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In The News

Gospel of ‘St. John’

Stained-glass windows' quality an article of faith for
German-born artisan

By Laurel Walker

Jan 2004

Oconomowoc - Around the shop, I'm told, he's known as St. John.

It's as much for his humility, goodheartedness and gentle humor as for his religious works - the church windows for which he is best known.

Trained in Europe from boyhood, Johann Minten, 75, is designing and painting stained glass like an old master.
When Paul Phelps, a self-taught stained-glass artist, bought T.C. Esser Glass of Milwaukee in 1986 and created Oakbrook-Esser Studios in Oconomowoc, he said it was as much to acquire the mastery of Minten and other craftsmen as anything.

Calling Minten a "rare individual," Phelps knows his skills are from a different era. "It takes a lifetime to learn."

Or, as Minten puts it in his self-deprecating, understated way, in a thick German accent despite 50 years in this country, "I've had a lot of years I could make my mistakes. Sometimes you learn from mistakes."

He bears a striking resemblance to images of Benjamin Franklin, but he says it was his brother who became the printer in the family. His father was Dutch, a coal miner who later cast lead crucifixes.

His mother came from a tiny, 650-year-old community of farms in Germany, near the Netherlands border, next door to Kevelaer, a noted European pilgrimage destination and rich in Catholic tradition. The Mintens raised Johann and four other children there.

An apprentice at 14

Minten didn't so much as choose stained glass for a career as his teacher chose it for him. When he was 14, a representative of a Kevelaer stained-glass company came to school looking for prospective apprentices.

"I didn't even know what it was," he said. But he was able to ride his bicycle the three miles to the company, and there he studied for three years.

As a Dutch citizen, he avoided the German military draft, but other students couldn't. As a result, young Johann had more chances to work at several jobs in stained-glass making: selecting and cutting the glass; channeling the glass pieces into the grooves of lead stripping, called "came," and soldering them together; cementing around the came to waterproof and stabilize the windows; and mounting the finished product.

Did he enjoy it?

"You don't think about those things," he said. "You just do it."

After his apprenticeship, he worked part time at the company and traveled by train to a nearby city to study design and painting. It was good training, he knows, but "I didn't even know it."

He finished school and stuck with the company that first trained him until 1953 - 10 years from the time his schoolteacher sent him off in that direction.

Johann Minten says he had no big American dream. His German company had been collaborating on projects with the Esser company in Milwaukee, and in one of the shipments, a co-worker wrote a note inquiring about job prospects with the company. Three of the craftsmen were invited to America for jobs.

"I never thought about it," he said. "I only came because the other three had it in mind to go here." When one of them, a stained-glass painter, got cold feet, Minten was sponsored on a special visa and took his place.

Minten settled in Milwaukee, where he still lives, and quickly established himself as a top-notch designer and painter. Even after he returned to Germany for several years because his wife was ill - they later parted ways and he is still single today - he would return to Milwaukee for six weeks each year, continuing his work for Esser long distance.

"They used to call me the flying Dutchman" because of his constant air travel.

In a gallery at Oakbrook-Esser Studios, 129 E. Wisconsin Ave., the firm showcases its breathtaking work - much of it Minten's design, often scaled-down models of windows now in churches.

Minten led me to one he seemed especially pleased with.

It was a half-size copy of a window showing a biblical prophet from the Cathedral of Augsburg, Germany, believed to be among the oldest stained-glass windows in existence. The originals are in a museum, he said, and even a copy is now installed in the cathedral.

Minten traced his fingers along painted black lines, explaining how he even copied the flaws, like the worn and missing paint from centuries of wear. He painted features and shading in techniques honed for decades.

Minten proudly pointed to drawings for seven windows he called The Seven Sorrows of Mary - such as the Flight from Egypt, the Loss of Christ in the Temple and the Crucifixion.

Johann Minten
Johann Minten
Photo/William Meyer
Johann Minten, 75, has been creating stained-glass windows, many of which are in area churches, since he was a boy.
Johann Minten
Photo/iWilliam Meyer
Minten's skills are "from a different era," says Paul Phelps, owner of Oakbrook-Esser Studios in Oconomowoc. Minten not only understands all aspects of stained-glass production but is intimately familiar with the religious nuances of his craft.
Johann Minten
Photo/William Meyer
Johann Minten reaches for the artwork for windows he designed working at Oakbrook Esser Studios.
Johann Minten
Photo/William Meyer
Johann Minten works on a stained-glass window for Sacred Heart Parish in Horicon at the studio in Oconomowoc.

They were commissioned for a small chapel built in his native Klein (Little) Kevelaer. Villagers discovered a town coat of arms that suggested the theme and insisted their native son design the chapel windows.

The company where Minten first trained donated the window construction, and town residents built the structure themselves.

It was dedicated last year. Though he still has two siblings and "oodles of cousins" there, Minten didn't attend the celebration. "I'm too old," he said.

Oakbrook-Esser Studios has windows in every state and around the world, according to business manager Dondi Faretta.

More than half the firm's work is restoration of existing windows.

In addition to church windows, the firm's six to 10 employees create stained-glass works for restaurants and pubs, offices, commercial buildings and private residences. The company is also licensed to create Frank Lloyd Wright lamp reproductions.

Phelps said most of the company's work now is concentrated in the Midwest and has numerous past and current clients in southeastern Wisconsin and Waukesha County, including Trinity Lutheran Church in Waukesha, St. Mary's in Hales Corners, Queen of Apostles Church in Pewaukee, St. William Church in Waukesha and Nashotah House Seminary.

Faretta marvels at St. John's ability to find the right interpretation, expression and symbolism for different faiths: "Someone says he wants something, and all of a sudden John comes back with a beautiful drawing."

He understands religious nuances - when a halo is appropriate for one church window but not another.

Uses age-old techniques

He's noticed, for example, that one religious symbol - "The Eye of the Father," an eye in a pyramid - is loved by the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in Delafield but rejected in other worship centers where "nobody wants to be watched."

"This kind of stuff, they don't teach it in school," he said.

He paints windows by hand, as artists have done for centuries, but also has learned airbrush techniques. He'll design for clear and opalescent glass, modern machine-made glass or the European antique mouth-blown product he prefers for its built-in distortions and varied reflections.

"The hardest thing is the famous American word - discontinued," he said. When he can no longer get a material or tool he has used most of his life, he must compromise.

"That is my success here," he said, "because I can adjust."

He also has learned something else about the nature of Americans, who often will sacrifice quality for price.

"The richest country in the world, but it doesn't look that way to me," he said. "Because everything has to be made cheap, cheap, cheap."

Which may explain why to his and my eye that his copy of the 11th-century cathedral window from Augsburg looks so very appealing.

Given his druthers, Minten will still make 'em like they used to.


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