George Wurtzel carves exquisite wood creations using his mind and his hands, but not his sight.
He has no choice. He is totally blind, a fact that to him seems to be an asterisk on an impressive body of work and accomplishments that speak for themselves.
Wurtzel is construction manager at Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind and Visually Impaired in the Mayacamas Mountains west of the city of Napa. He’s renovating a barn there, uses ladders and power tools, and in his spare time creates wood crafts that recently were displayed at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Detroit.
“It’s not the eyeballs that do the work, it’s your hands and brain that do the work,” said Wurtzel, a husky man with a graying beard who on this recent day wore overalls and a straw hat.
Wurtzel employs mental muscles that in sighted people might be lax. He has a sense of spatial relationships, allowing him to help create a two-and-a-half mile trail at this camp along mountain slopes that spill down to the Napa Valley.
“I don’t know exactly how I know it, but it’s in my head,” Wurtzel said as he sat on the deck of his camp residence.
Wurtzel’s “about me” section on his website relates how he started building things in elementary school and opened a millwork shop in Traverse City, Michigan. It describes the Craftsman-style furniture he creates that fit together like a puzzle without screws, wood fasteners or glue.
His blindness? He doesn’t mention that in this brief autobiography. He is simply George Wurtzel, woodworker and craftsman.
On the other hand, he doesn’t shy away from talking about his blindness, often punctuating his stories with a laugh.
He mentioned how as a child he ran into the mailman while riding a bicycle. The mailman told his mother to lock up the bike to keep it away from her blind son. His mother replied that she did, but that young Wurtzel found the bolt cutters.
Growing up on his family farm in Michigan, it was all hands on deck, and that included Wurtzel. He pitched in doing such chores as milking the cows.
“If you could work, breathe and move on a farm, there was something you could do,” Wurtzel said.
His parents didn’t tell him he couldn’t do things because of his blindness, so Wurtzel did them. He became an auto mechanic and worked on Volkswagen engines, though he didn’t stick with it.
“I didn’t like how greasy and grimy you get,” Wurtzel said.
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Woodworking turned out to be his life’s calling. He’s worked as a contractor, started a business that made triangular boxes for veterans’ internment flags, and had a storefront workshop in Minneapolis.
He came to Enchanted Hills a few months ago. Wurzel said with a laugh that the camp approached him when it was minus 6 degrees in Minnesota, making for an easy decision.
His chores include turning an aging, 1922 barn with corrugated metal siding into studios for leatherwork, sculpturing and other work. After that, he is to create seating for an amphitheater. He is to teach skills to campers.
Then there’s his own wood work – the polished cedar carving with the jade inset, the bowl made of black ash burl, the interlocking puzzle made from white oak. He uses touch to work with the wood grains.
This isn’t just exquisite work for a blind person; it’s exquisite work for anybody. His exhibit at the Detroit Museum for Contemporary Art ran from Sept. 12 through Jan. 4.
In recent years, Wurtzel has begun to better understand that he can be an inspiration and role model for the blind and visually impaired.
“For the better part of my life, I associated very little with the blindness community,” he said. “I was busy … you somehow get caught up in your own world. You think everyone is doing what you’re doing.”
At Enchanted Hills, he’ll be working with the blind and visually impaired and showing them that they need not put limits on themselves.
“He’s got a ton of accomplishments,” Enchanted Hills Camp Director Tony Fletcher said. “We want him to be a role model, to set the bar high with expectations of what someone who’s blind can and should be able to do.”
Wurtzel gave a tour of the camp on this recent day, tapping the ground with a cane as he made his way along the trails and narrow roads. Some distance away, a pickup truck parked in front of the barn.
“The mechanic in me says I need to tighten the belt on that truck,” Wurtzel said. “It just made that squeaking noise.”
That’s just one more item on the “to-do” list of a busy man.
Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind is run by Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It is located on Mount Veeder Road and hosts a variety of camps, from ones for horse riders to musicians to families with a visually impaired youth.
The camp is holding a crowdfunding Internet campaign to raise money for the amphitheater that Wurtzel will be working on: thecrowdfundingcentre.com/?page=project&id=99E2CC.