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Jim Griswold Story
 
Man of many talents has very full days

Saturday, September 9, 2000

By JON HAHN
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST

 

Jim Griswold is a hairdresser with a hammer.

And he's a blacksmith with a heart.

"I got into hairdressing to earn enough to finish school, but I learned to like it," said the man many know as "Griz." But it doesn't stop there. "I like it because it's a very personal service, and I always try to do it as a special kindness. We're all in this life together and it's sort of my way of saying: 'Let's be nice to one another.' "

Which is one reason he and his bloodhounds, Tillie and Daisy, are active Northwest Search and Rescue team members. That's a special kindness only their skilled service can provide, and sometimes they're out for days searching for a lost hiker or a possible accident victim. "If a call comes and I'm at my shop (James' Hair Design in downtown Vashon), I might finish the haircut. If it's a child (missing), it's sooner."

 
Jim Griswold uses a rosebud torch to heat a piece of iron he has hand-forged into a decorative plant hanger. After heating the iron to an orange glow, he applies the touchmark, or signature, of his Angel Fire Forge. Paul Joseph Brown/P-I  

Jim Griswold's daily life evokes the lyrics from that old Peter, Paul and Mary hit folk song, "If I Had A Hammer," the part about "I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land." There is noble purpose and well-thought intent, whether he is cutting and styling someone's hair or drawing yellow-hot steel across his anvil.

Jim and his wife, Charlene, have five grown children and originally moved to the island in the late 1960s so their family could enjoy the open and easygoing rural lifestyle. At one time, they had a half-dozen horses. And that was the beginning of this amazing fellow's venture into blacksmithing. "I just wanted to learn how to shoe our own horses," he said.

Most days now, he works almost a full shift in his smithy -- Angel Fire Forge -- hammering hot iron into exquisite custom gates, chandeliers and a wide range of decorative and useful objects. And then he showers and drives onto Vashon for another full work day at the hair salon he runs with Charlene, their daughter Amy, and Lorna Estes, who has been a member of what folks on the island call "The James Gang" for some 28 years.

"Jim and Charlene are like family to me," said Lorna. "And I really enjoy going to work. Jim is special. He sees beauty in things, whether in someone's hair or a big piece of iron. In either, he can work it and make it seem to flow and move. He's more than an artist."

At 58, this gentle man with the neatly trimmed gray beard has more mental and physical energy than most half his age. His outdoor pursuits include wind-surfing, skiing and mountain and rock climbing, but he starts most days by trucking his one-man shell down to the water for an hour of rowing.

"I wish I had one-tenth his energy," said Charlene, who originally was one of his instructors at hairdressing school in Tacoma. They've been married 38 years and have worked together in the Vashon shop since moving to the island. Before that, Jim was partner in a big downtown Seattle salon.

 
  James Hair Design, Jim's Vashon Island salon, is a family affair. Both his wife and his daughter Amy Griswold, laughing at right, work alongside Jim. Vashon residents Betty Edwards, left, and Carol Eckman get a shampoo. Paul Joseph Brown/P-I

"He has such a thirst for life and learning," she said of her mate. "He gets up every morning and says: 'God, another day that I can play with!' He blesses life and loves life. And he seems to want to know how to do everything himself." Jim inherited his interest in and enthusiasm for bloodhounds through Charlene, whose grandfather used bloodhounds to help track escaped criminals. After extensive training, Jim and Tillie have helped find numerous lost hikers and more than a few bodies, some of them buried and some even beneath water.

"Tillie was given to us by a family that was simply overwhelmed by her," Charlene said of the 115-pound hound that dogs Jim's steps around their acreage and even in his forge. "She's fascinating and totally loving, and they don't have a mean bone in their bodies," Charlene continued. "Tillie is Jim's 'other woman,' and he'd be absolutely devastated if anything ever happened to her."

Of course, Tillie can't go riding in his one-man rowing shell, and she doesn't accompany Jim to the family beauty salon. And even though she could keep up, she cannot possibly go in as many different directions as her talented master seems to go on any given day. Jim Griswold is always on the move, always trying to learn something new.

The handles on the wrought-iron gate to Charlene's front-yard rose garden are formed glass, from a class Jim took with another island artisan. And he's just finished a beautiful set of carving tools -- copied from specialized manufactured tools -- so he can take classes from a Northwest Indian carver on the island.

But of all the artists and artisans hidden behind every other tree on Vashon and Maury islands, Jim Griswold stands out as a man eager to share his talents and his work. As a member of the Northwest Blacksmiths Association, he embraces the group's philosophy of sharing technologies. "We have no secrets, and are eager to share with one another and anyone who wants to know," Jim said. "But if we learn something, a special technique, we are bound to credit the other man who taught us. Much of what I learned was from the good folks out at Fire Mountain Forge in Eatonville."

From backyard farrier to artisan blacksmith, Jim has learned how to see infinite possibilities in designs and materials and to synthesize forms that seem to defy rigid iron. "For the first 10 or so years, I was just learning, and sort of playing with blacksmithing," Jim said.

 
Jim's blacksmith work can be seen all over Vashon Island and as far away as Portland as well as at the family's Maury Island home. Jim fashioned the iron and blew the glass for this sundial. Paul Joseph Brown/P-I  

And he was doing most of it by hand, with the largest collection of specialized hammers outside Vulcan's workshop. It was arduous work, requiring a dozen or more "heats" of a single piece to bring it to working temperature, then pounding the living begeezus out of it, drawing and tapering and twisting it into the desired shape. Oftentimes the work-in-progress inspired Jim to serendipitous results.

Then, as he got into commissioned works, he needed more muscle to save time. A Little Giant power hammer now rings from his smithy most days of the year. And on truly big jobs, using steel stock as thick as 4 inches, he has a 100-year-old Beaudry power hammer with a 350-pound ram capable of more than a 1-ton blow. (So far, he's escaped serious injury, although he has the scars from some close encounters of a hot-metal kind).

But this is a one-man shop. No one else even touches his tools, and no project is rushed to completion. "I want everyone to think of the piece I do for them as having heirloom quality," Jim said as he paused over a spiral-twisted hunk of three-quarter-inch steel. "I'd rather do fewer pieces and do them well."

And there is no doubt, when you see a graceful forged steel calla lily candelabra or chandelier, or a garden gate with delicate cattails and dragon flies, that blacksmiths are skilled artisans working with vision and a red-hot passion for the material.