This article was originally published in the Revelstoke TIMES Magazine, available now at your local coffee shop, book store, or any other business in downtown Revelstoke.
In a shop in the Big Eddy with a big white garage door, no sign, and some shipping containers in the parking lot, Kyle Thornley hunches over a long skinny piece of metal, shaded by metal trees in his metal forge — he’s living his childhood dream.
Thornley’s Metal Mind Forge is located in the Big Eddy, next to the Big Eddy Glass Works. Though the exterior doesn’t hint at what’s going on inside, Thornley turns metal into massive art pieces that are packaged and shipped across Canada and the United States. Thornley’s work is increasingly sought after for custom public art installments in big cities. He talked about how he started working with metal, his inspiration, and his latest work.
Kyle Thornley grew up in Ontario before –like so many Revelstokians– moving out west to follow his passion for skiing. He didn’t have ambitions of being a professional skier, he just wanted to do it as much as possible and be part of the industry. After living in Whistler for a few years bartending, coaching skiing, and spending as much time on the planks as possible, Thornley figured it might be a ‘good idea’ to get some post-secondary education.
After ‘trying out’ some college, Thornley decided that a trade might be best for him, which is how he started working with metal. Initially, after earning a few certificates and qualifications in welding, Thornley worked in Kelowna on some structural projects.
It was a friend’s bad luck and a small (insurance) fortune that got Thornley into the more creative aspects of metal work.
A friend of Thornleys’ house burnt down. The friend had had a successful career and received a handsome insurance payout for the loss of his house. Left with good money and no home, he decided to rebuild the house in a ‘castle style’, said Thornley.
“So, he’s just like, ‘hey, come work in my garage and let’s fire up some medieval metalwork,’” said Thornley.
At the time, Thornley was fresh from a layoff, so he opted to go work for his friend, which he would neither forget nor regret. Thornley had some previous building experience in various jobs and some uncles who’d worked as contractors. He felt he had a knack for building things, but with little experience fabricating at the time, Thornley’s skills were yet untested.
The two built a rudimentary forge and started creating the various elements of the house that he wanted. From railings to rangehoods, Thornley got to try it all.
“There was really no looking back after that.”
Thornley never did return to his regular job. The floodgates were open, and he went down a YouTube rabbit hole finding out what was possible with creative metal work and the process of doing it. He was ‘fascinated’ how the metal adopted an almost ‘plastic state’ for a small period of time, when high heat and pressure were applied.
It’s been some time since Thornley’s castle build, during which he got married, had kids, and moved to Revelstoke. As expected with self-employment, it hasn’t always been easy for Thornley. He credited his family for their unwavering support.
“[There were] probably times where I should have given up and moved on just for practical reasons. But my wife is super supportive, and she wouldn’t let that happen. Always very encouraging that I stick with it and that it would play out.”
The support paid off.
Thornley has been self-employed for 13 years now. Locally, Thornley worked on several custom pieces for houses, including railings, wine rooms, and light fixtures. He’s also a member of the Art First Gallery in Revelstoke, but he’s had the enviable issue recently of having too many commissions to be able to contribute much.
In the past few years, Thornley has had a string of commissions for large public art projects. He humbly referred to the stint as getting a ‘really good lucky streak’, but after explaining the process of getting commissioned for the pieces, it’s clear that luck is not solely to blame for his success.
Getting the nod for large public art projects involves being plucked from a pool of people who submit their portfolio, creating an application with a site-specific pitch for the project, and having good references to boot.
So far, Thornley’s public art installations can be found in Penticton; Castlegar; Red Deer; Saskatoon; and Houston, Texas. Once he’s finished the pieces in his shop, he’ll be able to add Langley, and a few cities in Ontario to the list. He talked about the piece he’s building for the Township of Langley.
On a table in the centre of Thornley’s shop sits two colourless small model hands coming together with thumb and forefinger, making a heart. In the corner of the shop was a massive piece of plywood roughly the size of a small barn door. Sketched on the wood was an enormous hand, curved into half of a heart. Behind the slice of wood was another mirrored hand to complete the heart.
“I just thought it would be really neat to put out there just a multi-generational, very approachable, sort of piece,” said Thornley.
The heart hands are bound for a park in Langley. Thornley used to see the hand gesture as a cliché—something he’d almost cringe at. His mind changed when he watched the athletes at the Winter Olympics, which inspired the hands.
“So much work obviously goes into get to that point. So, after they completed the run, they’ve got like 15 seconds on air to wait for their score or something. And it’s just everyone putting out big love to their support network,” said Thornley.
The power of the symbol clicked for him.
Thornley said the goal is to have one hand be older than the other to add a generational aspect to the structure. Once installed, people will be able to walk under the hands and take photos.
Installs mean a “big sigh of relief,” for Thornley, but he added that having the project off his plate “feels wonderful, but for a very short period of time.” Once one project is finished, Thornley is on to the next one.
Over the past year and a half, Thornley has built a name for himself by punching above his weight on projects and delivering, which has given him a great reputation with excellent references. One of his references is local artist, Rob Buchanan.
Thornley and Buchanan recently partnered on a project to create a unique chandelier for local business, Chronometer. Dubbed the ‘Gogglier’, the light fixture was the brainchild of Buchanan, that Thornley helped bring to life. Taking a swathe of old ski goggle lenses and molding them into spheres, the Gogglier was a unique and functional art piece that Thornley was thrilled to work on with Buchanan.
“He’s just like, creative genius,” said Thornley, adding that “anytime that you get to bring an idea of his to life, like it’s just so– SO much fun.”
If you told a young Kyle Thornley that one day, he would make a living from creating public art works out of metal, he would have thought you were ‘blowing smoke’.
“It wasn’t in my realm of kind of thought at that point.”
Once Thornley was a proficient welder, he figured it was just a matter of time before he ended up doing it for a living, but he expected to weld on a pipeline. Had he not procrastinated his work during his certifications, he might have been there.
Thornley recalled visiting Granville Island in Vancouver as a kid, and being struck by the metalwork there. The trip was a formative experience for him that he kept in mind when he started his metalwork. While he knew there were several avenues he could pursue for creative fabrication, he was also keenly aware of how tough it would be to start up, which made it unrealistic.
Standing smiling in the shop, surrounded by his fabrication work bound for cities across Canada, Thornley summed up his job briefly.
“To do this,” he said gesturing to the art around him, “is kind of like a childhood dream come true, really.”
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