From the Editor: Enchanted Hills is a facility run by the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. One of the people who works there has already been highlighted in the May 2016 issue of the Braille Monitor, and George Wurtzel continues to inspire blind people who want to do woodworking and other activities that are more physical and less intellectual. But George’s work and the work of San Francisco LightHouse also looks to experts in the community to teach what they do not know, and this article is from the perspective of one family brought in to help teach blind people woodworking.
Deborah Kermode is the wife of Jerry Kermode, and here is how she tells the story of becoming involved in the instruction of a class of blind students:
This is a story of timing, guidance, and intention. Over the fifty years Jerry and I have been married, we have often allowed possibilities to guide us. This is our latest adventure and learning.
Probably twenty-five years ago, while in our craft booth at a fair in Honolulu’s Thomas Square Park, Jerry saw a blind man walking by. Always eager to meet a new friend, he invited the man into our booth. Our lathe-turned wood bowls with their various shapes and styles are lovely to look at but even more meaningful is their tactile connection to nature. Our visitor and his wife were fascinated and taken with them, picking each one up to examine it, he with his hands and fingers, she adding eyes and description. We enjoyed their company and compliments, as well as watching JK’s face as he “saw” each piece; they purchased a bowl from us. Their names are Jerry and Theresa, but for the sake of clarity, he will be JK in this story.
Some years later we left our twenty-two years in Hawaii, moving to the San Francisco Bay area and landing in Sebastopol, about fifty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At one of our first San Francisco shows who walked into our booth but our friends from the Hawai’i show, JK and Theresa. It was a happy reunion and another moment of wonder watching the depth of joy as JK again discovered each piece. They took another bowl home. During their visit, the two Jerrys discussed the possibility of teaching woodturning to interested blind people.
The years passed, and we were busy establishing ourselves and our business on the mainland. About ten years and many shows later, JK and Theresa again visited our booth. They were unexpectedly and serendipitously joined by a group of high-energy friends, all blind or visually impaired. Bowls were passed around, and the fascination and excitement was palpable.
The tall, long-haired, bearded, and buoyant member of the group was George Wurtzel. We later learned that George is an accomplished professional woodworker who relocated from Minnesota, recruited by the LightHouse for the Blind as the camp construction manager at their Enchanted Hills Camp above Napa, California. We also learned that George’s passion is his woodworking and teaching others. Again the talk turned to teaching, and serious discussion began.
Later in the summer Jerry drove up to the camp, which sits at 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley on Mt. Veeder. He visited a class George was teaching called Woodworking for the Blind. Projects included joinery and marquetry, and Jerry was hooked. He was soon working with a few people on one of the lathes, showing them the joy of proper cutting: riding the bevel of the chisel as the wood spins.
Plans were made for us to take our five student lathes up and teach a four-day workshop for eight people, using the three lathes already in the shop. Before a date could be set, the horrendous, wind-propelled October 9 fires ripped through Sonoma and Napa Counties. The fire blew up and over Mt. Veeder. The lower camp area was decimated, most of the upper main buildings were saved but for smoke damage, staff housing was lost, and months of repair and rebuilding ensued.
Our class was on hold. George and Jerry stayed in contact until a date was set for February 1, 2018, the first event at camp following the fires. Little did we know how significant this weekend would be to all of us.
For weeks prior to class Jerry couldn’t sleep. It is one thing to spend a couple of hours one-on-one, as he did in the summer, but a shop full of blind woodturning students is daunting, even with his thirty years of teaching woodturning and George’s gregarious assurances that blind woodworkers are just like others, only nicer. We laughed, then found this to be true.
We drove the winding Trinity Road up the mountain, pulling our trailer of lathes and enough wood and tools to keep eight students happy for four days. It seems we missed seeing the sign advising against trucks and trailers on Trinity Road.
Our anticipation, nervousness, and excitement became tempered by the blackened swaths through the mountain forest: some homes standing where they shouldn’t, others destroyed in the midst of untouched green, and then a path of pure destruction where nothing is left. Fickle fire!
We turned left off of Mt. Veeder Road, heading down into the camp, with burn on our right and green to our left. We came first to the Art Building, where the wood shop sits above George’s tactile gallery and what will be the pottery studio. Here visitors are invited to touch and explore the turned and sculpted work, unlike most galleries with “Do not touch” as the watchword. On the right side of the road, the building is untouched by fire. Some say it was saved by the woman carved from a redwood stump that sits in front of the building. She is called Theresa for our original contact, JK’s wife, who died just months before the fires.
I met George and Jennifer, his assistant and partner, more often known as Jennifire. George has been blind since early childhood. He owned and ran a furniture building company with twenty employees for twenty years. He broke horses professionally, skied across Lapland, and is now a valuable member of a dedicated group on this mountain. Jennifire is visually impaired, and she certainly meets George’s energy with creativity, joy, and enthusiasm of her own.
Three members of an AmeriCorps team who are living at Enchanted Hills Camp clearing/renewing/rebuilding the damaged areas arrived to help unload the lathes. This group of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old dedicated workers shined as an integral facet of the diamond that these four days developed into.
After we all worked to set up the shop teaching area, George invited us to his home down the hill for lunch. He mixed up delicious barbecue chicken sandwiches, and we sat out on his deck. It was a beautiful, warm Thursday afternoon, really too warm for February but great for our time on the mountain. A few early arrivals for the class joined us, JK and a friend (the only other fully sighted person at the table) among them. I dove into the joyful humor and camaraderie we were to experience over the weekend.
Following lunch I moved us into our comfortable cabin, put our beer in the little fridge, and headed back up the hill to meet more students as they arrived throughout the afternoon. Jerry and George had already started showing them the parts of the lathe, and some were already turning beads and coves, the two main shapes that a turner produces. I joined in greeting new people and introducing them to their first experience of woodturning.
We know the challenge for blind people is to find where to start and end the cut, and we were at a loss as to how to help. Josh and Bryan, two of the students with especially quick mental visual acuity, stepped in to help. They were able to use their hands and fingers against the spinning wood in a fashion I will never try. They have such sensitivity of touch that they can feel just where to be without getting pulled into the tool rest. What a lovely reflection to realize we had blind assistants to help teach the concepts for which we were ill equipped.
Until now Jerry’s introduction to each project was a demonstration, but in this class he needed to find another way to impart the steps to completion. So he stood in the middle of the room, closed his eyes, and described the process verbally as he pictured it in his head. Then the group went to work figuring out what they needed to do to make it work for them: scratching marks they can feel into the wood, measuring with nifty clicker rules made for people needing to use senses other than sight, and setting the tool rest to tell them where to start or end a cut. Involvement with such a group mind working toward a goal is mind-expanding.
The class began. Thursday afternoon and into Friday it was beads and coves, then a carving mallet; Saturday it was bowls and duplicating a spindle; on Sunday they finished up the bowl and turned a plate. Everyone completed every project, helping and supporting one another.
On Friday student number eight joined us, a visually impaired artist on a government grant from Australia to collaborate with visually impaired artists and dancers in the Bay area to create performance art installations. Fayen was here to collaborate with Jennifire, an accomplished artist in her own right, and to take the woodturning class. She and Jennifire spent some of the class time making various turned and carved or notched sticks for exploring spaces with the various sounds the sticks make, more than tap, tap, tap. I was enthralled by pictures and videos of her work, realizing that this is just the beginning of a deep and mind-opening project and performance.
Because the camp was newly re-opened following the fires, a group of LightHouse for the Blind administrators and benefactors were visiting to hear about the cleanup and to see our class. They, too, were emotionally dedicated and excited about the changes and the ongoing work.
Thursday after dinner we convened around the fire in the large, gracious dining/meeting hall, talking and getting to know one another. And—ah—the meals. We passed family-style bowls of delicious hearty food, learning how to tell our blind table mates what was before them and when to offer to serve, a sort of social dance.
