Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Art From Ashes eyes Thomas Hornsby Ferril House for its new home

Always begin right where you are

And work out from here:

If adrift, feel the feel of the oar in the oarlock first, 

If saddling a horse let your right knee slug

The belly of the horse like an uppercut, 

Then cinch his suck, 

Then mount and ride away

To any dream deserving the sensible world. 

    — Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Catherine O'Neill Thorn dreams big. If she didn't, she never would have started Art From Ashes, the nonprofit that empowers kids through creative expression. She herself discovered the power of language when she fell in love with poetry at the age of five, and her obsession with words led to both a career and a cause.

In the early '90s, while working with twenty teenage boys — all of whom had challenges that prevented them from becoming functioning adults — in a residential treatment facility, Thorn started out by reading them children's books, then found that poetry could heal old wounds. "Every single one of the boys was writing beautiful poems, and I started bringing in local poets to inspire them, and I published their poetry and watched them transform," she told Westword in 2008, when she was named one of our MasterMind winners for the amazing work Art From Ashes has done. "And they were all talking about how they were now using words instead of their fists, and how it changed their lives."

That changed Thorn's life, too. In 2003, she founded Art From Ashes to offer therapeutic help for some of those who need it most. "Our population is the young people who have really fallen through the cracks," she says. "They don't have dreams, they don't have ambition. They don't believe they're ever going to be successful. And we go in and say, 'You're a creative genius. You were born that way, and you're believing lies about yourself.' And then we prove it to them."

Now Thorn is dreaming big again. The Thomas Hornsby Ferril house, the elegant Victorian at 2123 Downing Street where Colorado's future poet laureate moved in 1900, when he was four, and where he died in 1988, has been empty for a year — ever since its last tenant, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, moved to a bigger facility ("Empty Words," September 1, 2011). The home had been donated by Ferril's heirs to Historic Denver; the Colorado Center for the Book bought it in 1996 (it's still listed as a landmark by Historic Denver) and embarked on a half-million-dollar renovation project to turn it into a community literary hub. In 2004, the center merged with Colorado Humanities, a nonprofit linked with the National Endowment for the Humanities, with the understanding that the center would stay in the house. A month later, Colorado Humanities moved the center into its own rented offices on East Colfax Avenue. And when Colorado Humanities relocated to Greenwood Village last fall, moving into the Ferril House was not an option. "We could certainly rent it to another organization; we would consider selling it to another organization," Humanities director Maggie Coval said at the time. "Unfortunately, we can't occupy it; we're too big."

But Art From Ashes could be just the right size. Colorado Humanities is now moving ahead with selling the building, and Thorn met with Coval last Friday to explore her options. She'd toured the Ferril House fifteen years ago, and "I just don't want it to get sold to some real-estate developer," she says. "It would lose its importance, its history."

But not if it became the home of Art From Ashes. "We would honor and treasure it," Thorn promises.

And so would the youth she could help there. "We could have writing workshops right in the space," she says. She could also open a drop-in center for youth; the Ferril House is within walking distance of Urban Peak and the Spot. Yes, there are some obstacles: Art From Ashes is operating on only $250,000 a year right now, and coming up with $50,000 for a down payment is daunting — if $50,000 would even cover it. Colorado Humanities has not yet had the house appraised, Coval says, or even signed with a realtor. "We certainly want to make sure the house is in good hands," she notes, adding that the process is in "very preliminary" stages.

Thorn isn't waiting. She's considering grant possibilities and approaching potential patrons. She can dream, can't she? Can't we?

Any dream deserving the sensible world.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun