ARTIST TALK: John Furniss – October 18, 2019

Hello, everyone, my name is John Furniss.
And I’d like to thank you for all coming today. This is really wonderful. I love it that it’s
an inclusive event like this. Because in my experience usually when I go to the museum,
it’s a long, slow, quiet walk. And it’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. So it’s it’s
wonderful to have this opportunity to, I mean, it’s kind of surreal. I never really thought
it growing up, I saw I lived in a little town and I would see art shows like this on TV
and movies. Never did I think I would even be at one, let alone, be participating in
it and even invited to speak. This is just kind of a dream, really. And it’s wonderful
to see you all here. I mean, well, maybe not exactly see you all here. But yeah, you know
what I’m saying. And I’m, I’d like to share with you how I became blind and how I’ve used
art to help me not only cope with that but really excel in my life. So I, I became blind
at 16. I had been really having some some hard times with depression and anxiety, and
I, I attempted suicide when I was 16 and that made me become blind and lose my sense of
smell. But it was really the only two things I lost. And I really I feel very lucky that
I have been able to adapt like I have, and been able to maintain all the skills that
I have. And I one big piece of advice I’ll give to any teenager is don’t take yourself
so seriously. You know here you’re really still a kid. You’re not an adult just yet
even though you feel like it. You know, maybe bust out the fingerprints or finger paints
and just go to town someday, you know. Feel free to still be a kid. 300 years ago be considered
a midlife crisis. Got it got a little bit more time ahead of us these days. And so I
in this was when I was in high school, of course and for the first year so after I became
blind, I I adapted really quickly which helped me cope a lot. I I change the rear wheel bearings
on my old car, for instance, about a week after I got home from the hospital, because
I just remembered it. So clearly I’ve got such a visual imagination. And I also, I used
drugs to try and cope. And that was just that was the worst decision you could possibly
make. And it really, it brought me right back to where I was before. And it it one thing
that did kind of help me through it, though, was sculpture. I loved sculpting with clay.
And it, it it really it kind of gave me time, something to fill the time which when I became
blind, I had really bad insomnia so there’s lots of time to fill. And I got back down
to a pretty low place and my folks decided that I… They didn’t have the tools that
they needed to help me. And so they took me to a place that was kind of drug rehabilitation
and and psychiatric psychiatric help and it’s kind of a hard one to say. And and that definitely
did help a lot. It… I was able to get clean, and I finished high school, and I made another
terrible decision. Well, there again in high school, one of the classes I still loved was
a sculpture or you know, the pottery anyway. And when I got out of high school, I made
a really terrible decision and went back to the small town I grew up in, and it there
was really nothing but trouble for me there. I I got in involved with drugs again, and
I got in trouble with the law and that was not… You know, I ended up even going to
jail, which very scary. But at the same time it was county jail there in the small town.
So most of the people that were in there were at the very least associates if not friends.
So it could have been worse. But I really, I used art to help me through that time too
because I really, you know, the only thing there was for me to do there was to get in
trouble, make sculptures with clay and listen to books on tape. And I ended up getting a
really bad sinus infection because I wasn’t living in the greatest of places. And I ended
up having to have a major surgery in Denver, Colorado. And I while I was there, I had done
some clay and I made a little miniature a TV set sculpture for one of the nurses that
was really nice. It was one of the really old ones with the rabbit ears, antenna, and
the knobs on the front. And she said she she brought it home and put it on top of her TV.
And she said her boyfriend was not real keen on that but she she said it was going to stay
there. And I I… they didn’t take care of the infection at that hospital. It came back
and it was really bad. And I luckily went to a much better hospital with a lot better
doctors and equipment and they got me fixed up with another major surgery and after that
I decided it was it was I was done in the town I grew up in. And not to mention, I had
been robbed by one of my so-called friends while I was in the hospital. They took my
stereo and my exacto knife set I used for sculpting. And so I just I decided that I
am done with this stuff. So I I reached out to my parents who have always been there for
me. They’ve never, ever abandoned me. I just I I distance myself because I wanted to do
the bad things basically. And so they took me back in. And and with their help and my
own stubbornness, I was able to get off of meth and to get off of probation. And thank
you. I, I really, it took a lot of effort to do that for sure. I mean, but it was definitely
the best thing that ever could have happened to me and about the time I was getting out
probation and getting off the meth and everything I had heard of a school for the blind in Salt
Lake City. And it wasn’t an academic school it was a like a rehabilitation center where
you go, people that have become blind go and they learn independent living skills and Braille
computer. They also had a wood shop there. And I decided that even though I thought they
were a little bit crazy, I would would try it out because I’ve always been really interested
in that kind of a thing. And I found my my one thing that people talk about,. You know,
that I am better at woodworking than anything else I’ve ever tried. And I guess part of
that was the teacher that I had he ended up actually becoming a very close friend and
when he retired I basically since I didn’t have a job, I would hang out with him, and
would work. And actually the table that you see I built that in his shop, and broke my
back twice while I was working on that table. Not related to the table, but figured I might
as well just keep building. So I, I finished it up in the back brace. But hey, it is what
it is. And it one one problem I’ve run into as a blind person. I don’t have computer skills.
