Our Story

Milwaukee Bonsai Society

Founded in the summer of 1969 with a dream to create a local place where bonsai enthusiasts could learn and thrive. As the Society grew and took new forms under new dedicated leaders, one factor remained constant: the desire to make a name for the art form and for Milwaukee.

Our mission is to create a rich and diverse community through its inspiring bonsai exhibits, education, and community engagement.

Founded in the summer of 1969, Milwaukee Bonsai Society is a staple of Milwaukee's arts and horticulture community. Under the leadership of many dedicated volunteers, MBS Ballet has become world-renowned for presenting both bold new interpretations of bonsai, cutting-edge techniques and exhibits. MBS is home to an ensomble of artist and is one of only a few societies in the country to fund and sustain a world class permanent display of bonsai.

History Begins


Two individuals, one a seasoned bonsai grower from Chicago, the other a young horticulturist, played the key roles. For that year's summer show at the Mitchell Park Domes, a Japanese theme was chosen, and a garden designed and built. It was recognized that bonsai would give that extra touch of authenticity, but the Conservatory possessed only one specimen, an old Atlas cedar purchased for a Japanese show a few years before. Enter Harold Lenz. A landscape architect by trade, Harold was associated with the Midwest Bonsai Society, and graciously agreed to loan several of his trees for a few weeks that summer. The trees were magnificent, certainly the best ever displayed in Milwaukee at that time.

Richard Risch started with the County Park System only three years earlier. At one time he had dabbled in bonsai, but his interest then lay dormant while he finished school and settled into his new job at the Domes. Since the Conservatory needed someone to care for Harold's trees while they were on loan, Richard welcomed the chance to renew his interest in this fascinating art. The summer show was a great success. Richard fielded numerous questions about the "little trees", and it soon became apparent that there was considerable interest in bonsai in Milwaukee.

Harold Lenz can in many ways be considered the "godfather" of the Milwaukee Bonsai Society. In addition to loaning his collection of trees, he also volunteered to give a free demonstration in the hope that enough people could be found to form the nucleus of a new bonsai society. Over 200 people showed up that August evening to learn more about this horticultural art form. Harold's demonstration was informative and entertaining, and Richard asked for the names of those interested in forming a bonsai club. Thus, it was in late September that about 50 people gathered in the Mitchell Park Pavilion, and the Milwaukee Bonsai Society was founded.

The group had no blueprints or rules on how to go about setting up a club, and at times things were a little disorganized, but they never wavered. It was decided that dues would be $3.00 annually Richard was elected the first president of MBS, and Harold continued to help by giving lectures and demonstrations. The small band of enthusiasts were soon joined by a number of new members, several of whom had been doing bonsai on their own for years. Vic Heinemeyer had been creating bonsai for some time and was associated with the Japanese community, reflecting his interest in that culture. Other "charter" members included Charlie Schneck and Gloria Roisler.

June Kelly Award


A real boost came to the club when Hayden and June Kelly joined. They had been doing bonsai for years and June put a distinctive touch to her designs. She had amassed quite a collection and with that base, the new Society was able to mount a show in 1970, only one year after its founding. That same year MBS engaged its first "master," Toshio Subumaru. At the request of his personal friend, Harold Lenz, Tosh agreed to give the fledgling group a demonstration. More artists came in the following years - John Naka, Frank Okamura, Keith Scott and others. MBS exhibited yearly at the State Fair. The club was now firmly established, but the Society and its members received a blow when June Kelly passed away unexpectedly, shortly after agreeing to take on the presidency. In her memory, MBS established the June Kelly Award of Merit, honoring those individuals who have generously shared their time and talent with members of the Society.

Convention Hosting

1980s and 1990s

Throughout the 1980s, MBS continued to thrive. In 1989, MBS became a member of MABA, the Mid-America Bonsai Alliance. As a member of MABA, MBS is able to coordinate activities and share newsletters with other clubs in the Midwest. With Pam Woythal as the Convention Chairman MBS became the proud host of the first successful MABA symposium in 1995. The MABA show was a three-day event planned and executed primarily by members of MBS. The show featured workshops taught by nationally known artists, a large vendor area with vendors from across the country and demonstrations by nationally and internationally known artists, including Hotsumi Terakawa from the Netherlands. This event set the standard for other bonsai conventions.

Since then, MBS has hosted two additional conventions. In 2002 we hosted the American Bonsai Society. We also hosted a profitable return engagement with MABA in 2006. It is with these funds in mind that the Program Advisory Board was founded by Jack Douthitt to investigate suggestions from the general membership of MBS as to how the money earned during conventions can best be spent for the welfare of all club members.

Advanced Class Series


As Milwaukee Bonsai entered a new decade, it began to explore opportunities for long-term growth. MBS members had expressed concerns in various ways about their ability to raise their level of experience and bonsai skill. So in late 2003, Pam Woythal proposed the Advanced Master Series with the goal to help intermediate and advanced members reach the next level and create better bonsai through structured repeated course work with one master instructor. Selection of master instructor soon began and by the end of 2004 Ted Matson was leading 2 classes of eight members each, meeting 4 times a year for the next several years. From this group of students came our new leaders, intermediate and novice instructors.
Later in 2013, we started another series of advamced classes with Peter Tea as our new sensei, where we hope to find our future leaders.

New Home


2009 marked 40 years of existence for the Society and 40 years of service to and activities for its members. 2010 was no exception, for this was the year that MBS formed a new relationship with Friends of Boerner. Spearheaded by Steve Carini we now have a new home for all meetings, exhibits and events. And in 2011 Steve Carini and his committee expanded our annual exhibit to be held over three days, included workshops. The Annual Exhibit still growing now host world class artist thanks to the generosity of Anna Stadnicka and Steve Contney and their Excellence in Bonsai Program.

Ground Breaking

2013 to 2017

The year 2013 we can clearly see progress for a Milwaukee Bonsai Society to realize a dream of having a bonsai collection on public display. At the 43rd Annual Exhibit reception in September on Friday evening Jack Douthitt announced a challenge grant that would match funds up to $50,000 donated by MBS members by the end of the year to help achieve our shared vision of a bonsai collection in the greater Milwaukee area. In the first 48 hours we collected a few dollars less than $20,000 and by year end we had over $53,000 to meet his challenge. On father's day 2017, with a collaboration between Lynden Sculpture Garden, Milwaukee Bonsai Foundation, and Milwaukee Bonsai Society the collection was open for the public. Jack continues his journey with the collection as its curator.

2018 and Beyond

Today, MBS continues to provide the same services that Harold Lenz and Richard Risch brought to the founding members. Lectures, workshops, exhibits, and master artist visits are scheduled throughout the year to benefit members from beginner to advance. The Milwaukee Bonsai Society's commitment to its goals of greater public awareness and continued education for its members will ensure sustained service to bonsai enthusiasts for many years. Milwaukee Bonsai Society will celebrate it's 50th anniversery during the 2020 Annual Exhibit and we are planning a big event.