Manitou Springs entrepreneur specializes in kaleidoscopes

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Some of us remember the old cardboard kaleidoscopes that entertained our visual senses as we hand-twisted a lens to watch geometric, brightly colored shapes come alive. Well, those cardboard models still exist, but a new collection of individually crafted kaleidoscopes are on the market now and available en masse at The Human Touch Gallery in Manitou Springs. The dancing shapes and vivid colors have become refined and advanced, but their soothing effect remains.

Bonnie Willow, who co-owns the gallery with her husband, Gary Deetz, refers to the more sophisticated mirrored images seen through their wide array of kaleidoscopes as “music to the eyes.”

The Human Touch Gallery specializes in kaleidoscopes, but a stroll through the gallery delights the tastes of any art connoisseur. From beautiful, distinctive jewelry pieces and raku pottery to visionary sculptures and kinetic clocks, the gallery invites visitors from all over the world.

The store’s Manitou Springs location means summer tourists flock to the store to peruse the crafts made by American artisans. Collectors and Colorado locals make up for the wintertime tourist drought.

Colorado artists are widely represented at the gallery, as Willow strives to keep it local. The visionary sculptures are products of a group known as the Fire in the Belly” who reside in Guffey, Colo., and John Bush, who spends his summers in Larkspur. Their delicate and handsome blown-glass productions are exclusive to the Human Touch Gallery. There are also wood sculptures that move in and out of each other, creating perpetual motion and varied patterns. Oil lamps, stained-glass boxes embossed with wildflowers, puzzle boxes and bronze miniatures are a few more of the art pieces unique to the gallery.

Willow takes time out each month to visit other Colorado galleries and assess their wares.

“I always want to make sure that what I am carrying in my store is special and not available in other galleries,” said Willow.

Artists drop by to tout their goods, and Willow regularly attends buying shows around the country that represent contemporary American artists.

The Human Touch Gallery, named by the previous owner, Verna Penny, celebrates its 10th anniversary in Manitou this month, and Willow was the first employee of the store.

“I really enjoyed working and living in Manitou Springs and, when my husband’s job transferred us to San Francisco, I knew that I would someday be back,” said Willow. She stayed in contact with Penny and in 1998, when Penny decided to sell, Willow and her husband jumped at the chance to come back to Colorado and own a business.

Willow learned the retail business in the very store that she and her husband bought three years ago. As an artist, she also has a keen eye for what sells.

Willow’s husband was in retail for 29 years, and Willow was a corporate meeting planner. Both had lots of people experience, so they combined their talents and their love of art and abandoned the California city by the sea for the Colorado mountains.

The store was originally located on Ruxton Avenue in Manitou. In April 2000, Willow moved the store to its Canon Avenue spot. Willow attributes the doubling of business solely to the move. And summer business is double the winter months, as most Manitou entrepreneurs will attest to. That summer-season boost, the winter holidays and return customers keep the gallery in the black year-round.

Willow, assistant manager Staci Reynolds, and one other employee relish those return customers and focus on making the gallery experience fun for everyone.

“I want my employees to answer questions about each art piece and provide a friendly and comfortable atmosphere for each person who walks in the door,” said Willow. The first official greeting gallery visitors receive is from Gypsy, the store’s canine mascot, who lops through the store on all fours, sporting her colorful Colorado bandana.

A children’s play area, complete with those cardboard kaleidoscopes, occupies the young ones while parents browse the wheelchair-friendly store.

Wheelchair accessibility is just one social concern that Willow is passionate about. As the 2002 president-elect for the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, Willow is active in the business community and an advocate for keeping Colorado a tourist haven. Growth in the area has been vital to her business, but preserving the pristine beauty of Colorado and the wide-open spaces are important to Willow and important to the business community as well.

“If we want to expand and be successful as business owners, we must preserve our state’s natural beauty in order to continue attracting those tourists,” said Willow.

And Willow supports local nonprofit organizations by donating to school fund raisers, the Southern Colorado AIDS Project and Candlelighters, an organization for children with terminal diseases. She is a member of the Pikes Peak Arts Council, the Colorado Springs Artists Guild and the Manitou Springs Business of Arts Center.

Willow said the exciting part of being a gallery owner is “playing with beauty and art on a daily basis.”