Artists’ ‘Love Fest’ all about connection

John and Anni Furniss to host free event featuring 40 artists, live music on Feb. 8

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John and Anni Furniss display some of their artwork in their Washougal woodshop on Thursday, Jan. 23. The artists created Love Fest, an art bazaar and community gathering, which will be held Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Black Pearl on the Columbia in Washougal. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

John and Anni Furniss have what they consider to be a romantic love story.

By creating Love Fest, an art bazaar and community gathering to be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Black Pearl on the Columbia in Washougal, the Washougal artists hope to not only share that story, but to show others that the old adage of “love makes the world go around” is really true, and more important now than ever.

“Our lives are surrounded by love in different ways,” Anni said. “John and I are an example of what love can accomplish, not just romantically, but because of how much support we’ve received from the community, our friends and our family. The world can be a pretty tough place, especially right now. The idea (of this event) is about connection.”

The free event will feature artwork from 40 regional artists; live music; food; and children’s crafts.

“I think it’s a manifestation of things that are important to us,” Anni said. “We love to create, and this is just another one of our creations. We don’t have kids, so we make other things.”

“We joke around that since we don’t have kids, we pour ourselves into our creations, so it’s kind of like they’re our kids,” John added. “This is the only instance when it’s OK to sell your kids.”

John, also known as “The Blind Woodsman,” is a renowned woodworker who creates tables, lamps, jewelry boxes, bowls and other items from recycled materials with a lathe. Anni is an acrylic painter and mixed media artist.

“I think a big part of creating love in a community is connecting and gathering people for the same kind of purpose, and (having) people being able to connect on that level,” Anni said. “For John and I, art is a big connector. Huge. That’s how we met, and something that has helped us overcome some pretty hard things in our lives.

“For me art has been a big healing tool,” she continued. “I had depression when I was a teenager, and I used art to cope with that. John and I talk a lot about how art is healing. We go to schools and do talks. We have seen how art brings people together. That was the idea of this event. There’s all these different layers to it.”

The Furnisses have been assisted by several local artists, including Washougal residents Kelli Rule and Jeffree White, who are organizing the event’s musical performances.

“John and Anni are among Washougal’s more prolific and admired artists and community volunteers,” Rule said. “Everything they do, they do with a full heart and an attitude of service. When I and my fellow Washougal Arts and Cultural Alliance board members heard about the Furniss’ plans for Love Fest, we voted quickly and unanimously to support the event as a financial sponsor. So it’s not just me and Jeffree — I’d say that most if not all of Washougal’s arts leaders have faith in the Furniss’ vision and their ability to execute an event of this ambition and scope.”

Providing an opportunity for artists in the winter months was another motivator for the Furnisses.

“This time of year is actually real difficult for artists because there’s nothing going on,” Anni said. “We thought, ‘Hey, this would be a good time to get some artist friends together to help everybody make a little bit of money but also to get the community together.'”

“We started thinking that we’ll make it a community social event as well because not only is there not much for artists (during the winter), but it’s that time of year when it’s hard, right there on the cusp of spring, but not quite, and a lot of people get bummed out this time of year,” John added. “The moment we started reaching out to artists, before it was really planned out, immediately we almost had enough to fill the bill within a couple of days. They were saying the exact same things we were saying. ‘Wow, that’s great. There’s nothing at the time of year. It’s so hard.'”

And as for the love story that started Love Fest? On the Furniss’ website, it’s titled “Love at First Sight… Kind Of.”

John and Anni first met in 2012 at the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver. John, who had moved to the area from Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2011, was a student, and Anni was a participating artist in the school’s “Keys to the City” fundraising project, collaborating with a group of children that lived at the Open House Family Shelter.

One day, while Anni was painting a piano before the students arrived, John walked into the classroom and put his hand on the still-wet instrument. “Like iron (drawn) to a magnet, if there’s wet paint somewhere, a blind person will put their hand on it,” John said. Both of them immediately apologized.

They spent the next week working in the same classroom on their separate projects and soon realized they had much in common, including their mutual love of music.

“Long story short, I called John to ask him out, and he didn’t have any money at the time, so he was like, ‘Why don’t we go pick peas at my community garden?'” Anni said. “I was like, ‘Awesome.’ I’m kind of a granola hippie girl. We had a super romantic date there, and (three years later) we ended up getting married there in the same spot, with the whole community surrounding us, all these people that loved us. It was awesome.”