Photos by Steve Shay
Des Moines driftwood sculptor & instructor Jean Thornber, 93, continues teaching her art at the Huntington Park activity center where she lives. She is pictured, left, with a bird shape she is polishing with a deer antler, a common tool of the trade. Pictured right, she stands proudly by her sculpture she calls her harp.

Driftwood sculptor Jean Thornber, 93, like her artwork, still shines bright

Des Moines sculptor Jean Thornber just turned 93, and is aging gracefully like the driftwood she has polished throughout her adult life. She continues teaching her art at the Huntington Park activity center where she lives. She has also taught at Green River College and Highline College, and at community centers in Kent, Auburn, and Black Diamond. She sells her work through word of mouth, but avoids art fairs and shows.

"We take mother nature, and improve it," Thornber declared, referring to those who share her passion. "It's so much fun. You can't believe what you can do with an old muddy piece that mother nature's got out there once you bring it in here. We don't like perfect square pieces, or perfect circles, and will change the shape to form a sculpture. We can cut away pieces, but we never attach two pieces together. That wouldn't be art. It would be a craft.

"To be a good 'driftwood hunter' you have to have what we call a 'seeing eye,'" she said. "We don't find our wood on salt water beaches. The tide comes in and out and it ends up as a stick, so we are looking around lakes, along rivers, and in sand dunes away from the beach. We only use dead wood."

She holds up a large, heavy, chunk of shiny wood, a football shape with well-defined, natural protrusions.

"This is my turtle," she said, referring proudly to her polished pet. "See? A perfect head. I found the wood about 30 years ago while hiking around Mud Mountain Dam (near Mount Rainier) and my foot hit something kind of solid. This is what I dug out with my 12-inch crowbar." she said. "When I got home I took the mud off."

Thornber said it takes two things to sculpt driftwood that not everybody has, patience, and a lot of elbow grease. To gently shave off bark and weathered bits affixed to the wood, she uses a bag of tricks contained in her well-stocked tool case. They include an X-ACTO (Knife) Router, sandpaper, a Millers Falls Carving Tool Set, a battery operated Dremel, and, somewhat strange to the uninitiated, a piece of deer antler used to polish the wood.

"Old-timers, the old cowboys, used to burnish the wood with their gunstocks," she said. "In 1961 I was taught the LuRon Method, developed by Lucile Worlund."

Worlund learned and perfected her technique when she lived among the Makah in Neah Bay. She established some basic guidelines, and also established the Northwest Driftwood Artists, in 1963.

According to their website, Worlund "not only gave it identity and structure, and established an organization to ensure its continuity, but also involved many people who became dedicated enough to become teachers and assure the future of the art form. The purpose of the sculptor is to bring order and meaning to the form. We work on the skeletal remains of the trees.

"Unlike the carver, the driftwood artist does not have a particular idea in mind when he sits down to work. Rather, we seek to find the subject which natural processes have made inherent in the piece and, through painstaking cleaning and preparation, enhance that subject and make it prominent. It is only through proper preparation that the satin-soft finish can be had which brings out the grain and patina that each piece offers."

Thornber, who traces her roots back to Wales, was born on a farm in Tacoma on land that is now Fort Lewis. She attended a rural school where one teacher taught all eight grades. She walked a mile to school in the snow. In 1929 when the farm was sold to the military the family moved to West Seattle. She graduated from West Seattle High School in 1937. Her first job was doing profit and loss on a comptometer, a precursor to the calculator, at the Tradewell Supermarket, also in West Seattle.

During the war she worked at the Sand Point Naval Air Station where she outfitted baby flattop carriers, the Navy's escort carriers, also called "Jeep carriers". She remained for 10 years, becoming a unit supervisor for civil service employees. She was "Miss November" in the 2011 Washington Women in Trades Calendar, "The Rosie Legacy".

Her husband, Fordyce, worked 37 years for Boeing.

"He lived and breathed Boeing," she said. "He was a supervisor, and was making B-17's. He was a wonderful husband. We never had a fight." Jean has an older sister, Martha Macoll, who lives at the Kenney, and a brother, Jim Hewitt, who lives at Huntington Park, too. They had three other siblings who have passed.

Ask Thornber about her other passion, and she will nearly overwhelm you with enthusiasm over America's favorite pastime.

"I attended ballgames in the 30's, the Rainiers, at Sick's stadium with my dad and uncle," she said. Assuming a stance while clenching her fingers tightly around an imaginary baseball bat she added, "I can still tell you players, short stop Bill Schuster, (slugger) Mike Hunt. I watched Fred Hutchinson pitch his 19th birthday ballgame."

Thornber may indulge in nostalgia, but she also keeps up with the times. She is a huge Mariners fan and, according to her neighbors, cheers and screams at her TV when she is not attending a game. She keeps track of players and stats.

"I can tell you last night's lineup," she said.

Jean Thornber is always looking for more wood with interesting shapes for herself and her students. If you find such a piece of wood and would like to donate it, you can email her at:

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