Keeping a craft alive
Glass artistry will last at least another generation in Kiel
By Mary Matsumoto
Mary Matsumoto photo
Bonnie Abler touches up some color on one of her creations. At right, John and Bonnie Abler’s children Josh and Naomi represent the next generation of artisans to carry on the tradition of glass artistry.

When Bonnie Abler of Abler Art Glass is called upon to repair a piece of stained glass that may be over a hundred years old, she can’t help but wonder what tools the original artist used back before modern methods were available.

What kind of paints did they have at their disposal? How did they heat their kilns? These early artisans faced a challenge hard to comprehend with the convenience of today’s equipment.

“So they really are the experts,” says Bonnie. “Too bad they didn’t pass some of that on.”

Though Bonnie can’t bring back the old artisans to share their secrets, she and her husband, John, have every intention of preserving their art process so that it will not fade away with successive generations. After all, their skills have been a long time in the making.

Though Ablers’ business had its official start in 1976, you might say it actually found its real beginning much further back than that.

A flair for drawing

Bonnie’s parents noticed their daughter’s flair for drawing when Bonnie was just a toddler, so they kept her supplied with crayons. And as she grew older, they replaced those with better crayons, better pencils, and better canvases.

Later, as a couple, Bonnie and John shared a common interest in art, which would sweep them along a path leading to their art gallery.

You might say their business germinated with a single panel they commissioned a glass artist in Fond du Lac to make for them personally. Although the glassmaker created decorative pieces, he could not design them himself. That part of the project was left up to Bonnie.

When the man needed more designs, he kept coming back, “Bonnie, will you draw this for me?”

“I did that for a little while,” said Bonnie, “and at the same time, John’s interest in the fabrications of it was growing.”

The couple finally realized that it made sense to open their own operation. It was risky, but if they realized that if they didn’t do it right then, they would never do it. So they took the plunge.

In 1976, they decided to rent a building in New Holstein that had sat empty for years, and they opened Hand Crafters.

“Did I know we’d be gallery owners way back when we started?” said Bonnie. “Absolutely not. But we kept growing with it.”

Focusing on glass

At first, they sold a variety of art forms, but as the years went by, they decided to focus entirely on glass. So they donated their other merchandise to the Scouts and continued to develop their techniques, eventually going the whole gamut—fusing, glass blowing, etchings, and enameling.

Now at a new location just east of Kiel, Abler Art Glass, Bonnie gets the process started by having a frank and detailed discussion with the customer. She wants to make sure she knows exactly what that person wants. She starts by showing him samples in her portfolio to get a feel for that individual’s likes and dislikes. Then,

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