For nearly 90 years, Jess Thompson has been drawn to trees. Her favorite childhood memories are of tea parties among the roots of the washed beech trees in the small village in Scotland where she lived on the River Clyde. In her 20s, she took bonsai classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Today, Thompson finds joy in the large trees with visible roots near her home in Erie, Pennsylvania. The beauty and power of these roots remind her of one of the important features of bonsai.
Thompson’s interest in bonsai and other Asian art forms has spanned 70 years. She was a founding member of the Erie Bonsai Club and served for six years on the Board of Directors of the American Bonsai Society where she was editor of Abstracts.
In 1976, she was on hand for the dedication of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s Japanese Pavilion. “It was a magical evening,” she recalls. “The moonlight was so bright it caught the gold and silver threads in my dress.”
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is “an asset we cannot measure,” says Thompson. “Our nation’s best trees deserve the best environment possible,” she said. In addition to collecting and training bonsai, Thompson is well respected throughout the mid-Atlantic for her flower arrangements, which are inspired by her many trips to Japan. An active member of the Guild of Floral Art, she favors the Ohara School, which emphasizes seasonal qualities, natural growth processes and the beauty of natural environments.
Her personal bonsai collection includes a Carrissa she has cared for since 1960 and prize-winning elleagnus Elaeagnus. Over the years, Thompson has benefited from the expertise and wisdom of many bonsai masters, including John Naka and Yuji Yoshimura. The words of Yoshimura serve as a watchword: “It’s not what you do for bonsai. It’s what bonsai will do for you.”
That message was brought to life recently when her great-niece was visiting. When the young and somewhat shy relative spotted a small dry garden at Thompson’s home, she asked if she could rake the miniature garden. “That experience opened up her world,” says Thompson. “In that moment, she found her voice. Bonsai has the power to do that.”