Life, love, art

Washougal woodworker doesn’t let blindness slow him down

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John Furniss has been blind since he was 16 years old. But far from sitting around and feeling sorry for himself, John is an artist who also bakes bread, mows his own lawn, volunteers at Habitat for Humanity and does routine house maintenance.

His passion, however, is woodworking. The 35-year-old creates pieces from recycled materials in the shop of his Washougal home.

Using a lathe, Furniss makes tables, lamps, jewelry boxes and bowls. He learned the craft of woodworking while attending the School for the Blind in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a young man.

“I have been interested in woodworking most of my life, but didn’t really start doing it until after I was blind,” he said. “I had a great teacher who was blind as well. He inspired my creativity and gave me the confidence to know I can create beautiful pieces. I take an image that is only in my mind as a blueprint, and turn it into reality.”

Furniss learned how to successfully use a table saw, mentally keeping track of how far away he is from the blade.

“I have mangled my fingers a few times, but not anything that was too bad,” he joked. “The main issue is, I love to move my fingers on the wood so I can feel it, otherwise it would look like some blind guy did it.”

Furniss enjoys a good laugh, even if it is at his expense. One of his favorite shirts has the saying, “You’ll need to speak up, I’m blind.”

“I always like to say I was really born the day I became blind,” he said. “I am so much more patient, peaceful and zen now. I tend to think things through, and try to be logical and go with the flow.”

His wife, Anni Furniss, calls her husband the most non-judgemental person she has ever met.

“He can’t see the things that other people consider flaws,” she said. “No one is ugly to him, except when their words are ugly.”

Anni, 39, is also an artist, and met John while he was attending The School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver four years ago. She was painting a piano for the school’s annual fundraiser when John came up and accidentally leaned onto the wet paint.

“I apologized, we started talking and things went from there,” he said.

“The first thing I noticed about him were the dimples,” Anni said. “I was a little nervous about him being blind because I didn’t have experience with anyone blind.”

However, as the two kept chatting, they discovered their commonalities outweighed everything else.

“It just felt right, like I had finally met my person,” she said.

“I felt like we clicked right away,” he added.

John wanted to ask her out, but hesitated.

“So, she called me one day and asked if I would like to go on a date. I was totally broke at the time but had a nice garden at the Marshall Community Center, so we went and picked peas together. It’s like something you hear about on a bad date show. My friends gave me a hard time about that.”

Anni, however, loved the idea.

“I was totally excited because I like that kind of earthy stuff,” she said.

The couple married three years later in the spot of that first date.

“We got a garden plot together and tended to it all season,” Anni said. “It was a great metaphor for our wedding. It was beautiful.”

Anni makes her living as a painter, Habitat for Humanity office coordinator and photographer.

“John has helped me to become a better artist because he has taught me to pay attention to my senses more,” she said.

The most challenging aspect to their relationship wasn’t John’s blindness, Anni noted. It was integrating their lifestyles together.

“He was basically living in an apartment complex with a bunch of single guys,” she joked. “It was a like a frat house in there. But it was also exactly what he needed because he had not lived independently before as an adult.”

While Anni has learned about the world from the perspective of a non-sighted person, John has learned how to take more risks.

“She has really helped boost my confidence,” he said. “And we have helped each other meet other types of people.”

The couple moved from Vancouver to Washougal last spring, and have enjoyed exploring the area.

“Here, ‘community,’ is much more than just a word,” Anni said. “Here, people are truly invested.”

Added John, “This is home.”