“Don’t let life pass you by”

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Chatham woodturner continues to create despite visual impairment

Michael Blankenship makes woodworking sound easy.

How to make a bowl from a block of wood? Cut off anything that doesn’t look like a bowl, says the cheerful 60-year-old, who makes a living turning whole trees into bowls, lids, boxes and Christmas decorations.

It’s simple, but Blankenship had to learn woodworking twice. Since 2004, Blankenship has operated a shop with a large selection of high-performance blade blinds.

The Chatham resident has always loved working with trees. “My father was a carpenter,” Blankenship said. “When I was a kid, I cut boards and nailed them together.”

Through years of military service, marriage, starting a family, and working full-time as a cardiopulmonary technician at Doctor’s Hospital in Springfield, Blankenship honed his skills and eventually turned his garage into a fully equipped woodworking shop. It has been renovated.

When his inventory grew large enough to give away to family and friends, Blankenship began selling watches and furniture at local craft shows. Soon his hobby income exceeded his hospital salary, and he began woodworking full time in 1999.

At the urging of a craft show acquaintance, Blankenship submitted his work to a juried Renaissance fair. He was accepted and soon became a noted craftsman, doing well enough to purchase his own buildings for his five permanent Renaissance fairgrounds across the country. “I did ridiculously well in that,” he says.

However, in 2002, he contracted the flu and lost his eyesight.

Little was known about AZOOR (acute zonal occult outer retinopathy), so Blankenship had to seek help. Over the next two years, while antibodies consumed his eye’s rods and cones in search of protein, doctors made recommendations, suggested trials and treatments, and no one ever went completely blind from AZOOR. I assured you there wasn’t. Blankenship became the first in 2004.

Rediscovering woodworking

Blankenship sold his building, sat in a recliner, listened to books on tape, took on sewing projects with his wife, Jackie, and gained 50 pounds.

Then in 2007, the former trapshooter, Army parachute fitter, skydiver and entrepreneur decided to take a stand. “If he didn’t, he would just sit there and die,” he says.

Around that time, Blankenship was visiting a sawmill he owned with his brother-in-law in Athens and met Ronnie Bogg, who was showing him a bowl he had turned over. When Blankenship said he wished he could do the same, Bogg offered practical encouragement.

“Slow down the lathe,” he said simply, without question. “I always say Ronnie saved me from La-Z-Boy.”

First, Jackie Blankenship brought home a how-to videotape. He listened over and over again while his wife worked, trying to recreate his instructions using a plastic mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. Each night, Blankenship demonstrated the techniques he had heard that day, allowing Jackie to observe and modify as needed. This continued until Blankenship felt confident enough to try the real thing.

“Do you think it’s okay to be careful?” Jackie asked him, knowing that he had already cut his finger twice on a table saw when he was still able to see.

The next day, when his daughter Jennifer returned home from high school, she saw her father working on wood in a dark store and called her mother. “Do you know what your father is doing?!”

“Learn to adapt”

Today, Blankenship, who has made many modifications to standard woodworking, has a thriving business, is a member of various woodworking clubs, and is invited to give lectures nationally.

“I do a lot of things differently because I’m blind and I’m self-taught,” he says. “Do what works best for you. Learn to adapt.”

This is the same advice he offers for anyone with any kind of physical limitation.

“You have to try. Don’t sit and think. Don’t let life get by,” Blankenship says. “Get out of your chair and do something. If you need help, accept it. If you can help, offer it.”

About Michael Blankenship

Age: 60 years old

Family: Wife Jackie, 1 daughter, 2 sons

Favorite wood: Wild black cherry. “It’s a beautiful wood that sands well, bends well,” Blankenship said.

want to know more?

To view more of our collection and contact Michael Blankenship directly, please visit: www.turningblind.com Or email michael@turningblind.com.

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