Interview: 2016 Visionary Award Recipient Denise Thimes

On April 25, The St. Louis Visionary Awards will celebrate the passion, determination, and imagination of six local women who daily dive into the trenches to improve our city’s arts culture by stimulating artistic ability via education, philanthropy activism and public engagement.

The honorees selected were chosen by a committee of prominent professionals who include co-chairs Sara Burke and Kim Eberlein, as well as Adrienne Davis, Alison Ferring, Renee Franklin, Melissa Howe, Cynthia Prost, Marilyn Sheperd and Donna Wilkinson.

Check back each week as we dive deep with all six honorees.

For more than three decades, Denise Thimes has been the sound of the arts in St. Louis. As the daughter of radio legend Lou “Fatha” Thimes, music was never far away.  Growing up in a home filled with music energized her to parlay the passion for music she developed early in life into a  career which has seen her perform for Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin.

Denise Thimes. Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

Denise Thimes. Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

Honored as this year’s Outstanding Working Artist, Thimes attended Sumner High School before moving onto Spelman College in Atlanta, where she developed a vocal style that would help establish her career as a distinguished jazz singer.

Although she has toured throughout Europe and North America, Thimes has not forgotten her local roots. Last month, Thimes served up some home cooking with a residency at Jazz at the Bistro. On May 8, she will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her annual Mother’s Day concert with a bash at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

This local woman is so much more than just a singer: She is a cultural ambassador for St. Louis and a champion for the arts who regularly volunteers her time and talent to give back to her community. Her activism and harmonies have helped define who she is to her audience and herself, helping to establish her status as one of the nation’s most preeminent singers along the way.

Thimes commented on her award, eminent career and affirmed her belief in arts education.

As we approach the Visionary Awards can you tell us how the Arts have impacted your life?

Growing up in a home where you have a father who is a radio icon, quite naturally I was exposed to different types or several genres of music at an early age. So I knew about Aretha Franklin when I was 9 or 10 years old. The average 9- or 10-year-old at the time didn’t know who Aretha Franklin was. So I grew I up in a home where music was a huge part of our lives. Growing up in church, being a singer is also a part in that.

The arts have always played a part not only in my life, but in the world because music helps to make things a little better. When the country was dealing with wars and different tragedies, they turned to music, they turned to the arts. It’s so interesting to hear people sometimes minimize the power of the arts when the arts is what really keeps everything moving and functioning and rolling.

Describe your creative process?

I’m a strongly spiritual person and there’s a difference between religion and spirituality in the way that I approach my music, which is that it has to pretty much mean something to me or it’s a message that I want to get across to my audience.

It’s such a fourth layer of skin for me that it ties all into my parenting of my two wonderful children. It ties into my relationship with my significant other and it ties into my relationship with people in general because music is my life.

I bring the same compassion that I have for life and for people because music has taught me how to handle it and how to execute it. It reminds me at times to be compassionate, forgiving and patient.

How can St. Louisans better champion the arts?

First of all, I want to salute St. Louis in how it has embraced the arts here. When you go to other cities, they have may have one entity that is really fantastic or a couple of them. In St Louis, we’ve got Powell Hall, The Fox and The Sheldon and we’ve got the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz and the Sun Theater.

Of course, money and support is always something that I would love to see more of for the arts. I would also love to see more of the arts in our schools.

We must be more sensitive to people’s needs, so to speak, in the arts, and make more awareness of how the arts can impact our lives, as supposed just going to a movie or hearing someone singing or whatever the case may be. We need to intentionally make the arts as a part of change in every aspect of life.

Speaking as I was, moving at first from a more corporate standpoint, we need more corporations supporting the arts.

What made you want to become more deeply involved in our arts community?

I think it’s the fans and the people who keep the arts alive here in St. Louis. I just finished my week at Jazz St. Louis and I was so impressed at the amount of people who came out to my Wednesday night show. I couldn’t believe it!  I thanked them for supporting the arts and for supporting the venue, but most of all for supporting a hometown girl.

It’s really the people and the venues we have here and how they’ve established themselves in St. Louis. Particularly The Sheldon—it has really been a door-opener for artists in residence. Between The Sheldon and The St. Louis Black Repertory, that’s where the base of my following was and it grew from there and St. Louis has really embraced me.

What can other artists and creative professionals in the region do to foster stimulation in the arts?

I definitely believe in education and I believe in starting kids off young in appreciating the arts. So many of our school districts are taking and have taken arts out of the curriculum.

My children were blessed to go to New City School. I remember one year when I had the opportunity to teach there for three weeks one of the exercises I did that they kept in the program was drawing to music—listening to different types of music and drawing what it makes you feel. It was just mind-blowing.

I believe in keeping the arts alive in our school system and supporting programs like Matthews-Dickey Boys Girls Club and supporting the educational program that Jazz St. Louis is doing.

I was at Jazz St Louis’ gala and there was a young lady who had never picked up an instrument and becuase of the program Jazz St. Louis has in the schools, the young lady started playing and it’s been one of the best things to happen in her life as she testified.

Art changes the lives of our kids. It makes what seems hard easy. It makes what seems sad happy. We have to start creating more in our schools, in our churches, in our synagogues— there should some kind of art program, some kind of visual art or crafts and singing and music. There’s so many ways that we can get it done and get it out there. Just increasing the support and continuing to increase the awareness.

For me, it’s volunteering to go into the schools and talk to the kids about the arts and having a pep talk with them and incorporating my singing, my music in that so that it doesn’t become boring. If I am talking about a certain subject all of a sudden I may break out into a song that continues to speak about what I am speaking about.

How does this award reflect the work you did in 2015?

I sort of look at it as being more expanded than 2015. I think it’s the foundation between performing, giving and sharing.

As a woman who is, with the help of my God, raising two children,  managing to create a lifestyle for them that was different than mine, and still having to perform through adversities. It’s a way of God blessing me and saying ‘well done so far.’ It’s an encouragement to keep up the level of excellence that I do my best to bring in each performance.

It’s a level of excellence that I like to think I bring to everything—my parenting, my friendships and as a daughter and as a sister. For me, it’s a bundle and ‘Here’s the award for that bundle Denise, for having kept rolling up your sleeves and kept life moving for yourself and your two kids.’

For more information about Denise Thimes visit her website: denisethimes.com

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