In Napa Valley, a Blind Woodworker Makes Art Accessible to Everyone

5 min
Woodworker George Wurtzel in his woodshop at Enchanted Hills Camp in the Napa Valley. (Hannah Kingsley-Ma/KQED)

Below the woodshop at Enchanted Hills Camp, a sanctuary for visually impaired children and adults, a portrait of master woodworker George Wurtzel hangs in an art gallery. The portrait is made up of 4,000 wood screws, drilled into a board at varying levels so it becomes a three-dimensional projection of Wurtzel’s face — his straw hat and big bushy beard. It makes a musical chime when you run your hands over it.

A three-dimensional portrait of George Wurtzel made up of 4,000 screws. (Hannah Kingsley-Ma/KQED)

This art gallery is a haptic gallery — all of the works of art are made to be felt. It’s the brainchild of Wurtzel, who lost his sight when he was very young. Inside the gallery 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 explains that 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.”

Students using a lathe in George Wurtzel's woodshop. (Hannah Kingsley-Ma/KQED)

Wurtzel is the artist behind many of the objects in this gallery, but he’s also an instructor here at Enchanted Hills Camp, which is owned by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The camp -- located on Mount Veeder 10 miles west of Napa -- has been serving visually impaired adults and children for over 60 years.

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Wurtzel leads me upstairs, where he’s teaching a workshop for adults. A big part of his job is making students feel comfortable in this space. Unlike him, many of them are losing their vision later in life — like Fayen d’Evie.

She 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 quite depressed,” d’Evie 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.”

She says she has stayed away from power tools since her vision dropped. It’s one of the main reasons why she came to Enchanted Hills Camp today.

“[Wurtzel] does really simple things,” d'Evie says. “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.”

“The only thing I always tell people that I teach is just how to feel confident with yourself,” Wurtzel says. “Your eyeballs don’t run a saw ... your eyeballs don’t create a project. Your brain does all those things.”

A click ruler, a measuring tool used in the woodshop at Enchanted Hills Camp. (Hannah Kingsley-Ma/KQED)

The only thing that’s noticeably different in 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,” Wurtzel explains. “The piece that slides in and out is a piece of threaded rod with 16 threads to the inch.”

Fayen d'Evie says she wants to broaden the way in which we experience art, informed in part by her life as a visually impaired person. Today she is using a click ruler to make canes for an upcoming sound installation. Some are jagged, some are smooth, and one looks like the end of a honey dipper. And she’s scraping them along the 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.

D'Evie is an established artist. But a lot of Wurtzel's students are younger. Besides coming for the group bonfires and the swimming, they are here to use tools for the first time.

“I love teaching kids that you shouldn't let people tell you what to do that don't have to live with the consequences of it. You know, 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 figure those things out for yourself.”

Last October's North Bay fires destroyed many of the structures at the Enchanted Hills Camp. (Hannah Kingsley-Ma/KQED)

This year, summer camp is going to feel different. The North Bay wildfires destroyed many of the cabins, which means Enchanted Hills won’t be able to let in as many campers as it usually does. George  Wurtzel is the construction manager at the camp, and is helping oversee the rebuilding process in the wake of the conflagrations.

Some fire-damaged redwoods will be used as the interiors for new living spaces, and maybe a dance floor. Wurtzel is saving some of the singed wood for his woodshop, too, with plans to put a clear coat over the badly burned areas.

“So everybody will be able to see and feel the results of the fire,” he says. “Because the fire did some cool things to the boards down there.”