At thirty-three, he was living the American dream—married, kids, nice house in Santa Barbara, a good paying job as an engineer and vice president at his job. But something was missing.
Paul Thorne grew up in an upper-middle class family in Seattle. Like everyone in his family the goal was to go to college and become some sort of professional. Going into a trade wasn’t something someone did, and being an artist, well?
Paul attended Roosevelt High School in Seattle. It was the sixties, and Roosevelt was the high school for students preparing for college. Being severely dyslexic, Paul struggled in school, failing most of his classes. A High School Counselor knew Paul had potential so he created the first work-study program and sent Paul to a machinist shop where he learned the tools of the trade. Paul flourished, passed, and graduated with his class.
After high school he joined the United States Marine Corp and was sent to Vietnam. It was 1966. Being a marine taught him how to push himself, he learned what was important and what wasn’t, he came back a different person. It made him stronger.
Dressed in his Marine uniform, Paul approached the Dean at Washington State University; he was getting out of the service and wanted to attend college. It was Christmas break; the campus was empty and quiet. The Dean asked for Paul’s high school transcripts.
Paul had a D average. The Dean said, “Mr. Thorne you are not remotely qualified to come to the University. You probably should go to Junior College.”
They talked for a little while longer and the Dean decided since over half the students didn’t return after freshmen, he would admit Paul and let him try.
Paul excelled in college. The first three years, he studied Political Science and got a 4.0. In his senior year, he took classes to get ready for grad school; he wanted to go into the Diplomatic Core and studied International Law. Paul received his first B, which meant his chances of getting into grad school went down considerably. Paul decided this wasn’t his future after all, he transferred to Western University and got a degree in Industrial Design. Like his dad, he was going to be an engineer.
Fascinated with Jacques Cousteau, Paul went to a deep-sea diving school to get qualified as a commercial diver. After college he got a job with an undersea engineering company and designed underwater equipment for life support. Paul designed and built the world’s first deepest saturation diving equipment. He was at the top of his game and moving up the corporate ladder fast.
Business was booming, he traveled the world, it was fast-paced, and he was always on call.
“I was good at it, but I just knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing,” Paul said. But he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing.
Living in Santa Barbara with a young family, he was stressed out, couldn’t sleep, and just knew there was more. One night after a particularly bad day at work he went out to the garage picked up a nail, a butane torch, a pair of vise grips, heated up the nail and started pounding. He had no intention of doing anything, just wanted to blow off steam. Later a little fork formed, he had made something. The next day after work, he came home and went straight to the garage and tried it again and came away with a spoon.
Paul attended the National Guild Conference for blacksmiths. He found his calling, he found his people. Afterwards, Paul called his wife and said. “I found it, I found my calling, I found my people.”
At thirty-three he left Corporate America and became a blacksmith.
His first shop was an 8x10 Sears Garden Shed. He immediately started to get work and did some big jobs. After about two years, they sold everything and moved to Anacortes, WA.
Paul belongs to the NW Blacksmith Association a chapter of The Artists Blacksmith Association of North America. Nationwide there are approximately 5,000 in the guild, only about 500 or so make their living in the trade.
Within 200 miles of Anacortes are some of the best blacksmiths in the world. “This is a wonderful place to be a Smith,” Paul said.
Being a blacksmith and an artist, has its rewards, and also has its downfalls. Paul found success and also struggled to make ends meet, but he never gave up on his calling.
His studio today is filled with tools made by him, equipment like a one-blow hammer that hits with a 125lb blow or a 50-ton press, and filled with history. He often makes new tools for a job, but if a tool isn’t used in six months he disposes of them. His steel is often recycled from jobs or friends who no longer need it.
He makes notes, when he is working, by using a memory board; recording each step it took to get to the final piece.
“What’s amazing is you start with steel, once you form and shape, you end up with a work of art.”
When doing commission work, he would often bring a client into his shop and educate them on the process. Thousands of hammer blows can be used to make a single piece. As a society focused on consumerism, we often lose sight of how art is really created, and the length of time put into it.
“Anything worth doing you can expect to sweat and pay your dues,” he said. “That’s how you get good at it.”
Almost seventy now, Paul is in semi-retirement mode. Now, he spends most of his time doing art for himself, and what he really enjoys— teaching. On the first Saturday of the month he does an introductory class for up to six students. Over the years he estimates he has taught over one hundred students and has helped six of his apprentices set up their business.
The passion is still there, the metal still calls to him; it has just changed the tune a little.