FROM THE ARCHIVES: THE ART THING PROJECT

While going through our old yahoo group: The Fringe Ezine, I stumbled upon two articles I posted there from 2004.  Both are by David Wecker who I finally met a few months ago,  during the shooting of our documentary of artist Raymond Thunder-Sky in Cincinnati. As per the norm, I had forgotten all about posting these but, it was a bit like finding some old gems. Much has happened since then. Raymond passed just a few months after these articles were published, Keith Banner and Bill Ross departed V & V and started their own gallery, named after Raymond, and there seems to be no stopping the art of Antonio Adams.

There is also a third article, about Antonio Adams, but for some reason, in 2004, I did not post where it came from, or even who wrote it.

the art thing project
Art show embraces ‘outsiders’
Column by The Post’s David Wecker

The Art Thing Project began taking shape with the first display of
Raymond Thunder-Sky’s drawings.

You might have read about it here last spring. You’d probably
recognize Raymond if you saw him. He’s the stocky guy in the hard
hat and the polka-dotted clown suit who hangs out at construction
sites all over town.

Raymond is fascinated with heavy equipment and, in h particular, the
wrecking ball. His caseworker with the Hamilton County Board of
Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability – Bill Ross is his
name – discovered he was turning scenes of
construction/deconstruction into colorful drawings. His work was
magical and strikingly original, with an odd draftsman-like quality.
There was no strutting, no pretention, no ego to any of it.

Bill arranged for a few dozen of Raymond’s drawings to be exhibited
at a gallery in Over-the-Rhine about this time last year. Bill wrote
a few lines about Raymond’s work on a card and tacked it to the
gallery wall:

”These drawings are only a small sampling of Raymond’s output, but
they best represent both his obsessive style & subject matter. He
seems to be creating his own technically beautiful universe in his
art, a place that is both being destroyed and rebuilt at the same
time.”

Keith Banner, a friend of Bill’s who works for the MRDD in Butler
County, has a client in Hamilton who, like Raymond, has definite
artistic leanings. This guy, whose name is Paul Rowland, writes down
every bit of dialogue from movies or TV shows on index cards,
illustrates the cards, carefully laminates them, then binds them
into books, sometimes by twisting paper clips.

His favorites are ”Titanic,” ”Lost in Space” and ”Star Trek.”
Using a closed caption service, Paul hits the pause button and jots
down whatever words appear on the screen. Sometimes, he draws
pictures of what he sees when the video is stopped. Sometimes, he
blends stories together and puts himself in the action, like so:

BONES. HMMM! WHY DO YOU THINK THE SYMPTOMS HAVEN’T APPEARED IN MR.
SPOCK? I DON’T KNOW.

What happened with the Art Things Project was, Keith and Bill got to
talking about various MRDD clients who create various kinds of art
of their own invention – highly improbable pieces of art that no one
else in the world would ever imagine.

Aside from Raymond and Paul, there’s Richard Brown, who has autism
and who creates impressionistic paintings of flowers and landscapes
that seem to vibrate with energy.

And there’s Antonio Adams, who builds cat-robots out of thrown-away
pieces of lumber, Elmer’s glue and construction paper, then expertly
decorates them. He gives each a name and lists it along with a brief
description in a catalog he has for keeping track of them.

One is named Jennifer, ”a catteenage girl being stupid cancer
person to acting so strange.” Another is Manson, ”a good nice
handsome cat look organize for influence to say meow.” And Crystal
is ”a catwoman very trueful and affirmative lovely.”

The Art Thing Project is about the work of Raymond and Paul and
Antonio and Richard. Keith calls it ”outsider art,” created by
four guys who have been labeled all their lives, outsiders from the
world of art and the world in general, guys who have been doing what
they do for years, even though no one was watching. These are guys
who go in their rooms, lock their doors and make stuff that’s truly
amazing.

Keith and Bill pitched the idea of an exhibit of outsider art to the
Corbett Foundation and received a $3,000 grant. The show opens at
the Base Art Gallery, 1311 Main St., at 6 p.m. Friday and continues
through April 22.

”Most artists wish they could have these same qualities in their
work – the passion, the obsession, the magic,” Keith said.

”These guys know exactly what they’re doing. They know exactly how
they want something to look and exactly where to put what objects,
what colors.

”They don’t think about what’s fashionable or acceptable. They know
what they need to do without deliberating or concerning themselves
with what will sell.”

You can contact David Wecker at (513) 352-2791 or via e-mail at
sambets@choice.net.

Disabilities disappear in ‘outsider’ artists’ studio

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Column by The Post’s David Wecker

It started out as something to try, just to see what would happen.
Take a handful of self-taught artists, outsiders, and find out if
anyone could see the magic.
Bill Ross and Keith Banner thought it was worth a shot. They’re
caseworkers with the boards of mental health and developmental
disability, Bill in Hamilton County and Keith in Butler. Bill is an
artist himself, a painter. Keith is a writer who has work in the O.
Henry collection.

