Catherine O’Neill Thorn founded Art From Ashes fifteen years ago out of a love for poetry and the power of personal epiphany to drag the hurt out of young people. Through the invention of a form of art therapy that’s distinctly her own, Thorn has given life and light to troubled youth — a soapbox to stand on and a microphone to air their grief into. A poet, relentless fundraiser, 2008 Westword MasterMind, cancer warrior and, in 2018, winner of a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts & Culture Youth Award, Thorn advocates for others with grace and a strong voice. On the eve of Colorado Gives Day, here’s a taste of what she has to say, day after day after day.
What (or who) is your creative muse?
For many, many years now (like, forty), Bruce Cockburn is the poet who most inspires. He’s well-known (well, for a Canadian singer-songwriter) as a lyricist and musician, but his poetry floors me. The combination of imagery, metaphor, spirituality and activism has encouraged me to revere the power of words and the importance of using your voice for social justice.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party and why?
Well, shit, what a tough question. So many people I currently don’t get to spend enough time with come to mind, but of all the billions and billions of humans who ever lived?
1. The aforementioned Bruce Cockburn, having just sung his praises.
2. Jesus, natch, because unconditional love makes for an exceptional trait at a party.
3. My nana. She was my kindred spirit and my best friend when I was growing up.
As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver (or Colorado)?
Imagine 2020 is on the right track and needs our full commitment. The values of respect, inclusivity, the transformative power of creativity, integrity, advocacy and impact (producing impressive results) with which we’ve developed Art From Ashes align with those of Imagine 2020: the integration of arts, culture and creativity into daily life; the amplification and accessibility of the arts; lifelong exposure, appreciation and participation; the cultivation of local talent; economic vitality; and collective leadership committed to high-impact results.
How and when did you discover the power of words?
My mother says I was speaking in multi-syllabic Latinates from the time I was two years old, so I guess I knew about the power of words before I knew I knew. I can remember just loving the feel of words in my mouth—like they were sweets. I started reading pretty early and wrote my first poem when I was five. But it wasn’t until I read Shakespeare that I swooned over words. I also saw that beyond the power of art and poetry, words could wound, heal, create curses, enjoinder blessings and generally have an impact with more reach and depth than we could even imagine. I finally began to imagine that impact almost thirty years ago, when I started working with young people in treatment and saw broken lives change as a result of speaking truths in metaphor and creating new stories of self-determination and courage.
How does poetry change lives, and why?
I believe poetry is a dialogue with the subconscious using the language of metaphor. When people are able to bring hidden perceptions to light through this incredible power of metaphor, they can then think about how they think – and from where those thoughts originated. Most often, we discover we are living in a story of someone else’s making…or at the very least a story we created about ourselves and about reality when we were very young. Somehow we just never stopped to consider how much of our life is created in our imagination.
Poetry reveals those hidden beliefs and allows us to keep creating new stories that better serve us and serve the world. The power of poetry allows us to discover the “yes, and also” of our created existence. Although we can never change the facts about what has happened to us, we can change the meaning we gave those facts. We are never limited to just one story, just one outcome, just one option. There are millions upon millions of stories, and moment to moment, we choose which one to tell ourselves.
What’s your dream project?
I’m pretty much living it…ya know, without all the fundraising and reporting and management. Thousands of lives have been positively affected by Art From Ashes, and I believe that is a life well spent. I’d like to see others come alongside and continue the work I started, which may be a project in itself. And that would be my dream.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
Surround yourself with good and committed people. Make sure your heart and mind are protected by those people. It’s very difficult to serve others and keep your own disciplines intact, because the work can become consuming. Without a community that has your back, the pressure and the criticism can be devastating when you’re giving it your all. The passion is in you, the skills will develop, mistakes will be made and they just mean you’re growing, but you will always need loving people in your corner.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I’m really struggling with these “level of importance to me” questions. It takes both courage and fortitude to be a creative. Anyone in the field who’s working their ass off in a sometimes hostile environment, because it’s their damn calling, is a warrior. How do you choose from among warriors? The one closest to my heart is Lewis Lease, mestre of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. He is a devoted family man, has served at Art From Ashes for thirteen years, has volunteered at multiple agencies throughout Denver and has just started his own studio where he works with youth and adults in our community providing creative expression and personal growth through a combination of dance, acrobatics and music.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
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I’m going to finish kicking cancer’s ass and get Art From Ashes out in the community reaching more young people, hopefully with even more individual and business support. Because what we do works, and because their lives matter.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
The young people who can’t find their way. They are creative geniuses, and youth voices are not always heard.
Join Catherine O’Neill Thorn from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4, for the Art From Ashes Celebration of Light Holiday Party, an evening of music, food and poetry performances at the group's home, 1310 West Tenth Avenue. The event coincides with Colorado Gives Day; learn more about the nonprofit and make a donation at coloradogives.org. Learn more about Catherine O’Neill Thorn and Art From Ashes at the website.