Woodworker's Magic Touch: "You Learn To See With Your Hands"

Woodworker's Magic Touch: "You Learn To See With Your Hands"

By Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune

(Editor’s Note:  This article appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 22, 2014.  George Wurtzel is a member of our Metro Chapter.)

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 Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (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.

“You judge a man’s wealth by the size of his wood pile,” he said on a jaunt over to Tourtelotte’s place near Lake Nokomis.  “Lee, you’re a wealthy man.”

As the two talked shop about the grain on various pieces, Wurtzel ran his hands up, down and around them.  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 Lee sees with his eyes.”

Wurtzel recently sold nearly $10,000 worth of his pieces through a display in an empty downtown storefront, part of the “Made Here” project spotlighting the work of local artists.  But while he aspires to make a living entirely on his art, it’s his architectural work that currently pays the bills.  He specializes in restoring or reproducing the elegant, complicated kind of doors, columns and trim featured in many old Victorian houses.

Whittier homeowner Tamar Bagley heard about Wurtzel through her neighborhood association and asked him to submit bids on remaking some octagonal columns for a porch and carport on her 1906-built home.

“The cost can get astronomical if you want things redone exactly as they were, but his estimate was very reasonable,” she said.  “He came over, ran his hands over the wood and remade them perfectly.”

From camp chief to ski jock

Beyond his artistic accomplishments, the 60-year-old Wurtzel has led a rich and varied life of adventure.

He grew up in Traverse City, Mich., where he opened his first woodworking business right out of high school.  He attended the Michigan School for the Blind at the same time as Stevie Wonder, for whom he made a one-third-scale wooden replica of a Steinway concert piano.

He later moved to North Carolina, where his business making triangular wooden cases for U.S. military burial flags was such a success that he sold it and was able to travel for several years on the proceeds.  He once ran a summer youth camp.  (“Teenagers are like wires,” he quips.  “You put two together and they’re going to get tangled.”)

He used to train Arabian horses, taking 50-mile endurance rides on his own trusty steed.  A skilled cross-country skier who was on the U.S. Paralympic team in the 1970s, he has skied across Lapland as well as from Fargo to Lake Superior in 1980.

Best-selling author John Camp (better known as John Sandford) was part of the group on the several-day Fargo trek.

“George was a tough, athletic guy, and he’d kind of freak me out on some of the rough trails we took,” said Camp, who was then a reporter for the St.  Paul Pioneer Press.  “I’d be behind him calling stuff like ‘right turn coming up’ but he had a preternatural sense for where the track was, and most of the time he’d stay in it by himself, even down some pretty fast, twisty hills.  Once we were skiing down a fairly severe hill when I suddenly saw a log down across the trail ahead.  I had just time to call out “Watch it!” when one of his skis slipped under the log, while he fell over the top of it, snapping the ski off.  We were lucky it wasn’t his leg.  George took a few falls, but really no more than the rest of us did.”

Bon vivant in overalls

Wurtzel is a familiar figure at many of the nearby hangouts along Nicollet Avenue, including the Black Forest and Eat Street Social, for which he made a helix-shaped case to display homemade bitters.  A wine distributor from France who encountered him there bought up his entire stock of stoppers.

“George is very charismatic and a real straight-shooter,” said Nick Kosevich, a partner at Eat Street.  “We enjoy his company.  He’s always got something interesting to say.”

Wurtzel gets around the neighborhood using a collapsible white cane he stashes in one of the cargo pockets of his daily uniform, a pair of faded Liberty brand overalls.  He says a guide dog isn’t a good fit for him: “You have to take care of a dog, and I’ve got too much to do.”

One project very close to his heart is the miniature pine sailboat he made for a terminally ill young woman he met last year named Maire Kent.  Inspired by a beloved book from her childhood, Kent wanted her ashes to travel on a small boat through the Great Lakes and out to sea.  She died of cardiac sarcoma last September before she could see the finished boat, but Wurtzel and a documentary-filmmaker friend — who did a test run on Lake Calhoun — plan to fulfill her wish by launching the boat on its final journey from Lake Michigan in mid-July.  Then there’s the upcoming project with Soth for the Detroit exhibition, which opens Sept.  12.  He plans to build a series of boxes that will each hold a different aspect of his life.  “When you look inside, each will give a glimpse of the things that shaped me into the person I am today,” he said.  He’d better get busy.  He’s going to need a lot of boxes.