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John Furniss- The Blind Woodsman and Anni Furniss, Painter
I had the honor and privilege to interview two artists for Creator Spotlight here at VeryCreate and I can’t wait to share with you this inspiring and joyful couple!
They have quite the background story and a made-for-the-movies love story. Hollywood, are ya listening??
Large turned bowl made with Pedauk, Yellow Heart, Black Walnut and Ash: 30 hours work and 22 pieces of wood
John had a tumultuous and heartbreaking teen and young adult life. At age 16 he survived an attempted suicide by gunshot. The injury left him permanently blind and without a sense of smell. A few years later he ended up with a felony conviction for telling someone where they could buy marijuana (in a state that has now legalized marijuana).
Eventually, John enrolled at the Emil Fries School of Piano (now closed) in Vancouver, Washington. This wonderful school taught many blind people how to tune and adjust pianos. He learned to take them apart and restring them as well, thanks to a teacher who recognized John’s abilities as a mechanic and woodworker.
No stranger to adversity, Anni struggles with depression and anxiety. Her mother gave her a set of oil paints that belonged to her great-grandmother and she found her art in painting.
Anni loves to use her skills by volunteering for non-profit organizations to benefit her community. It was one such project that brought them together. Anni was repainting a donated piano at the Fries School of Piano with a local youth shelter. John walked into the room where she was working and put his hand right on the wet paint. Fortunately, it was a classic “Meet-Cute”. They laughed it off and started a conversation. Soon the conversation led to her asking him out on a date. An unusual date. They ended up picking peas in the local community garden plot. Sitting in the dirt and just talking and laughing, “It was the best first date ever!”, Anni said.
Kindred spirits had found each other. In 2015 they got married in that very same pea patch garden. Today the couple live in Washougal, Washington near the Columbia Gorge.
Anni’s early career was as a professional photographer. What started out as taking fan photos at music concerts evolved into creating promotional photos and album covers for musicians.
John began repairing pianos. It provided him with a modicum of independence, but after a number of years, it began to sap his soul. “It was so repetitive. It was sucking the life out of my artistic soul.” In 2016 Anni bought him a lathe. (A woodworking tool that turns pinned wood on a central spindle at very fast speeds. Sharp wood knives are then used to carve down the wood block into round or hollowed vessels). Lathe work had always been his true passion. He began creating beautiful turned bowls, pots and other creations and selling them.
A work counselor encouraged John to pursue his woodworking as a career. He took a leap of faith and sidelined his piano repairing efforts to focus full-time on woodworking.
Together with Anni’s paintings, they began doing the art and craft fair circuit. It was grueling work.
John thought back on those years. “We didn’t let our goal blind us to the steps of hard work in between. We worked all the art festivals and art and craft fairs. The physical labor side of it was exhausting. With a small business, it is about momentum. It is super hard at first, then gradually, it goes on its own speed. Consistency is key.”
Anni worked three jobs to support them. Slowly they gained a modest following for their works.
For artists, January and February are “sales deserts”. There are no art shows and very few ways to generate income during the darkest months of winter. John and Anni organized a local art festival in February 2019 they dubbed Love Fest. It was located at a beautiful event center right on the Columbia River called The Black Pearl. They invited musicians, street performers, artists, food vendors, and even a documentarian who recorded people’s love stories. It was a resounding success with over 1,400 people attending.
Fortuitous Bump In The Road
By this time, Anni was really burning out. She needed a break and the world provided it. Covid hit. They were fortunate to get a few grants to survive the worst of it. As a diversion from being home isolated, they started posting in Tik Tok. Tik Tok is an app similar to Facebook, but people post very short videos and snippets to share. Famous among the younger generation and those who love fun videos, Tik Tok is a contemporary goldmine for people looking to boost their online presence.