I am a I’m a mechanic, I work with my hands, I build things, I fix things. And I, that
has caused me a lot of problems with employment because most places that you do work with
your hands or repair machines or whatever, they don’t want to hire a blind person. Especially
a blind, blind person with a black mark on their criminal history that just now basically
just said: “No, you’re, you’re not getting a job.” And a my friend that was teaching
me woodworking or you know had become my close friend. He had told me about the Emil Fries
“School of Piano Technology for the Blind”. That used to be in Vancouver, Washington.
It unfortunately closed down a couple of years ago. But it sounded like it was right up my
alley, and also seemed like the only job I was going to get was when I made. So I applied
to the school and, luckily, I was accepted, and came up here in 2011. And I I put my my,
this kind of woodworking on hiatus while I was doing piano work. But I was still fine
tune woodworking because rebuilding pianos is a lot of fine tune woodworking basically.
And it’s like making a wooden model, a mechanical wooden model. And I, I had a lot of fun with
that for sure. And not to mention I met my wonderful wife at the school in 2012. I was
working over the summer because I… The school mainly taught tuning and basic repair. And
I have to admit, I’m not the greatest tuner. I really wasn’t, but I’m a great mechanic.
So I was working with the guy that did their major rebuilding, who was getting ready to
retire, Rick Patton, and to learn how to fully rebuild new hammers and strings and everything.
And Annie was there painting a piano for a fundraiser. And I I walk into the work room
that we happen to be sharing and like an iron bar to a magnet, my hand goes in the wet paint
on her piano. That’s just how it works when you’re blind. And we were both embarrassed.
She had never really interacted with blind people, and I thought I had just destroyed
her painting. Luckily she was just priming. And we so we worked in the same work room
there for a couple of weeks, and got talking. And we decided we liked each other a bit.
We went on a date at the there’s a community center in Vancouver where you can rent 20
by 20 foot garden plots. And I had rented one with a friend of mine. And I had a massive
patch appease it was call it a hedge of peace because… Hey, I didn’t do the regular little
trellis is like normal. I, I did a twine border about a foot off the ground all around the
patch. And then I took twine and weaved it back and forth across that like a spider web.
So it just grew into this big mass of peas. And so I had hundreds of pieces to pick and
and she called me, and I told her: “I’m sorry, I’m busy right now I’ll have to call you back.”
And I really wasn’t busy. I was broke. I had no money. And so I’m trying to think of what
to do and and I thought: “Hey, she would love to go on a garden date picking peace with
me.” And it worked great. They invite my friends kind of gave me a hard time they’re like,
you know, this is like one of those dating video shows you see. Here we went to my garden
pick peas. I thought it was great. He made me pick peas. What am I your servant? Luckily
it went really well. And we ended up getting married right in front of that same garden
plot three years later. So that was, it’s it’s been a wonderful journey. And Annie has
has really been a huge part of my art journey. Because I, I worked rebuilding pianos for
a couple of years. And that got it was really fun when I was first learning it because it
was new and interesting, and it was science in geometry. But I’m a I’m a creative person,
and I like things that change. And once you learn the ins and outs of pianos, they’re
all the same 11,000 parts. So I just couldn’t see myself doing it anymore. And Annie bought
me my lave for my birthday, four years ago. And I just I needed to get back to my roots
where I really started. And her her mom asked me if I would make her little dresser top
jewelry dish. And I said: “Of course I would.” And I made her this nice, simple little jewelry
dish. And he posted it on Facebook. And within a day there are about 14 people that said:
“Hey, I want one of those too.” So that’s where my my professional woodworking career
started. And it’s it… Really no one would know who I was without Annie. She’s not just
the love of my life, she’s my press secretary. Really, she she’s the reason that I’m here
today, you know. Without her being my biggest fan and getting me out there on social media
all the time, which… I mean, if I tried to do all the pictures and stuff up getting
nose hair shots more often than not, you know. Like what exactly you’re going for there?
