Sculpture, art and Waldorf education were the central focus of Thorn Zay’s life. Already as a young boy, he decided that he wanted to be an artist, and he carried this impulse into all aspects of his life. Born into a family of artists, he was the youngest of four children. His father, Henri Zay, was born in Ohio, but established himself as a singer and teacher of music and voice in London, where he also encountered Rudolf Steiner’s work and joined the Anthroposophical Society. At the outbreak of World War I, Henri Zay, as an American citizen, had to leave England and return to the United States. Eileen Horner, his fiancée, caught the last passenger ship out of England and joined him in New York City, where they were married on December 29th, 1916. It was there that Thorn was born on February 19, 1926. Unfortunately, Henri died before Thorn was two years old and his Mother, who had grown up in a relatively well to do family in England, and had never had to work, now found herself raising four children and single handedly supporting a family during the Great Depression. She managed by giving singing lessons, but money was in short supply.
Thorn became seriously ill with rheumatic fever when he was fourteen, which prevented him from walking for an extended period of time. He also suffered from osteomyelitis, which affected his right side and the ability to use his limbs. But Thorn, who had already announced “I’m going to be an artist!,” was undaunted and started to paint using his left hand. He had hoped that he might attend the Art Students’ League to study painting, but his illness and the family’s lack of money appeared to make this impossible. However, thanks to a gift from his English godfather and to his recovering health, in 1944 he was finally able to attend, and studied painting there for three years.
In his early twenties, Thorn was drawn back to the New York City Rudolf Steiner School (the oldest Waldorf School in the United States) which he had attended through third grade, and became a part time teacher. He worked in the classroom, assisting Arvia Ege in teaching art and William Harrer in teaching woodwork, gradually taking on more responsibility and finally leading classes himself. During his time off he would travel to various locations, such as Cape Cod, and spend weeks at a time painting. In 1955, at the urging of the school, he decided to go to Europe to receive more formal art training. But instead of focusing on painting, he found his way to Raoul Ratnowski’s sculpture school at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, where he studied and worked for four years. He returned to the United States as the first anthroposophically trained sculptor in North America. For the next twelve years, until 1971, Thorn taught woodwork and sculpture at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.
One of his students from the time writes about Thorn:
“He awakened in me a true love of sculpture- of light, form and shade, of life
rising from inertia, form from formlessness, and the eloquence of art. I loved
how he smiled, his good kind eyes, his buoyant spirit and springing stride, his
incredible gift for teaching.”
Another former student, who went on to run the print shop and teach print making at
the Boston Museum School of Fine Art, shared memories of Thorn as her teacher:
“Thorn was incredibly inspiring! He demanded a lot. He wanted you to have a creative sense
of how to work with the wood, not against it, to follow the grain. He had high standards,
but was kindly, with gentle humor. It was a real training.”
In the late 1960’s, Thorn began to design a home and a sculpture studio to be built on a plot of land that he and his wife, Jean, had acquired in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. When time permitted they would drive up from New York to clear the land and begin building their house. In 1971, before the house was finished, Thorn left his teaching job and moved there permanently with Jean to raise their two small sons, and to work in his own sculpture studio.
Around the same time that Thorn moved to Massachusetts, a group of people who were involved with the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City had an interest in starting a Waldorf Kindergarten in Great Barrington. Betty Krainis, a former parent from the school in New York, donated her barn, some land, and her own expertise in teaching the Kindergarten and developing a new Waldorf School. Thorn immediately became involved, and was instrumental in guiding the direction of this new school. He spent twenty years helping to build the school: envisioning the future, keeping the books, helping to found the Council of Teachers, and of course, introducing class after class of devoted students to the challenges and pleasures of carving and shaping wood. Until his retirement in 1993, he carried the woodwork and sculpture program there, nurturing in his students a reverence for the materials, a sense for hard work, a love of beauty and joy in creation.
Thorn was a "do-it-yourself" person. He had an amazing ability to build or repair whatever was needed in daily life, always with an eye to beauty as well as practicality, striving to wed form and function. Beds, bureaus, shelves, lamps, stools, plates, bowls, spoons, a music stand, and many other objects were fashioned to fit the need. To help make a living in the pioneer years of the 1970’s, he and Jean designed and produced wooden toys for children. He also frequently traveled away to teach in schools and colleges across the country.
Along with his teaching, Thorn always found time to work in his sculpture studio. After retiring from the school, this became his main life task and joy. He patiently labored to develop and refine the “living forms” he created in wood, stone, cement and bronze. During the last year of his life, Thorn was devoted to creating a sculpture for the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, where he had first started out as a young teacher and artist. The sculpture is an image of the threefold human being in relation to the animals. Having completed the clay model, he began carving it in a huge block of oak, continuing until illness slowed and eventually stopped him from working. A bronze casting of the sculpture stands in the Rudolf Steiner School.
Thorn passed away peacefully at his home in Massachusetts in June, 2000. Until the end of his life Thorn was nourished and inspired by music, literature, nature and art. And still so many of us are inspired and nourished by his dedicated striving, his deep, clear thinking, and the beautiful works of art he has left behind.