They post funny, creative and fun videos about life as a blind person, as painter, a blind woodsman, and as advocates for mental health. People got to know both Anni and John and fell in love with them. It is easy to do! You will love them too. Their sunny outlook on life, their humor and positivity are just what the world needs. Every now and then they would show what they were working on with their arts. And sales happened! Sales from all around the world! Now, a little more than a year later, they post a new batch of work each week and it sells out immediately, sometimes within minutes.
Their following has swelled to over 600,000 people (as of today) with over 7 million likes, and is growing like crazy! They interact with fans and followers on Tik Tok, Instagram and online and sell their works via their website (which Anni built by herself).
Both John and Anni endure plenty of physical and mental challenges that would crush most people. They have found a secret that the rest of us need to learn. When asked how they do it, they both said “What helps us is that we celebrate all the victories. Don’t lose the sense of wonder and awe. Enjoy the journey.”
Anni’s paintings are part abstract, part visionary and part storytelling. They don’t tell the whole story, though. Each viewer is left to interpret her work and claim it as their own story. I love that. I asked her if her concept or the technique comes first.
“I love stories. I love Joseph Campbell. There is mythology in everything. I try not to tell too much of the story in my art because everyone perceives the painting differently.”
Often using cool tones, which contrast with John’s warm-hued wood bowls, Anni creates from an abstract background. Then she puts on some great music or listens to a movie so that her brain is partially occupied. The rest of her brain is free to experiment, play and explore. “As it evolves, sometimes I see what it is becoming and I go with it. Sometimes I just see where I want to take it.”
Sometimes she will post a painting on social media and ask her audience to title the painting for her. The responses are personal and reinforce the connection she has with her audience, not only with her, but with each other. It is an extraordinary community of mutual respect, inspiration and positivity.
In addition to her own work as an artist, Anni has evolved into a videographer. Talk about finding blessings of the shutdown!
John likes to use hardwoods in his turnings. His beautiful bowls, vessels and canisters are often made of mahogany, padauk, maple, ash, sapele, black walnut and pine. Anni helps with color selection and he scratches marks in the wood so he can identify areas where he can design as he is creating. He envisions the finished product before he makes the first cut.
When I asked him if there were any shortcuts to learning lathe work, he said “There are no shortcuts. Lathe turning is ALL experience. It is constant learning.”
John likes to try new things constantly. One of his unique designs is a smartphone amplifier bowl.
The rim is turned into the bowl, with a dome center, creating an acoustic chamber similar to a piano. It is the perfect meld of his experience repairing pianos and the creativity of his woodworking.
His top sellers right now are his salt cellars and honey pots, which have a unique design that seals the lid so ants can’t get in.
John is an innovator, artist, mechanic and practical craftsman with his woodworking.
In addition, John is a motivational speaker, most recently as a VANTalks guest speaker at Kiggins Theater. He shares his story and advocates for mental health and finding joy wherever you are in life. He especially feels driven to connect with youth dealing with sometimes grueling and heavy circumstances.
Off To The Future
In December 2019, John received a full pardon from Colorado Governor Jared Polis. In the pardon, Gov. Polis wrote “Others who have experienced circumstances similar to yours may look to your for guidance and inspiration.”
It is the growing connection that Anni and John have with their audience that fuels them both. Their art together is the perfect meld of yin and yang. His is warm-toned hard surfaces that are practical and beautiful. Hers are intuitive, cool-toned and touched with spiritual symbolism.
Sometimes they collaborate on one piece of art. Here are two pieces they recently completed:
This piece is particularly beloved by their fans because it is titled Honey Bee, because John refers to Anni as his ‘Honey Bee’.
They look forward to the end of Covid when they can continue growing Love Fest each year and John can resume his motivational speaking engagements.
Together they bolster each other, help each other and look for joy in everyday things. John and Anni can inspire and teach us all.
Find Them Here:
You can purchase their art (if you are lucky!) at their website:
Follow them on Tik Tok:
Support them on Patreon:
Check out this outstanding video by Great Big Story:
Here is the piece Oregon Public Broadcasting created about them: