Bettendorf Teacher, Paper Artist Mourned As “One of a Kind”
Friends and family in the Quad-Cities are mourning the sudden, shocking loss of Keith Bonnstetter, a beloved Bettendorf Spanish teacher and master of intricate paper cutting. He died Sunday morning at 52 after collapsing during a run.
Bonnstetter was a Spanish teacher at Bettendorf High School since 2001, said principal Joy Kelly in a Sunday post on the school’s website.
“He loved his students, he loved his colleagues and he loved teaching,” she wrote. “Keith was a positive, compassionate and talented presence on our campus and he will be missed dearly by all of us.
“On behalf of our administrative team and staff, I extend my condolences to Keith’s family, his colleagues and his many students who treasured him and affectionately called ‘Bonn,’” Kelly wrote, noting he’s survived by his wife, Marsha, his daughter Claire, his parents, two brothers, a sister, seven nieces and nephews and his beloved dog.
“Keith’s unexpected death is painful for all who knew him, especially his young students,” she said in a note to parents. “It is for this reason that we especially want you to know about our care and support for them. I also think it’s important that our students and families know that their staff is hurting, too. I am confident that we will all come together to support each other during this time but I do ask for additional grace for staff right now.”
BHS provided grief support for all students and staff at school Monday, through Tuesday, where counselors are available to meet individually or in small groups with students.
Bonnstetter’s wife Marsha posted the tragic news Sunday on Facebook, which had received 500 comments by 1:15 Monday afternoon.
“All things are willed or permitted by our good God,” she wrote. “He will bring good out of every situation, even this. The world has lost an artistic genius, loving Spanish teacher, husband, daddy, friend. He was no more perfect than I am, but he was perfect for me. We will miss him more than words can say.”
“Over a decade ago I met Senor Bonn. He became my absolute favorite teacher,” Bettendorf alum Kayla French posted. “I will always remember his compassion, joy, and understanding he gave to me while I was going through a hard time. I am so deeply sorry for your loss. He will live on in the hearts of many whose life he changed forever.”
Former BHS principal Jimmy Casas wrote to Marsha on the page: “Keith was one BHS’s best and will be missed by so many. I hope you can find a little comfort in knowing how beloved he was by so many and the number of lives he touched over the years.”
“Keith was one of a kind, a very special man with a heart as big as Texas,” wrote Brenda Lou Boell to Marsha. “The world has lost a loving, caring, empathic, sensitive, loving man. He cared so much, for his students, his dogs, his friends, his family, but most of all for you and Claire.”
Bettendorf parent Stacy Harding Driscoll posted: “This is a blow to our family soul. If my daughter could pick a perfect teacher for her, it would have been Mr. Bonn. He brought out the best in everyone and really ‘got’ her. A true talent and if you knew him you were a better person for it.”
A unique artistic style
Bonnstetter’s side business is Clear Visions Artwork, and he’s known far and wide for making intricately detailed, delicate paper snowflakes. He also made cuttings for holidays throughout the year.
In 2017, he self-published a how-to guide on making a unique snowflake for each month. You can get it for $14.95 at the Figge Art Museum and German American Heritage Center in Davenport, area Von Maur stores, and at his Etsy store (etsy.com/shop/ClearVisionsArtwork?ref=l2-shopheader-name).
“The snowflake pattern book is great for groups to photocopy pages and cut snowflakes. The instructions are clear and easy to follow,” Bonnstetter said in 2017, noting there are also YouTube videos to follow. All of his designs fit into 8-by-8-inch frames.
He started doing paper cuttings in 1999, and “it has turned into a blizzard of requests,” Bonnstetter said in an online posting. He was on Martha Stewart’s TV show in 2010 to share his designs, and his work has been featured in the 2010 Dillard’s Christmas catalog and on the front cover of Baby Talk magazine.
In his 2017 book, Bonnstetter related his “Snowflake Story,” describing how he was inspired by his faith and his daughter Claire, who has survived a degenerative neurological disorder. Proud of his snowflakes, he showed them to school colleagues and was deluged with requests to make personalized ones, which he sold and often conducted area workshops to teach others.
Claire means “clear,” and Bonnstetter visualized designs before he cut them — two facts that led to the name of his business, Clear Visions.
“His style is unique,” Kelly Lao, executive director of the German American Heritage Center, said Monday. For years, Bonnstetter led sold-out workshops at GAHC on the paper-cutting tradition of “Scherenschnitte” (German for “scissor cuts”).