Friday night after dinner we were again around the fireplace. But this time Jerry brought his guitar, and we sang. I danced a hula, and everyone enjoyed the music. During the evening, when Jerry introduced a Kate Wolf song, our friend and student JK (who has lived in the Bay area for most of his life) shared that he knew Kate. He talked of his devastation at her early death from breast cancer. While Jerry sang I watched as JK, sitting across from me, broke down crying. This was the same man whose wife recently died from pancreatic cancer. I crossed in front of the fireplace to him and held him in my arms as he sobbed. He has had so much loss, and he is such a part of the camp. The fire affected him in the midst of even more loss. The fire has affected us all. We are fragile and vulnerable. He was thankful for my caring, and I am thankful for his allowing me—it was healing.
Saturday morning I received an invitation from Janet, camp co-manager with her husband Donny, to take a tour of lower camp, the area totally ravaged by the fire. I was eager to get to know this vivacious and friendly woman and to explore. We took off in their off-road jeep-type vehicle past the upper area that was untouched: a playground with climbing structures and a large playing field, though here we saw the remains of the burned-out storage area.
As we wound our way further down into lower camp, Janet pointed out all that was no longer there: the treehouse; the original camp cabins dating back to the 1920s comprised of five girls’ cabins with adjacent bath and laundry houses, counselors’ cabin, and a bit further down the road five boys’ cabins with bath and laundry buildings. Then we were upon the foundation of the oldest building in the camp, built in the early 1900s, originally a dining room, later a camp skating rink, and more recently condemned. George later told me sadly that a project on his list was to reclaim and use all the first-growth redwood from which it was built.
The further we headed down and through the burned-out areas, the more I re-experienced the gray sadness of such devastation. We pulled up in front of a ten-foot-long, old, many-times-burned-out redwood log upon which is carved “Redwood Grove.” The carving is by JK. This was the entrance to the amphitheater built into the hillside. The stage area was burnt out, but still standing were the beautiful redwood benches, designed and built by George and friends, carved using a computer-generated carving machine and then detail-carved by George to enhance the texture. There was fire damage to a few of them, but most were untouched. George will clean them up and seal them and then they, along with the carvings they hold of flora, fauna, buildings, and activities of the camp will tell the story of the camp, fire and all. Janet told me that the fire fighters left a note on the Redwood Grove entry log which read, “We wish we could have saved it all.” The reality of those brave responders, from a Los Angeles fire company, surrounded as they must have been by fire, fighting to save the redwoods, the buildings, the art, touched me deeply and tears flowed.
We walked further down the hill and entered into the forest chapel: simple benches face what was the chancel, now gone. Janet described the simplicity that was this spot and how campers return here to be married. We sat for some time in this quiet, damaged, yet eerily peaceful chapel of redwoods, and she told me her story of how she arrived here only two years ago. As her story unfolded, echoed in some of my story, we realized that she and Donny are very like Jerry and me: two people working together synergistically with results bigger than the energy of two. I shared, but mostly listened, which seemed to be part of my role on the mountain this weekend.
Saturday night following dinner Jerry called for hootenanny time with some of the AmeriCorps folks. We were happy that they even knew some of our old-time songs. They sang and played along with Jerry, then shared some of their originals.
Sunday, back up at the wood shop, it was time to make plates and finish up projects—challenging, but all is completed—then a group picture and pack up time. Suddenly we were saying good-byes among a group that had become like family. As Janet said to me later in the day, “It’s not goodbye; it’s I’ll see you the rest of my life.”
At the end of the day Donny and George took us on another ride through lower camp for Jerry to see. With Donny at the wheel it was a wilder ride, down even further into the valley, though we did not cross the stream where the bridge was out, much to my relief.
I brought home so much from the experience. I’ve learned from people who do not see with their eyes but perceive so much with other senses, and I am discovering what they have to teach me about the capabilities of all people with disabilities: they are not “amazing” as we so often say. They just use different tools and techniques. This understanding can be extended to anyone. We all have different strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table. Using these differences to find solutions to problems is more productive than “my way is the right way.”
My biggest take away wants to burst from my heart, while at the same time I want to put my arms around it and hold it close. A balance of sadness/grief and wonder/joy, held at the same time, deep in my heart and soul.