John and Anni Furniss: I gained vision when I lost my sight.
An interview with artists John and Anni Furniss.
Anni: I started painting when I was around 17 or 18. I struggled with depression when I was a teenager, I had a really hard time. My mom gave me my great-grandfather’s paints, he was an artist. I started painting and I wasn’t very good at it but I loved it. It snowballed into different art mediums after that. Photography was my main art form for over 15 years. About four years ago, I stopped doing photography, it was starting to become a little commercial for me and losing its original intent. It was time to move on. I hadn’t been painting all this time, but I started doing an art challenge I found online where everyday I created a new piece of art, and it was like riding a bike, my skills started developing and coming back. It took on a life of its own. I still struggle with anxiety and depression and I use art to help with that.
John: I grew up in a little town in Colorado called Craig and I had always struggled fitting in and feeling accepted and I always hid it. When that built and built, it got to the point where I attempted suicide when I was 16 and that’s how I became blind. Luckily, it only took my sight and my sense of smell and left my mind totally intact. I like to say ‘I gained vision when I lost my sight.’ I got into drugs off and on pretty heavily until I was about 23 or 24. I kind of drifted back and forth between clean and not. It was meth and cocaine, so that was a pretty rough time in my life, not to mention I was on probation, so I basically lived in constant fear that I was going to get caught and thrown in jail. That was rough, that was not a great time in my life. I ended up getting a sinus infection that was so severe that I had to have all the bone in my forehead removed. I ended up having to have two major surgeries for that and then a third one to put the prosthetic plate in, and I kind of figured at that point it was ‘game over, let’s reach out for some help’ and I reached out to my parents. They took me back in, I was able to get clean off meth and get off probation. I was looking for a direction to go and I started working with vocational rehab in Utah and part of their stipulation was that you go through a training center at this blind school. There were cooking and cleaning classes, braille and computer, and they also had a woodshop. I thought they were kind of crazy at first, but I’ve always been adventurous and I decided I’d give it a try and I took to it like a duck to water. I’m better at woodworking than anything else I’ve ever tried. Woodworking replaced drugs for me. It gave me a reason to keep on going. I was able to take an image in my mind and turn it into a real physical object that I can hand to you and you can see what I saw. It’s almost like gaining vision again in a small way. I think that I’m supposed to be blind, I really do. I wouldn’t trade my experiences. I gained a wider view of the world, it gave me a much larger appreciation for good things. You gotta take the good times with the bad, they all shape you.
While introducing themselves to me, Anni and John also introduced me to their dog, Pickles.
What is your favorite thing to make?
John: One of my favorite things to make is a smartphone amplifier I designed. It’s a specially shaped bowl that basically doubles the volume of your phone when you put it in. I designed it myself from scratch. It’s almost like making a machine.
Anni: It’s like a wooden radio!
Can you tell me about your process?
John: I don’t always know the exact design, but I’ll know that I want to end up with a bowl. I don’t like to copy my designs, I try to make everything unique. The wood always starts as a squared off block, you mount that to a metal plate and then you screw that onto the motor of the lathe which turns it. It’s like wooden pottery except you use chisels instead of your fingers. The first thing you do is round off all the edges, it never ends up perfectly straight, there will be a little bit of a curve here or a ring there. Sometimes I’ll just feel that and go with the design that kind of appeared. There are other times that I have a very complex project that I’ve sat down and worked with for days. But I love every minute of it.
How has social media changed your lives and your work?
Anni: We’ve always used social media to promote our work, but it wasn’t till this year that it just exploded. This year, when the pandemic hit, all of our festivals were cancelled. Up until this year, we relied on art festivals and shows to make a living, so we were panicking a little bit. I had quit my day job, we were doing this full time and we didn’t have a backup. We started making TikToks for fun, just to help our mental health. All of a sudden, John just went viral. Authenticity has been the best thing we possibly could’ve done. John’s online store sells out in 5–10 minutes every week. We post things at 8 am PST and it’s gone by 8:30. It’s wild, we never would’ve imagined.
John: It makes me feel so good. As a blind person, most of my life I’ve been unemployed. I work with my hands, I’m a mechanic, a woodworker, and businesses like that won’t hire a blind person. Not to mention, I was a felon. I was a blind felon. There was no chance anyone was going to hire me. I figured I’d be living on government assistance my entire life. I thought I’d never be able to find a job lucrative enough to support myself, let alone us. We’ve been able to create our own jobs, we’re living our dream, but we didn’t get here overnight.
Anni: John had been doing public speaking and we were really sad that all of those events were cancelled, so social media has let him continue sharing his messages.
John: Up until we started using TikTok, we were a local thing. TikTok has let us reach people on a global scale. We sell t-shirts to people in Europe. We’ve sold stuff to people in almost every single state. It’s been wonderful. The cool thing about it is, it’s not just business, it’s allowed us to get our message out there and help people to ‘see the light,’ so to speak.
Anni: It’s allowed us to feel connected to people, especially now.
John: People send audio messages from all over the world.
What advice can you give to aspiring artists?
John: I would say to keep on going. That’s one of the most important things. If you can’t do it one way, you can find another way. It might take a little longer, it might take a couple of extra steps, but you’ll get there.
Anni: Be yourself and tell your story. Share your art, even share the work in progress that you might be embarrassed to show other people, because it’s relatable.
What are your next steps?
Anni: I’m currently writing a book about our lives and our relationship. It’s called ‘I see you.’ It’s a personal story about what’s worked for us and how we get through challenges.
John: And what it’s like to be in a relationship with a disabled person. Sometimes the person I was dating didn’t like that I couldn’t see them and compliment them on how they look. Not to mention, I’m a blind guy, I break stuff, I spill stuff.
Anni: You definitely have to have a little more patience both as a blind person and as a spouse of a blind person.
That’s such an important thing to talk about and normalize.
John: Yeah, that’s one reason I like to talk about my suicide attempt. There’s a stigma where it’s shameful and it shouldn’t be treated as a shameful thing.
Anni: A lot of people struggle with mental health and it’s hard to talk about, especially when you’re inside of it.
Anything else you want to add? Literally anything. You could tell a joke.
John: I’ll tell you my absolute favorite blind joke.
“There’s a plane full of people, they’re waiting for the pilots to get on. The pilots get on and they’re in their uniforms and everything. They’ve both got sunglasses on, one has a white cane and the other has a guide dog, and everyone is kind of laughing like oh these blind guys are teasing us. But, they go up into the cockpit and close the door and the engine starts and the plane starts going down the runway faster and faster and the passengers see they’re about to go off the end and into the water and they all start screaming. Right at that time, the plane lifts up into the air and there’s no problem. Meanwhile, up in the cockpit, one of the pilots says to the other, ‘You know Bob, one of these days they’re gonna scream too late and we’re all gonna die.’