A woodworker’s journey

Washougal man transforms challenges into opportunities

A lamp that John Furniss is working on in his shed.

This is the first bowl that John Furniss made about two years ago. John caught his finger in his lathe machine while making this bowl, but 11 stitches and four days later it was finished. John gave the bowl to Anni Becker Furniss, his wife, as a gift.

John Furniss, Pickle Furniss and Anni Becker Furniss are pictured with a bowl made out of the heavy woods ash and bubinga wood that John made. John created this large bowl in about four days.

John Furniss created "Jupiter," a bowl made of padauk wood that sits on a hallway table in his home. John and his wife, Anni Becker Furniss, collect rocks from the hikes that they go on and keep them in the bowl.

John Furniss holds a bowl and ring that he created through woodworking. The small items that John sells range between $20 and $45.

John Furniss and his wife, Anni Becker Furniss, live with their rescue dog, Pickle, in Washougal. John spends much of his time creating woodwork in their shed, and Anni is an artist with skills from photography to fiber art.

The couple’s shed is full of woodworking tools such as a table saw, band saw and lathe that John, 36, uses with proficiency, despite the fact that he is completely blind.

When John was 16, he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. The bullet did not end his life, but in a way allowed him to create a new one.

“I’m so different now that I may have been born when I became blind,” John says. “Really, I’m just a completely different person, and that’s a good thing.”

As a child, John did most of his growing up in Craig, Colorado.

“It’s just kind of a wide spot in the road,” he said. “There’s nothing much to it but ranching, coal and oil.”

John says he was not popular growing up in Craig, so when his family moved to Gillette, Wyoming when he was 13, he decided to rebrand himself.

John made the transition into the “bad boy” and began smoking cigarettes and drinking.

“I was way too young to do that for sure,” he said. “I got really depressed and I felt like I was just kind of an outcast. I didn’t really connect with anybody, and I really had some kind of sketchy thoughts and finally it all came to a head and I tried to commit suicide.”

When you’re a teenager everything is right now, John says.

“The future is forever away and the past is gone, so thinking about going through the next three years of high school feeling the way I did and stuff, it just seemed like forever, and it seemed like it was unstoppable,” he said. “It just felt kind of hopeless to me, although it really wasn’t.”

However, looking back at it, John said his suicide attempt is all a part of his journey.

While reflecting on his life, he says he became a better person after becoming blind.

Not long after his attempt, John struggled when he moved back to Craig on his own, where he says there was nothing but trouble waiting for him.

“I got pretty heavily into some pretty nasty drugs, meth,” he says. “When I think back on that, I’m glad that I made it out alive. It’s one of those things where I saw some dark stuff, and so it gave me a wider perspective on the world.”

John’s parents, Alan and Karen Furniss,saw his struggle and took him home with them to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was able to get clean.

John recalled a poster he remembers seeing that said you don’t know the value of the mountain top without the valley.

“And I think that’s so true, and I know that’s something that’s really affected my outlook on life now,” he said.

John discovered his passion for woodwork in 2006 when he attended The Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Utah, a school where people who are blind learn to live on their own and are given the option to take a woodshop class.

“I thought they were insane for the woodshop at first,” John says. “But I’ve always been interested in that kind of stuff, and it just flows naturally out of me. I just found my niche.”

John became close with Chris Hathaway, a retired woodshop teacher at the school, who invited John to work in his personal shop with him.

“We became really good friends and we’d just woodwork, hang out and have a good time about five days a week,” John said.

Hathaway quickly became a mentor to John, and in his shop is where John refined his skills by learning how to put trim on pieces and use contrast and exotic woods.

“He made sure I did it right and I finally, after a few years, came to terms with the whole sanding and finish work and just turned it into a meditation time,” John said. “Because if you keep your eyes on the end of the road, it just seems like forever.”

John is able to move around his own shop smoothly because of his keen spacial awareness.

“I always visualize everything,” he said. “That’s how I come up with my ideas for designs and everything. I’ve basically got a computer design program in my head. I can use whatever colors I want, whatever shape, anything.”

John made his way to the Pacific Northwest in February 2011 to attend the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind, in Vancouver.

“The first time I came here it was for a three-day trial period to see if I got accepted to the school, and the moment I stepped off the plane it felt like my soul was home,” he said.

John says that he feels like he was made to live in this area.

Although the piano school closed last year, John and his wife Anni share their first memories with each other there.

It was at the school where the two first met. Anni was painting a piano in a workroom where John was also rebuilding a piano.

“I came in and immediately put my hand on the wet piano,” John says.

The two spent time getting to know each other at the school before Anni asked him on their first date.

Anni and John spent their first date at the Marshall Center in Vancouver, picking peas from a garden that John had grown.

“It was the most perfect first date ever,” Anni says. “We picked peas while the sun was setting, and I was sitting in the dirt barefoot and it was like my happy place.”

Three years later, Anni and John were married in the same place where they spent time picking peas.

Anni says John is always surprising her with his abilities, such as how he can mow the lawn, repair cars, brew beer and bake cookies and bread.

“He breaks the mold on pretty much everything.” Anni says. “John is the strongest person I’ve ever met, for all the stuff that he’s overcome and he’s just this gentle, sweet, kind person. From his background, it’s not something you’d imagine. If someone just heard his story they would probably picture someone pretty rough around the edges now, but he’s the kindest person.”

The couple celebrates John’s life day on April 10, the day he attempted suicide, by taking time to do a life affirming activity.

“(His attempt) gave him more challenges, but he was able to overcome those,” Anni said.

John said he has a good outlook on life now.

“I definitely have a keep going sort of attitude,” he said. “I’ll lose things in the shop sometimes, and I look until I find it even if that’s 90 minutes later.”

John said being blind has taught him to go with the flow.

“I am very independent and I go around walking a lot by myself,” he said. “You’re going to catch a branch in the face every now and then, or a road is going to be closed every now and then. You have to go with the flow and just take life as it comes.”

If John could offer advice to others who may be struggling with depression, it would be to find something constructive to lose yourself in.

“Try to get out of yourself, that’s a big part of it,” he said. “Get out of yourself, get out of your head.”

Currently, John is searching for a part-time job while also working to build his woodworking inventory, as well as his reputation as a woodworker.

John says his goal is to be able to do his woodwork for a living.

The community in Washougal is the perfect place to do that, he says.

“It’s better up here (compared to Utah) because there’s a big artist community and people want unique stuff,” John says. “They don’t want to go to Walmart and buy the same old crap that’s everywhere, and so that has actually created a place where I can do this for a living.”

Above all, John wants his work to be respected for its quality and not because someone who’s blind made it.

John is preparing for the Washougal Studio Artists Tour, May 12 and 13. His work can be found on Etsy, under “TheBlindWoodsman.”