On her popular website “Cat’s House of Fun” (catay.com), Catherine Oakeson referred to herself as “the fat chick.” It wasn’t a putdown, but a statement of living loud and proud as a large woman. Her site showcased her artistic self portraits — some playful, some sensuous — and messages of body positivity.
“She was a size-acceptance pioneer,” said Kim Julin of Crystal, a longtime friend. “She didn’t let her size stop her. She just got out there and lived life and encouraged everyone to do the same.”
Oakeson, who grew up in Stillwater, died last month at home in Las Vegas after a heart attack. She was 49.
An IT specialist by profession, she used her tech skills to create online resources and communities for plus-size people. She launched FatToo, a clothing resale and chat site on Facebook with more than 20,000 members, and Big Girls, Big Stuff, where she and others posted photos of themselves with quirky roadside attractions.
“She could have been a millionaire if she wanted to be,” said Peter Gujer of St. Paul, another longtime friend. But she was more interested in her artwork and challenging stereotypes about plus-size people.
“She was constantly creating,” said Gujer. In addition to her art photography, she also designed and sewed most of her own clothes. “She was a huge fashionista.”
Her whimsical persona won fans across the country and even internationally, including a museum exhibit in Norway showcasing her self portraits. “She touched so many people,” said Julin.
Oakeson, born Catherine Nordling, graduated from Stillwater High School in 1986 and later attended the University of Minnesota. She entered the IT field at a time when many professionals were self-taught, said Dave Oxley of Maplewood, a former colleague. “She was talented, took opportunity and leveraged it.”
In 1996, she joined the law firm Leonard, Street & Deinard (now Stinson Leonard Street), where she was employed as a database administrator at the time of her death. After her marriage in 2003, she moved to Utah, but continued working for the firm remotely.
“She was very intelligent,” said Oxley. “She tended to see things from different perspectives, which made our team a lot stronger.” And she brought her offbeat creativity to workplace activities, such as setting up a haunted house and organizing a parade of red wagons for Mardi Gras.
Oakeson befriended colleagues from different departments and functions — “not one clique,” he said. “She tended to be the bridge between groups of people.”
At work and in life, Oakeson was a voice for tolerance and acceptance. “She was a fearless and tireless champion of people being treated with dignity,” said Oxley.
“She was just brilliant. I loved the fact that she wanted everybody to treat each other with respect and kindness,” said her husband, Ivan Oakeson.
Even when attacked, she didn’t respond with hostility. “She took on a lot of haters and bashers,” said her stepsister Amy Novitzke of Milwaukee, sometimes countering hurtful comments with humor. “She was funny as hell. So quick-witted, but never mean.”
Oakeson had an outgoing personality and was a social force. When she lived in the Twin Cities, she organized regular game nights and dances for plus-size people. She loved Halloween and hosting costume parties.
“She made friends everywhere she went,” said Gujer. “She could walk into a room and make five new friends.”
“She was very authentic and courageous,” said Novitzke. “She just thought life was fun.”
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her brothers John Nordling and Chris Nordling and half-brother Eric Nordling. A celebration of life is planned for Oct. 27 at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul.