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