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A Tale of Two Clubs: History of the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society

Updated: May 18, 2020

This history was compiled by Pat Deutschman from the notes or interviews of Jim Robinson, Malcolm Correll, Harold Sasaki, Larry Jackel and also various historical references.

The history of the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society is the history of two clubs, each with a rich heritage of very talented bonsai artists.

1940s-1960s: Founding of the Denver Bonsai Club, English language integration

Takita “George” Fukuma, a Japanese native who immigrated to the U.S. in 1919, was part of the founding group that, sometime around 1945, came to be known as the Denver Bonsai Club, (referred to later as the Senior Club). One of the earliest bonsai clubs in the United States, it was a Japanese language only club begun by 8 Japanese men who studied bonsai together. Many of these men and their families had recently been released from internment camps after World War II and settled in Denver. A wider interest in bonsai was developing not only among Nisei, American born Japanese-Americans who were not eligible to join the Senior Club, but also among non-Japanese bonsai enthusiasts. So George, a grocery owner who also imported bonsai plants and materials, decided to form an English language bonsai club.

First known photograph of Denver Bonsai Club exhibition c. 1954

1969-1971: Denver Junior Bonsai Club and the Denver Botanic Gardens

The Denver Junior Bonsai Club began in November 1969. Early members included Jim Robinson, Col. Robert Krueger, and Hal Sasaki- all legends in RMBS history. Leo Murakama was the first president. When George Fukuma began to teach bonsai in 1968, he helped the Denver Junior Bonsai Club with some of his first students. “The art of collecting and keeping specimens alive has been perhaps one of his greatest contributions to bonsai lovers”- Jim Robinson said of him. George did demonstrations for some club programs and invited Kai Kawahara and Bob Kataoka of the Senior club, also legends in RMBS history, to demonstrate other aspects of bonsai such as wiring and grafting. There was a close and enduring cooperation between the two clubs even though the language barrier prevented them from holding joint meetings, members of the senior club willingly assisted the juniors in every way they could including going on many bonsai collecting trips together. In 1971 they began to have their annual shows together at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Bob Kataoka and Kai Kawahara enjoy a Colorado pine. Sneakers c.1970s.

1970s-1980s: Sho-fu-en at Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society

In 1976, the Denver Botanic Gardens began to develop the Japanese Sho-fu-en garden. Bob Kataoka and Kai Kawahara from the Sr. Club along with Harold Sasaki, Floyd Sunshine Bob Krueger, Keith Jepeson, Larry Jackel, Malcolm Correll and Jim Robinson from the Junior club worked together and collected many native Colorado specimens, which became part of this garden.

Sho-fu-en: "Garden of wind and pine" at Denver Botanic Gardens

In 1983 the Junior Club changed its name to Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society and chose Bob Kataoka’s best Ponderosa Pine as the model for the logo. In 1986 the Bob Kataoka Memorial Award, “Artist of the Year” was established in his honor and is presented each year to a member who has developed a bonsai that is considered “outstanding.” Since 1993 the club has, on occasion, awarded a special award called the Malcolm Correll Distinguished Service Award in recognition of exceptional service to the club. The club has had an annual non juried show of member’s bonsai and suiseki at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

RMBS logo pine: Artist Bob Kataoka c. mid 1980s

1990s and beyond: Bonsai professionals, collaboration and friendship

Over the past 50 years, the level of expertise of members of the RMBS club is well known in the bonsai community. Several members have risen to the level of “Bonsai Professionals” –, as well as becoming bonsai teachers on the national scene, notably: Hal Sasaki, Larry Jackel, Allen Hills, Todd Schlafer, and Ryan Neil who studied under Hal Sasaki. The RMBS is universally recognized for its collected trees, unique to the Rocky Mountain region.

Larry Jackel and Hal Sasaki style pine bonsai at American Regional 1986

Todd Schlafer and Will Kerns demo at RMBS annual exhibition.

RMBS is fortunate that a few members from those early days, some of whom are still active members of RMBS, have preserved this history through writings and meticulous preservation of club records. There are also some lasting “Heritage Trees” from past members that are part of the permanent collection of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Pacific Bonsai Museum.

Rocky Mountain Juniper: Pacific Bonsai Museum: Artist Bob Kataoka, "Natives" exhibition

Limber Pine: Artist Kai Kawahara, Denver Botanic Gardens collection

The legendary bonsai artist of these stories were all about teaching and learning- from each other.The product was beautiful bonsai. But the lasting legacy of their generosity and sharing of each other’s knowledge, wisdom and passion is the real heritage of RMBS that has continued strongly through the past 50 years of the clubs existence and the foundation of many long lasting friendships.


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