In Napa, a blind woodworker makes art accessible for everybody
In the gallery below his woodshop, master woodworker George Wurtzel has two portraits of himself on display.
The first is like a scarecrow hung in an antique wooden closet: a flannel shirt under a worn pair of overalls, the pockets stuffed with tools.
“I just thought it represented me,” George says laughing. “Because that's me. When you see me on the street, that's my normal garb.”
The second is made up of 4,000 wood screws. They’re drilled into a board at varying levels so it becomes three-dimensional projection of George’s face, his straw hat, and his big bushy beard. It makes a kind of musical chime when you run your hands over it.
This haptic gallery is Enchanted Hills Camp’s Tactile Art Center, and it’s the brainchild of George, who lost his sight when he was very young. Inside the center he encourages visitors to encounter the beautiful things he makes out of wood through their sense of touch. Together we feel a gnarled chunk of a redwood burl.
“If you take your thumb and forefinger and spin this in your hand you will feel all of those lumps and bumps and curls,” he tells me.
He tells me that when he’s making a piece, he pulls out the texture of sanded wood by misting it with water so that the grain puffs up. He can tell by swirls of spalting — a fungus — that a piece of wood has color.
“The rot and the worms will both cause there to be different colors in the wood,” he explains. “And that's one of the things that I can't see — but that's one of the things I always inquire and ask about.”
Creating a welcoming space
George isn’t just the creator of these objects. He’s also a teacher at the Enchanted Hills Camp, which is now owned by the Lighthouse Center for the Blind.
He leads workshops year-round, such as the one he’s teaching today. Upstairs above the gallery, a class of visually-impaired adults are learning how to use a lathe.
Many of the students here have lost their vision later in life, and have had to relearn how to use power tools like table saws. George is practiced in how to make these students feel comfortable.
“The only thing I always tell people that I teach is just how to feel confident with yourself,” he says.
George reiterates that regardless of what your vision is like, there’s only one way to use a piece of equipment: the right way.
“Your eyeballs don’t run a saw,” he tells me. “Your brain does all those things.”
There’s a mixture of sighted and blind instructors. For today’s workshop George brought in Jerry Kermode, a woodworker from Sebastopol, not because he has his vision, but because he’s an expert in using a lathe.
George tells me their technique is essentially the same.
“Your eyes don't work but your fingers do, and you know how this thick this is,” Jerry Kermode tells a student. Together, the two of them feel the rim of a bowl in progress.
The only thing that’s noticeably different about this woodshop are the measuring tools, called click rulers.
“It essentially is a round pipe with another piece of material that slides in and out of the round pipe,” George explains. “The piece that slides in and out is a piece of threaded rod, 16 threads to the inch.” You can hear the persistent clicks over the dull roar of the moving blades in the workshop, a mechanical kind of chirp.
A new approach to art
George’s students come from all over. But none of them have travelled quite as far as Fayen d’Evie, who is in town to work on a project in collaboration with SFMOMA.
“I'm originally from New Zealand, but I live in Australia now,” Fayen says. “I work mostly with blindness, trying to understand how blindness can generate artistic and curatorial methods of practice.”
Fayen says when she started to lose her vision, it impacted the way she made art.
“I went through a period a few years ago where I got quiet depressed,” she remembers. “Because I was really scared ... I was making these kind of paintings that involve really detailed engraving; [it] would take me months to make a tiny work. And I was also making books. And my instant reaction was I won't be able to make either of those. But after a period of thinking about it, I realized, well I just can start making paintings in a different way.”
Fayen says that she has stayed away from power tools since her vision dropped. It’s one of the main reasons why she came today.
She trusts George, his years of experience, and the reputation of Enchanted Hills Camp.
“He does really simple things,” she says, laughing. “Like, he tied a rubber band on one end, so I couldn't use my hand past that point, which means it wouldn't be cut off. They are really basic things! But doing that, I knew I had the framework to be able to just give it a go.”
Becoming visually impaired has also changed the way she thinks about how accessible art is. She often feels frustrated by the audio descriptions in museums, that describe a piece of artwork for people who are unable to see it.
Fayen says that especially as an artist, she has a hard time accepting there’s one right way to describe a piece of art.
“Because I still have do have some vision, sometimes I hear these and I think they are totally wrong!” She says. “Therefore if that's the position I'm in, I don't want to get to the point where I see less well, and I’m being told I have to accept this third person's description of this work.”
Places that display art can also feel really unwelcoming, like there’s a specific way you’re supposed to behave. Fayen says that because of her vision, she's often tripping off alarms.
“Because for me to see the paintings I have to get very close,” she says. “So I set those things off all the time.”
In Wurtzel’s workshop, Fayen wants to broaden the way in which we experience art, informed in part by her life as a visually impaired person. She and a couple other students are making canes of different kinds of wood, with different kinds of knobs — some jagged, some smooth, one that looks like the end of a honey dipper. And they’re scraping them along the gallery floor, along the furniture, along the walls of the gallery.
Imagine it like a kind of auditory or sensory dance piece. You’ll be able to listen to and feel the movement of these canes, from their big swooping sounds, their rattling vibrations.
“So at the moment we are trying to figure out what cane gives us information in different ways,” says Fayen, mid-gesture. “And then see what gives us the best ideas.”
The road to rebuilding
Outside the building where Fayen and her peers are practicing, there’s a pond where campers can swim and a huge outdoor amphitheater where people gather for bonfires — even some roaming goats that help graze the grass for fire abatement.
George Wurtzel, the woodworking teacher, lives here full time. He came here after a career of architectural millwork in part because of his own childhood experience, in a camp for the blind in Michigan.
“I love teaching kids that you shouldn't let people tell you what to do, [that] you need to make those decisions as to what you want to be,” he says. “And don't let other people tell you what they think you should do, you should figure those things out for yourself.”
This year camp is going to feel a little different. That’s because the Napa fires tore through parts of the camp last fall, and left others areas unscathed. This is the first workshop the camp is offering since the fires. They’ll open again for the summer, but will have to take in fewer campers than usual. Reconstruction is underway, but there’s a lot to be done. George, who is also the construction manager of the camp, is a big part of that process.
“I love the fact that you know will be able to make something out of … the trees that burned and then were killed in the fire,” he says.
Some of the redwoods that they had to cut down will be used as the interiors for new living spaces, or dance floors. And he has ideas too for what to do with the flame-licked slab benches down at the amphitheater.
“I'll brush all the loose stuff off, and then I'm going to go back in and just cover over all of that with a clear coat,” he says. “So everybody will be able to see and feel the results of the fire. Because the fire did some cool things to the boards down there.”
In George’s workshop the campers will be able to feel the effects of the fire, what it did to the wood that was down there, and the story of what it took to rebuild.