In 1968 Thomas Orr served in the Republic of Viet Nam with the 11th light infantry brigade in Quang Nai province as a combat infantry platoon leader. Following his discharge, he pursued studies in Oceanography during which time he took ceramics as a required art class. This experience led to a decade of living in the foothills of northern California where he dug clay and used wood to fire pots formed on a potter’s wheel he created from the axle of an abandoned automobile. Moving to a small college town he worked as a studio artist while performing the duties of a ceramic technician at the local state college. At the end of the '80's, following a stint in a PTSD program at the Menlo Park VA Center, Thomas attended the Claremont Graduate School earning an MFA. The next years were spent traveling the country teaching sabbatical replacement jobs and doing studio work. In 1995 he joined the faculty of the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, Oregon. In his eighteen-year tenure at OCAC he served as the department chair of the ceramics program and interim academic dean.
Following his retirement in 2013 he and his artist wife Joanna Bloom, created and directed the Emerging Artist Mentorship Program at the Ash Street Project where they have their studios.