Archive for February, 2011

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”

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The title above is the first line from Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 manifesto, and it really fits the way I see Bunky Echo-Hawk’s work and style.  He visited Thunder-Sky, Inc. this weekend, and basically created a whole suite of paintings out of thin air.  Friday, we had a gallery filled with 16 blank canvases, one 3′ X 4′, the rest 16″ X 20″.  That was the tabula-rasa.  Bunky came in from Oklahoma Thursday night, and then Friday visited a classroom at Clark Montessori High School, and then went to the gallery and started to work.  Around 7:30 pm or so, he gave a talk about his philosophy on art to a group of about 50 people who showed up, and asked them if they would mind participating in the show as stand-in muses.  16 people were game.  He asked each volunteer to hold a canvas, and he got to work, interviewing each canvas-holder about what was inside their heads concerning representations of Native Americans.

Stock images came forth (Geronimo, Dances with Wolves, etc.), as well as shock images (scalping, war paint, etc.).  Fire was mentioned, as well as the Jodie Foster movie Contact.  The whole feeling was like at a county fair, when you pay a caricaturist to do a portrait of you playing golf or driving the kids to soccer practice.  But the reality was that Bunky was on an excavation for whatever truth is left where representations of Native Americans are concerned.  Calm, reserved and very kind, he respectfully probed and prodded each person.  The responses, however, weren’t really as important to the whole gig as Bunky’s reponses to the responses.  Bunky wanted to take stock images and tired tropes and reinvent them into small, precise pictographs, inverting centuries of mythologizing by the People in Power into smart-assed interrogations of what those mythologies do when you don’t understand their innate power to structure the way you see and act and even feel.

So what could be seen as a gimmick or a stunt becomes a way out of the same old bull-shit, and the 16 paintings he will leave in his wake are evidence of listening, responding, and creating meaning from Political Correctness or just plain Amnesia.  The P-C Amnesia is nobody’s fault in the room, of course.  Like any other disapora or ghetto, the reservation has to be made into something we can all tolerate through that one Pop Culture tear crawling tenderly down the cheek of the Native American chief in the Keep America Beautiful PSA. 

Bunky’s art isn’t about blame:  it’s about getting the joke.

The Oldenburg quote comes at you like an arrow.  Art has to do something other than sit on its ass in a museum, or it becomes as ossified and correct as “official history.”  In his small, concise way, and in his whole body of work, Bunky Echo-Hawk is creating art that is political-erotical-mystical, and I’ll add a few too:  comical-ironical-beautiful.

Bunky at Clark Montessori High School

First painting at Thunder-Sky, Inc.
An Interview

An Interview

An Interview


Raymond’s brother Michael Thunder-Sky, Bunky Echo-Hawk, and Thunder-Sky Family Friend and Thunder-Sky, Inc. Board Member Larry Higdon

Bunky giving a digital tour of his art

“Indian as Cowboy”

Happy Birthday Raymond

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Raymond would have turned 61 today, February 16, 2011. 

 (Bill Ross first met Raymond Thunder-Sky in 1999, when he was hired as a social-worker for people with developmental disabilities. This essay is about this initial meeting and the inspiration from it that has lasted for ten years. Raymond passed away in 2004.)

On my case load of about 30 people one name stood out: Raymond Thunder-Sky. I read through his file and found he was Native American and more specifically was from the Mohawk Tribe. There was an article from the Cincinnati Post that celebrated Raymond’s eccentricity as a local figure known to walk around downtown in a clown suite with an Elizabethan collar and hard hat. He was known as the Construction Clown by those who would see him as he would frequently hang out at construction sites.

I was informed he was not in the best of health. So I needed to see how he was doing and the condition of his apartment. I started by simply trying to call, but he never answered. I stopped by his place late in the day a few times and realized this was not a time you would find him home. He lived in an apartment in Northside. A bar of sunlight flooded out from under his door in the dark hallway that smelled of old food and mildew.After a few visits, I could tell when he was home. There was a TV on, a shadow under the door that moved back and forth. He wouldn’t open the door, so I spoke to him through it explaining who I was and that I would be checking on him every so often.

The next time I stopped by he cracked the door a little as I was about to walk away. I still couldn’t see him but he made a sound that kind of resembled the clearing of his throat. Maybe the sound of agreement. For the most part, though, I just felt ignored.

The next time I showed up, Raymond opened the door and let me in. Raymond stood in his doorway in a turquoise green T-shirt and checkered boxers. His shirt was covered in toothpaste spit and what looked like food from the night before. His legs looked painful with varicose veins and scabs. He didn’t look well.I asked if I could come in and he made that throat clearing noise. He left the door open for me as he went back in. He sat in a kitchen chair facing his TV. I sat on the couch. The apartment was filled with tool boxes, a work bench with a vice, traffic cones and many pieces of machinery that were unrecognizable.We sat and watched an episode of the Tele Tubbies. His TV had poor reception, and the image flipped and fuzzed out every so often. He watched with a smile, aware I was noticing him, but letting me know he was OK with me being there.

Seeing how he looked and the condition of his apartment I felt obligated to do something social-workery. I thought, this poor man needed more help and needed to be checked out medically. Back at my office, I called everyone I could on the list of names connected to him including the nurse from the agency that provided him with drop-in services.I pulled a meeting together that even included an old family friend who looked out for Raymond and who would later share Raymond’s story in a lot more detail than I knew at this point.

Raymond was the last to show up at this meeting. In fact, I was beginning to think he wasn’t going to show. He came in to the room in a pair of overalls and his clown collar. On his head he wore a King Wrecking Company hard hat. He carried a tool box in his hand.Raymond sat across from me and opened the red tool box as if he were opening a violin case. He had that smile on his face, like he had when watching the Tele Tubbies. He would not make eye contact. He pulled out a stack of drawings from the tool box and pushed them across the table in front of me.It was truly a life-changing moment.

This mysterious and very private man choosing this time to share something so amazing and deeply personal with me in front of all these people. In all the attempted visits, talking through his door, watching TV with him, I had never shared with him I was an artist. I was pretty much all business. I hadn’t really considered his dressing as a clown and walking around Cincinnati as a creative act until he shared his drawings. Honestly, I thought it was some kind of idiosyncrasy probably related to his disability.Each drawing was very composed, each a little different than the next. Raymond was drawing demolition sites with buildings in various states of destruction. He included in the composed chaos of the drawings a caption of what he wanted to put in place of the building being torn down, which often times included clown suit factories or amusement parks.

The point of the meeting was to try to get him to take better care of himself and to try to convince him to let his caregivers take him to the doctor and help him try to live healthier. This message never really sank in. Looking back he had his own agenda for me at this meeting.I learned a lot more about Raymond from Larry Higdon, the friend of Raymond’s parents. I learned about his Native American heritage as his Dad was a Mohawk Chief and his mother was a descendent of an Austrian Nobleman. I learned how Raymond fell in love with the circus and wanted to go onstage the first time he saw the clowns come out. How Raymond longed to work in construction. Through art he was able to merge these two passions.

It is true that everyone is a door opening to another world. When I knocked on Raymond’s door, I had no idea. Getting to know him helped me better understand who I am. Without Raymond,I would be a lesser person, and the world would be a lesser place.

Poetry = Anger X Imagination

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“Poetry = Anger x Imagination”
— Sherman Alexie

Raymond Thunder-Sky’s drawings are elemental yet sophisticated, and house within them meanings that are deceptively simple.  He is roaming the cityscape trying to find destruction so that the creative part of his imagination can fill in the emptiness.  He is trying to find a way to resurrect all that’s been lost for him, and maybe even his ancestors.  Raymond was a Mohawk, his father the chief of that tribe.  The history of the way Native Americans were relegated violently to the background of main-stream history is sorrowful and horrible, but from the destruction and devastation comes a spirit that produces greatness.  Raymond had a psychic connection with that sense of loss and what can be gained from reinventing that loss.  In every one of his drawings he is appropriating what time, culture and capitalism does to the landscape:  buildings being bulldozed, wires and earth revealed like what’s underneath flesh, a whole universe of destruction, peopleless and more beautiful because of that.  There’s an aura of inescapable loneliness, with sky-writing (like smoke signals) letting you know the future.

Like Raymond, Bunky Echo-Hawk appropriates the dross of a sad culture and takes that waste and creates a new function from the form:  a sarcastic, head-on collision that redefines the way we define Native people.  He surveys the saccharine in order to present the sardonic, usually finding solace in laughing at both the hopeless stereotypes that usually represent Native Americans, as well as the sentimental attempts to cling at those stereotypes by constantly reinventing them.  For example:

The tropes of strange blue aliens/angels, a cartoon figurine from a faux-past, and/or a “sympathetic” white guy “going Native” are interchangeable and allow everyone to feel as if all that “bad stuff” that happened is now just an almost forgotten dream.  Look at everyone in the picture staring off into space, vacuous and posing as if they are on the cover of the new Vanity Fair

The dream gets revised in the art made by both Raymond and Bunky.  Their works find a way to critique and resist without shrillness or arrogance.  They merge anger with imagination, as Sherman Alexie says, and produce poetry.


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