Jennifer Price

I attended two classes led by Jennifer Price, one with Ponderosa Pines and the other was I believe Black Hills Spruce. She gave me some pointers on how not to tighten down my wire so much (it was only my second time working with copper wire), and she was thorough in teaching me about what could, couldn’t, and shouldn’t be pruned in the summer, and some of the differences in styling yamadori vs nursery stock. We spent a good deal of time talking about how to work with the flaws of the spruce tree 

I was impressed with your bravery for participating in the Joshua Roth ABS New Talent Contest after only having been a member of a bonsai club for one year.  What was that experience like for you?  Would you encourage other beginners to try the New Talent Contest?

That's very kind of you to say, it was definitely out of character for me. When I'd heard about the New Talent Competition, I immediately knew I had to practice and get my hands on better material to try and prepare. At the time I was in a really rough patch of my life, and something about being competitively zen was what I needed to pull through. Day of, I was pretty shocked how many people there were since there was supposed to be a cap of 8 participants. Come to find out that year ABS had received a record number of applicants, and decided to let everyone compete. I didn't expect to place, and was glad to find out it wasn't a "competitive" atmosphere. It was awesome getting to just work on a juniper with a bunch of strangers, and for the most part everyone kept to themselves. I think that if you're the sort of person that's asking yourself whether or not to give the New Talent Competition a go at a future ABS, you absolutely should. Just remember to pack a lunch though, I wasted an hour and a half getting a sandwich.

In what ways did the Purple Pot Society's ABS scholarship help you?

Sempervivum kusamono in bloom. Pot by Linda Paul

I had spent months saving up for ABS, expecting it to be a pricy weekend, and I had wanted to bring home the trees I worked on in the classes. Thanks to the wonderful support from The Purple Pot Society, I was able to bring home both trees, and upgrade some of the low-quality tools I was using at the time. At Jennifer Price’s suggestion getting an 8” concave cutter, and some deadwood tools were at the top of that list. That cutter has been a great boon now that I work with less nursery stock, and I am constantly looking for opportunities to practice with the deadwood tools. 

You are currently assisting Todd Schlafer of First Branch Bonsai with his bonsai collection.  Tell us how you came to work with Todd?  What types of tasks do you help him with?

Taking a break at First Branch Bonsai

I met Todd at the RMBS holiday part in 2022. My partner and Bridgette, his wife, hit it off and spent most of the function together. Around that time, I had decided to attempt the new talent competition at ABS, and I had asked if he could sell me a tree to style for the pre-entry requirement. At the time all I really knew was that he sold some trees and did classes. Come to find out, we lived pretty close together. I had just made the decision to shift careers and was lost and listless at the time. I kept offering whatever help he needed, and after a few months he decided to let me water his trees during ABS on a trial basis. Since then, I have mostly been functioning as something of a groundskeeper. He travels a lot for various classes, so I go down there a couple times a day to water and help with whatever the next task in setting up the garden is. There is really no one thing I do down there, sometimes I pull weeds or plant landscape material, or lay down mulch and gravel. What needs doing is seasonal, so it has been exciting to learn what goes into making the garden look nice. Lately, I have been making a bunch of top dressing and chopsticks for the repotting season. 

What are your bonsai goals?

A close up of the first ume blossoms as they were opening up, February ‘24.

I am hoping to make this a career down the line, but for now my main goal has been to learn sound horticulture. For a time I was doing chemical treatments for landscape trees, which opened my eyes to something of a disconnect between bonsai and arboriculture so I decided to go back to school and get a degree in Botany. On that front, I have been laying the groundwork to do a genetic study on some local Spruce. Down the line, I want to try my hand at field growing trees for bonsai stock, and I would like to carve out a niche working with American Prunus sp. For now though, I have been trying to practice as much as I can and picking up new techniques when the chance arises. 

I understand that you also create vivariums for your tree frogs.  Have you added bonsai trees to these?

Initial potting of root-over-hide Ficus

I have! At the moment there is just one in with my P. Terribilis, a small Ficus I acquired from a local friend. It’s a bit of a long-term project, but I hope to show it off one day. For now, there is a lot of time before it’s anything truly special.  In captivity, Terribilis typically lay their eggs in a covered petri dish usually just part of a coconut shell. The Ficus in question was in this nice stone like pot, which I used a diamond bit to drill a hole into, before flipping it upside down, and repotting it as more of a root-over-rock. I use a Peruvian clay in with my frogs and opted to use that to build up a wall to contain the original rootball. Occasionally, I wash away a little of that clay wall exposing more of the pot underneath, but I am in no rush with it. The tree is still healing from a drastic trunk chop, so I have been letting it grow until it reaches the top of the enclosure and pruning it back. I have yet to find eggs in there, but I am happy to report that it seems to be Kelly’s preferred hiding spot. In that same enclosure I also have a micro-begonia planted in an Arakawa tea-cup, and I am planning to do some more of those in the near future. 

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community have you felt welcomed in the bonsai community?

2023 RMBS show, posing with her first submission, a Ponderosa Pine.

I have been consistently blown away by how welcoming and friendly the bonsai community is.  When I first attended a club meeting, I was anxious going in that I was obviously trans and walking into a room I expected to be full of older folx who are usually more likely to make remarks or cause a scene. I want to be very clear that that anxiety was unjustified, and when it has been brought up it’s been incredibly respectful. Samantha Holm and Jennifer Price were both there that night, and counter to my fears, when they met me, they went out of their way to make me feel welcome and told me all about the Purple Pot Society. That interaction is one I think about a lot, because I would not have become as serious about the hobby as I have had I not met them that night. I am pretty reclusive by nature, but that evening really made me feel seen as a woman, not a transwoman. Past that though, everyone I have met within the bonsai community has been delightful to meet and get to know. I have been amazed at both how social the hobby can be at times, but also how surprisingly drama free it can be despite that. Everyone has been friendly, and excited to geek out about their trees and share pieces of wisdom. It really has been quite refreshing, and I think speaks to the kind of person who is drawn into this obsessively Zen hobby we all enjoy. 

Jaime is a member of The Purple Pot Society and part of our Denver Branch (the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society's Women's Study Group). She is available to "Assist, Sift and Water" for bonsai clients in the Denver Metro area who need help with tree watering.

Contact Jaime Harrington:

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