Blind woodworker has a magic touch: 'You learn to see with your hands'

George Wurtzel doesn’t need his sight to transform raw wood into wondrous objects.

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 like an exploding firework 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 vise 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 effortlessly charming 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 jewelry box. Prominent Twin Cities photographer Alec Soth recently chose him to collaborate on an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The second annual “People’s Biennial,” the show recognizes work by artists outside the sanctioned art world whose work is relatively obscure but worthy of note.

Wurtzel moved to Minneapolis from Michigan four years ago to teach 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 pretty storefront on Stevens Avenue in the Whittier neighborhood where he displays his creations, from whimsical wine stoppers shaped like hats and elegantly whorled bowls to rustic coffee tables and 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. “I truly think that I just fell asleep. There are a huge number of carpenters out there who are missing fingers.”

Groove is in the heart

Wurtzel’s favorite type of wood is “the free kind,” which usually means pawing through the firewood of friends like Lee Tourtelotte, a fellow woodturner whose back-yard stash is a gold mine for a guy like George.

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    Friday June 20, 2014

    George Wurtzell doesn't need his sight to transform wood into wondrous objects.

  • Woodworker George Wurtzel holds a favorite piece, a jewelry box made of spalted birch, which gets its dark, squiggly lines from fungi.

  • Wurtzel, who has been completely blind since his late teens, “sees” the wood by feeling its grain, which he sometimes temporarily raises with moist heat.

  • George Wurtzel

    Born

    1954, Traverse City, Mich.

    Background

    Inspired by his grand­father, a furnituremaker, Wurtzel has been building things out of wood since he was a child. He studied furniture production in North Carolina and owned a business that makes triangle-shaped cases for interment flags for U.S. military veterans.

    Today

    He does architectural millwork and restoration, makes furniture and art objects and teaches woodworking to blind students.

    Other interests

    Cross-country skiing — at one time with the U.S. Paralympic team — and horseback riding.

    Website

    www.gmwurtzel.com

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