In Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the Pulitzer Prize nominated poet elegantly addresses issues of identity, race, oppression and inequality using the titular metaphor of a bird attempting to escape its cage. In that text, the bird’s song, its voice, is its most powerful implement to confront the world, its fears and its desires. Without a voice to speak, the bird remains trapped, but with that voice, the bird can accomplish so much more than what’s allowed by the boundaries of the cage. The “voice” can mean more than words, too. It can mean the power of expression, the power to vote, and ultimately, the power and the right to be heard.
Catherine O’Neill Thorn has spent her life cultivating that voice in herself and in others. Her passion lies in the written and spoken, often poetic, power of words. It is a passion that rises like flames from her mouth every time she speaks, and glimmers magnificently in her eyes whenever she hears (or sees) the wonderful work created by one of her workshop students.
A different kind of artist
Catherine’s journey begins as a writer, a poet and a journalist, and while her love and appreciation for the arts is dear to her heart, she wasn’t the starving artist type. You wouldn’t have caught her brooding in a sparsely decorated studio apartment, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes and complaining about other people’s not getting what art is. She got the artist gene without the entitlement gene. Instead of sorting through theory and contemplating the great allegories and metaphors of life, she got right to work.
She founded O’Neill Publishing, Inc., and did desktop publishing, marketing and graphic design for 12 years. It was a regular job. A job that made paying the bills possible. While it was creative in a lot of respects, it wasn’t completely poetic. It was a job, and it wasn’t enough. Catherine needed to do more. She needed to stand up, to spread her wings. And in 1992, her commitment to spreading poetry and the written word flared, and she turned into the mythical phoenix. She began leading others, turning endings into fiery, energized, powerful, infinite beginnings. Catherine founded Poiesis, a bimonthly calendar and newsletter for poetry events in Colorado. That same year, Catherine began conducting transformational creative workshops where she guided and motivated adults and young people to write, just write, and open up their minds--and some memories and emotions they may have hidden for years. In 1994 she started a poetry series called “Toads in the Garden.” And in 1996, she won a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts and the Columbine Poetry Society to publish The Poiesis Poetry Guide for Colorado.
Catherine produced Screams Aren’t Enough, a poetry collection written by students following the shootings at Columbine high school in 2000. And at that time, she was publishing Inner 303, an arts and poetry magazine for Denver’s urban youth. In 2003, when youth program funding across Denver was cut, she helped found Art from Ashes, which offers poetry and creative workshops to high-risk youth. Catherine is the Executive Director. But her resume’s clear representation of her dedication to poetry and youth don’t do her complete justice. It’s not just a matter of giving her students an artistic education. It’s about teaching them to use their voices:
Your creative genius has nothing to do with what you call successes or failures in your life. It has nothing to do with how people judge you or how you judge yourself. And you can see how much [the students] value and appreciate their own words, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
The best medicine
Catherine O’Neill Thorn uses art to restore. Art is her medical kit, her prescription for so many ailments. She is a doctor of the heart, mind and spirit, and her efforts have lasting effects. She helps youth, ignored and neglected, lost and battling just to be happy, unlock their voices. Catherine knows that there is an artist, a great creator, inside each and every one of us. And though her craft is words, it’s easy to see that she elegantly and adeptly carves artists out of people who have spent much of their lives thinking they’re just blocks of marble. More than that, she helps the youth in her workshops carve themselves from the marble, to claim their voices for the first time, and to choose who they are, rather than stick with what they have been taught they are. She gives them the gift of expression. She teaches caged birds to sing, but even more, she gives them the tools they need to fly.
Awards and Honors
- 2011 Women's Information Network Outstanding Service Award
- Keynote speaker at the 2011 International Women's Day Conference
- 2008 Westword's Mastermind Award for Literary Arts
- 2006 Community “Artivist” Award
- 2006 Westword's Award for Best Use of Poetry