So I really, I can’t tell you how much she has helped me along my journey and encouraged
me so much. And she, she knows all the people in the art community around here and in Salt
Lake City. I there really isn’t a large enough community and it’s so insular that there’s
no possible way I could have found somewhere to sell my art that I could have actually
gotten a realistic amount of money for it, because of the amount of time that goes into
it. So moving up here really was was a wonderful, just it allowed me to do what I dreamed of
doing. When I finished that table. I remember thinking to myself: “Man, I wish I could do
this for a living.” Now I can it’s it’s great. You know, and there’s there’s kind of a funny
little thing that… When I was going to the piano school part of the curriculum was to
go to toastmasters. And and I don’t know if you know what that is, but it’s it’s an acronym.
And I don’t remember what it stands for, but it’s basically a public speaking group. And
there’s a handbook that goes with it. And there’s different subjects that you do talks
on and stuff. And the school thought it would be a good idea for us to do that so that we
would be comfortable talking to customers. And honestly, I fought it tooth and nail,
because I never saw the use in it. I I’m a piano technician, why would I need that? And
the funniest part about it is now I don’t work on pianos, but I do a lot of public speaking.
So you just never know how things are going to turn out. Okay, okay. Oh, okay. Gotcha.
All right. Well, I I’ll wrap it up with a few pieces of wisdom I’ve learned being in
the shop. And one is “be mindful and don’t put your finger there stupid”. First ball
I’ve ever made has some my blood in the wood. Because I got careless and distracted, and
had an accident that they needed 11 stitches and 8 weeks to heal. I left a trail of blood
like a wounded cowboy in a John Wayne movie all the way to the back door. You know, but
luckily I learned a valuable lesson like I said, mindfulness keep your mind on where
you are and what you’re doing and don’t put your finger there stupid. Number 2, “have
patience”. Patience is so important if I lose things a lot and anybody else this blind knows
that that is infuriating. And I like to say that there’s a little gremlin that follows
blind people around that likes to kick things when they drop them. And I mean, I know mine
has a couple of my tools in his belt that I’d sure like to have back. And it really
helps to keep my patience when I’m doing that. And there’s a quote from Bruce Lee “Patients
is not passive, patience is concentrated strength”. And, number three, “find joy in life, in anything”.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done something I could have gotten real frustrated
about, like forgetting the lawn mowers at the bottom of the stairs, and, you know, doing
some unintended acrobatics over the top of it and usually not sticking the landing. I’ll
be laying on the ground picturing what that looks like just laughing like a lunatic. It
just it helps a lot in it. Another thing is if you can’t do something one way you can
definitely find another way. It. There’s so many times that I’ve had to find different
ways to do things. And Martin Luther King says: “If you can’t fly, run if you can’t
run, walk, if you can’t walk, crawl, if you can’t see imagine.” I certainly never imagined
I would be a blind artist, a giving a talk in the Portland Art Museum. And I didn’t.
Let me tell you what that blows my mind just to say it. And a it makes me realize that
in a lot of ways I had to lose my sight to really gain my vision. Thank you, everyone.
Yeah, of course. So anyone have any questions? Oh, nice. Hello. Yes. Yeah, yeah. It, it definitely
does. I’ve got a real particular about my glue joints. I’ve got this big sander I like
to call Cornell Sanders. I use it to flatten out all the pieces real good before I glue
them together. And I get covered inside like a powder donut when I use that thing. Yeah
yeah, yeah definitely. And I… But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. I’m real I’m real
particular about you know like I said getting it it just right and everything. Not really
I mean cause i i like it you know. It’s it’s one of those things I actually have a hard
time pricing my stuff, because… I I love doing it so much. It I under value myself,
you know it’s like like: “I had a really fun time doing this. So, I don’t know, I mean.”
He tells me what he thinks the price should be and I add about 10 or $20 to it. Yeah,
yeah, it works out. But it… Yeah, I don’t really worry about it. I mean, and there have
been times when like, there will be a piece or two that goes through three or four shows
and nobody buys it. And so I’ll just give it to somebody like: “Here, you know, then
whatever, nobody, nobody else seems to love it, maybe you will.” Well, I have a very vivid
visual imagination still like a CAD program in my mind. And I like I can, I can just see
it right in front of me and and change it and twist it and do whatever I really want
to with it. And a lot of times I, I’ll let the piece of wood tell me what to do so to
speak. Because when you when you rough it out, and you get it round, it’s it’s never
perfectly round. You’ve always got some sort of a ridge or a sweeper or whatever, you know.
There there will be a little bit of a design that starting to poke out. And so i’ll i’ll
just kind of go with that. And I’ll start cutting away. And and I I’ve done a lot of
stuff with like the inside undercut the that’s kind of a signature of mine. I’ve done a lot
of those. Yeah, like like this one here. And I’ve even I wish I could remember to bring
one. I designed a smartphone amplifiers that has curved oversights like that in a kind
of a cone in the middle and it doubles the volume of your phone. Oh, no, go right ahead.
Yeah. So I mean you studied repair and were you right. I mean, obviously, you had a steady
income doing that pretty steady, you know. Because a lot of people need repair. How did
you get the, you know, self assuredness to say: “Hey you know I really love this woodworking
and I can make enough money to make a living at it.” Well, it definitely took some some
courage. I I got a lot of inspiration from Annie for sure. And we I had benefits also.
And the kind of the interesting thing about rebuilding pianos is kind of patchy because
a rebuilding a piano is as expensive as rebuilding a car. Like for instance, if you’re getting
new strings, and new hammers. And generally a piano that old needs two or three other
things, that’s about $7,000 worth of work, on in the average market. And and that’s even
the low end, that’s cheap. So it was hard to get business because you can, I mean, you
can buy a really nice piano for $7,000. You know, and, but the the woodworking has actually
been steadier. Because though it would be large paydays, it was also months to do the
work. I mean, new hammers and strings and those, you know, three or four other things.
It’s like two months worth of work. And, and so you’re not getting it all at once. it so
it kind of balanced out. And like I said, I got to where it was. It was a I dreaded
going to work because it was just the same thing in and out. And just all around there
was nothing different. The only things that were ever different, were things that manufacturers
did that I don’t know why they did it, but it made my job harder. That that’s basically
what it broke down down to. That was the only new thing you ever ran into. You know, so
so it… Yeah, I remember the piano that that took me over the edge. The piano. Oh, yes,
I remember the piano a Fisher Grand 1949, Fisher grand. Someone had poured a proxy all
around the tuning pins because they’re so worn out they wouldn’t hold a tune. And then
sprayed gold flake paint over everything to cover it up. So I spent a week sanding the
plate to get it ready to repaint by hand. And then we had to do strings. And then they
is… whoever done the epoxy thing had apparently gone on the internet and tried to look up
how to do some repairs because there were several things on there that we could tell,
someone that didn’t know what they were doing had tried to repair it. So that made my job
10 times harder. Not to mention, we didn’t know what we’re getting into. So we underbid
the job by probably $3,000. You know so so by the end of that when I was like: “I will
take this thing out in the parking lot and burn it for all I care.” So so that’s kind
of how I came around that journey. You only turn on the lasers or you… do other… laser
is your only instrument.? Well, I’ve thought about doing some hand carving, like relief
carving. But I just haven’t really had the time. And then otherwise laid work is my favorite.
So it’s not necessarily the only thing I can use but it’s the only thing I I’ve been wanting
to use. You know, I I’m actually very skilled at the with the table saw, and cabinetry and
joinery and those kind of things. But a bowl is it’s more instant gratification. It’s even
when you have to to glue something. You only have to wait one day and it doesn’t have to
be laser precision. I mean it just has to be close because it’s, it’s just a rough block
of wood that you’re going to be carving most of it away to turn it into a bowl. And so
you you start out with a rough block of wood that morning. And that evening you have a
beautiful finished bowl. Nice. Yeah, yeah, that’s something I’ve been wanting to try
is carving spoons. I recently used my big sander to shape some wooden spatulas, that
turned out really nice. Yeah, sounds good. Anyone? I have a question. I have actually
I’ve made two other tables. Fairly simple and tables that their design was purple heart
and put Duke, and there’s a rectangle in the center with a two inch strip of pewduke, rectangle
yellow heart in the center, 6 by 12 with a two inch strip of pewduke around that, purple
heart around that, and then a one inch strip of pewduke, and Purple Heart, and then some
simple legs and a skirt, I did set of two of those. And then I did a set of lamps that
are actually very similar designed to the table. They’re kind of what inspired the table
because I I made the lamps for my mom. And for years everything I made was for everybody
else, and I decided I’m making something for me. And I liked that design. And so I stuck
with it. I made a nice rifle box, some pistol handles and several jewelry boxes. So just
something I did on my own just kind of fun stuff. I I’ve only been professiaonally wood
working for about four years. Thank you very much, everyone. This has been wonderful. Transcribed by

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