Archive for February, 2012

A Door Opening to Another World

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(Below was the first post on this blog, and the start of a mission and vision statement for Thunder-Sky, Inc. as a project and organization.  It’s been about two and a half years, and since then we’ve exhibited many Raymond works and gotten his name and identity in circulation across the region and world.  We’ve scanned in almost all of his 2000+ drawings for an upcoming digital archive.  We’ve supported many unconventional artists like Raymond in 16 [and counting] exhibits in our space.  And now, in March, we’ve been able to help land Raymond’s first international show in Denmark.  So we thought it would be cool to rerun this first post.  It’s the root of everything we do.)

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.

“Small” World

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Pulling “Small Potatoes” together has been a joyous experience mostly because of the weird and wonderful process of collecting the works of artists from all over the place geographically, aesthetically, and demographically.  There are over 20 artists represented in the show, and we have tried our best to create a context in which all their sculptures, drawings and paintings have a way to both blend into, and benefit from, the surroundings.  In short, we built a nest for these small works.  We also noticed that the “smallness” adds a domestic quality to the space, as if the gallery has been transformed into a giant curio cabinet.  Sometimes The Curio Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, other times Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.  

Thanks to all the artists who have work in the show:  David Gerbstadt, David Jarred, Katherine Ziff, Rebecca Henderson, Ervin Henderson, Robert McFate, Antonio Adams, Eric Fellner, Andrey Kazakov, Samantha Messer, Carlos Jesus Perez, Alex Bartenberger, David Wagel, Jr., Emily Brandehoff, Gena Grunenberg, Dale Jackson, Mary Vista, Brian Dooley, Cathy Dailey, Fedrick D. Bullocks, Jr.,, and Stevie Grueter.

Matthew Waldeck
Eric Fellner

David Gerbstadt

Robert McFate

Robert McFate

Ervin and Rebecca Henderson

Katherine Ziff

Gena Grunenberg

Katherine Ziff

The contents of one of Raymond Thunder-Sky’s toolboxes

Andrey Kozakov

(Special thanks for Eric Ruschman and Matt Morris for the pedestal.  Double thanks to Gena Grunenberg and her mom for the incredible tables.) 

Potatoes Grow Underground

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Below are some photos I’ve scavenged from the Internet from TV shows about “hoarding.”  Reality TV shows are all about voyeurism of course, allowing viewers direct access into people’s homes and lives in order to witness something “real.”  Everybody knows, though, that the “realness” is just as phony as scripted TV.  Maybe even more so.  But a reality show like Hoarders takes the idea of “reality TV” into the realm of (albeit accidental, but what isn’t?) installation art.  As I watched a couple Hoarders episodes recently, and also perused the photos below, I started to realize how much “voyeurism” is built into the experience of seeing and collecting art.  The people in Hoarders are usually at the end of their struggles.  Their houses are about to be condemned, and then here come the cameras and the psychiatrists and “organization professionals.”  They have created chaos and health hazards in their own homes because of a disorder or a slew of them, but also because of a love of objects, a need to keep them beyond their utilitarian uses, to cling to the moment when objects they’ve purchased or found or have been given merge into the over-stuffed dreamland they inhabit.  Their homes are serendipitous museums filled with odd, poignant, extravagant, and meaningful exhibits that have a dark, creepy beauty beyond diagnostics and the eventual cry for help.   

Jerry Slatz writes about artists who indulge in what he calls “cluster fuck aesthetics,” “Whether you call it the New Cacophony or the Old Cacophony, Agglomerationism, Disorientationism, the Anti Dia or just a raging bile duct, the practice of mounting sprawling, often infinitely organized, jam-packed carnivalesque installations is making more and more galleries and museums feel like department stores, junkyards, and disaster films. It is an architecture of no architecture, a gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork,” whose roots are in opera, Dada, the Merzbau and the madhouse.”

All of the above could be applied to the photos below.  Hoarders, in much the same way we often posit the motives (or un-motives) of “outsider artists,” unintentionally create “sprawling, jam-packed and infinitely organized carnivalesque installations.”  And then they have to live with them.  Their art consumes their lives.

So as we install and curate our new exhibit “Small Potatoes,” we will also be thinking about and acting on the meanings and absurdities of collecting/hoarding/installing/showing, and how accidents and obsessions often transform themselves into motives and actualities when nobody is looking.  After all, potatoes grow underground, and once they are pulled up they become somebody else’s property.  They exist in somebody else’s air. 


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