Blind Craftsman use Hands as Eyes
George Wurtzel whistles “Camptown Races” as a high-powered lathe hums a quarter-inch from his thumb and forefinger. Thread-thin streams of sawdust arc off the small chunk of pine he is fashioning into a sombrero-shaped wine stopper, some of them landing on his “Duck Dynasty”-worthy beard.
“As you turn wood, the sound changes dramatically with the shape,” Wurtzel says. “You can tell what’s happening by the chatter noise and feel of the vibrations.”
Suddenly the half-formed stopper pops out of the chuck and rolls under the workbench in his south Minneapolis studio.
“Whoops,” he says, turning off the machine and bending to fumble for his tiny work-in-progress hiding somewhere on the floor. He gropes around with one hand but doesn’t bother to peer under the bench.
It wouldn’t help, since Wurtzel is blind. He gradually lost his sight in his teens to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease caused by mutated genes.
“It’s very rare, but both my parents had them,” he says. “Better luck next time, I guess.”
A wry sense of humor, a ready, uninhibited laugh and a calm, worldly demeanor are all part of Wurtzel’s aura. So is the grace with which he tolerates the incredulity of new acquaintances who marvel at his ability not only to create singularly beautiful furniture and art objects in utter darkness, but to do it with giant whirling saws and other dangerous power tools.
“It’s the hands doing the work, not the eyes,” he says. “In woodworking, the visual is actually a very small part of the equation. It’s all about manual dexterity.” In his case, it’s also about an artistic mind that senses an abstract female form in a sheared-off strip of black walnut, or how markings left by fungi on a piece of spalted birch can be the perfect embellishment for a jewellery box.
Wurtzel teaches woodworking to students at the National Federation of the Blind, but was fired two years later following differences with his employer and decided to resume his solo career. His workshop sits behind a storefront where he displays his creations, from wine stoppers shaped like hats and elegantly turned bowls to rustic coffee tables, shelves and cabinets whose pieces fit snugly into each other without needing fasteners.
“My grandfather used to make wooden puzzles like this,” he said. “You can take apart or put together my furniture in a few minutes, and there are no bolts to drop and lose.”
Wurtzel has pondered whether he would do things differently if he could see.
“I’d like to be able to read blueprints and make preliminary sketches — I do all that in my head,” he says. “But I don’t think I’d be a better craftsman.” And on the plus side, “I’m not encumbered by other people’s designs in my head.”
In fact, he jokes, part of the reason he decided to grow that full-on beard is that “I get labeled as ‘the blind guy’ when I’d rather be ‘the bearded carpenter.’ I want to be judged by what I do as a craftsman, not be told I’m amazing because I can’t see.”
The middle finger of Wurtzel’s left hand is shorter than the one on his right by about a half-inch, the result of a late-night mishap in the workshop when he was working on about 300 repetitive cuts.
“It had nothing to do with not being able to see,” he said. “There are a huge number of woodworkers out there who are missing fingers.”
Wurtzel’s favorite type of wood is “the free kind,” which usually means pawing through the firewood though he often consults sighted friends on the color contrasts and variegations in wood, he has learned to discern a lot by steaming the surface with a hot wet cloth or in a microwave, which temporarily raises the grain, allowing him to feel its patterns. He can also identify different types of wood from their smell.
“I look for the curly stuff, the crooked grain, or a knot that adds character,” he said. “I’m pretty well convinced that when I put my hands on this, the image I get in my head is close to what one sees with their eyes.”
While he aspires to make a living entirely on his art, it’s his architectural work that pays the bills. He specializes in restoring or reproducing the elegant, complicated doors, columns and trims featured in many old Victorian houses.
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