“Keith and I had fun talking about, as a Spanish teacher, he knew about Spanish and Mexican traditions of paper-cutting,” Lao said. “There were German traditions in Latin America; he had German heritage, and also had a love of the Spanish language he was teaching.”
Though his designs are intricate, Bonnstetter was great about helping everyone from children to adults make something they were proud of, she said.
“He brought in new people in all the time,” Lao said. “It’s nice to be able to make something so beautiful with literally a piece of paper and pair of scissors. It’s for anyone – you don’t have to buy a canvas and $700 worth of paints. It was something you could do simple designs, and scale it to children.”
“We have his books in our gift shop, but we’re almost out,” she said. “He was so special in our community, people want to have that part of him. He was just fun; he’d always be making everyone laugh in the class.”
His second calendar-like book of 13 designs, “Another Snowflake for Every Season,” was published in 2018.
Bonnstetter planned to do another GAHC workshop earlier this month, but decided to put it off due to Covid, Lao said. “It’s such a terrible loss for the community.”
A faith-filled life
Pat Bereskin, owner of Bereskin Gallery & Art Academy in Bettendorf, has hosted his workshops for years, both there and when she had a gallery at Bucktown Center for the Arts in downtown Davenport.
“He was a man driven by faith in everything he did,” she said Monday. “He loved his wife and his daughter and would do anything in the world for them. He had such a special bond with his dog Cubby. He was super close to his grandmother.
“His brain just worked differently. He could see things in three-dimensional layers,” Bereskin said. “He could just coordinate it in a way, his hands would just fly with those scissors.”
“About three years ago, I had him make pieces for me to take back to Italy,” she said. “His work is just cherished all over the world. He could tell stories within a snowflake.”
Bonnstetter learned to knit and crochet from his grandmother, Bereskin said. A strong Catholic, he accompanied Bereskin several years to Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat Center in Wheatland, Iowa.
When Davenport’s Holy Family remodeled in 2018, they couldn’t be in the church anymore, and moved services to their gym for Christmas and Easter. Bonnstetter created cut paper work “that was used to create a whole different emotion for the space,” she recalled.
“He did three-dimensional pieces, transforming just a regular gymnasium into the sacred space,” she said. “He could guide your hands and fingers to do any pattern. I think it helped people to feel a part of something larger than a piece of paper. He gave them something everybody had at home – a piece of paper and pair of scissors.”
When the PTA at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut put out a national call for snowflakes to blanket the community of Newtown after the December 2012 mass shooting, Bonn created an intricate mobile that memorialized the 26 people killed in the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre.
He received emails urging him to make snowflakes from people he didn’t know, including one from Hawaii. Bonnstetter felt like the previous 12 years he created snowflakes prepared him for this special project, he said in a January 2013 newspaper piece.
Just like the snowflakes he created, no two of the people killed were alike, he said then.
“It helps us remember the unique people who lost their lives that day,” he said. “As I was doing it, I would think about and pray for the person and the families.”
BHS attendance secretary Joni Bruecken was taken by the simple but intricate beauty of the mobile, the story said.
“Watching it gently move and twirl is a prayer in motion,” she said. “How wonderful for us to see such beautiful homage paid to the dear lives that were lost.”
Bonnstetter also reached out to a parish in Newtown. The secretary at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown at first said that the church also could not take any more snowflakes, but the woman emailed Bonnstetter again saying that she was strongly affected by the beauty of the mobile and would find a home for it as “a tool to continue to pray for those we lost.”
“He just knew that he could make a difference,” Bereskin said Monday of the giving, humble artist. “Because of what he did was so unbelievable, in the way he told his stories through paper, that made him even higher, because they had faith in his skill. He was like a theologian. He’d say you need to pray this or do this.
“He would always make time for his friends and his students,” she said, amazed that despite his sudden death, his family is at peace.
“I think it’s because of his faith, they knew,” she said. “You hear people say all the time, they were called home. My own cousin died like that – he went running, he had a massive heart attack. He was 52.”
“Here’s a guy who was in really good health,” Bereskin said of Bonnstetter. “It reminds us, never part from each other without saying I love you. Always remember to lift each other up, don’t spend moments arguing, tearing each other down. It doesn’t do any good. He will be sorely missed.”