They’d noticed that some of their clients have surprising abilities.
Their work is strikingly original, uninfluenced by anything but
their own visions. Never mind if no one is paying attention;
whatever is inside them will not stay there.

Bill and Keith saw through their obsessions. They invited some of
the guys to display their work in a Main Street gallery where they
had memberships.

Antonio Adams brought space cat robots made from blocks of wood.
Richard Brown painted landscapes and floral arrangements that came
from a brighter, splashier world. Paul Rowland volunteered his
illustrated “Star Trek” and “Titanic” manuscripts into which he’d
inserted himself. Raymond Thunder-Sky, a true Cincinnati original in
his hard hat and clown costumes, added colorful sketches inspired by
demolition scenes he’s visited from one end of I-275 to the other,
wherever the Queen City Metro would take him.

The first show, called the Art Thing Project, was in March 2001. The
line of people waiting to get in wound around the block. There was
wine and brie, just like at normal art shows. Raymond wore one of
his jazzier clown outfits. Hundreds of people saw the magic. The
guys all sold pieces.

Bill and Keith aren’t the kind who trade high-fives. But if they
were, they would have that night

“On the street, it’s hard to ‘get’ what someone like Raymond does,”
Keith says.

“But if you have a clean space where his work can be collected and
displayed in frames — the framing gives it respect, legitimacy —
it’s easier for people to understand.”

Says Bill, “We really knew then we were doing something that was
necessary — we knew we had to continue.”

Much has happened since then. The Hamilton County MRDD contributed
$9,200 to rent space in an old textile warehouse in Walnut Hills for
an increasing number of artists from sheltered workshops to use for
a studio.

Bill and Keith landed a grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation
to hire Shawna Guit as studio coordinator. United Cerebral Palsy of
Cincinnati came on board, bringing artists with physical
disabilities.

Bit by bit, Bill and Keith built the Art Thing Project into an
actual program. They decided to call it Visionaries and Voices.

The work of their Cincinnati outsiders has been featured in a dozen
shows from New York to L.A. Raymond had a one-man show last April,
where he sold 22 drawings for $150 apiece. Antonio’s work has sold
for $450. Joe Kessler, a stroke victim who puts together Cincinnati
landscapes with scissors and construction paper, regularly sells
stuff for $200 to $400.

Visionaries and Voices includes about two dozen artists who come to
the studio on a regular basis — and about 50 more who’ve gotten
help marketing their work. One of my favorites is Barbara Moran of
Topeka, Kan., who found out about Visionaries and Voices on the Web.
Her cartoon-y drawings feature smiling traffic lights just hanging
out, a weeping Enola Gay hating herself for dropping the bomb and
cathedral people in provocative come-hither poses.

The talk around the studio is that Barbara is competing with Raymond
to see who can be the group’s most prolific artist. Raymond shrugs.
Whatever.

One afternoon this week, a half-dozen outsider artists with
diagnoses ranging from schizophrenia to autism to dyslexia were
working busily at the studio. The place was a beehive. The people
here had all been defined as disabled, but in this setting, they
clearly were not.

Raymond arrived around 1 p.m., put on a ruffled collar and got to
work on a rendering inspired by a demolition site he’d seen on a
recent trip to Detroit. Raymond’s father, by the way, was the last
hereditary Mohawk chief. Watching Raymond work is like being in the
presence of the great white buffalo.

Next to him, Earl Hunter was delicately shaping a miniature clay
sculpture of a fanciful being with no skin — just bones and organs.
He told me he looks at trees and makes the things he sees in their
branches.

Bill was at work on a paper cutter, making fliers for an upcoming
Visionaries and Voices fund-raiser. He said the money from the
county to pay Shawna’s salary runs out in July.

“This could all go away very easily,” he said

“That would be a sad thing,” Keith added.

“For these people finally to have a place, to do so well, to become
so well-recognized, then to lose it — that would really suck.”

So here’s the pitch. Expand your perception of “disabled” and find
out what these guys do. The fund-raiser begins with an “Everybody is
a Star” exhibit that runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 30, at the
American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 4 W. Fourth St.,
downtown Cincinnati.

Meet Raymond, Antonio and many other extraordinary people living
through their art. If you find something you like, come back for the
silent auction May 8. It starts at 3 p.m.

Contact David Wecker at 352-2791 or via e-mail at sambets@

Antonio Adams is a self-taught artist. His hands are the speech of
his imagination. In the seclusion of his one bedroom apartment,
Antonio has assembled hundreds of unique, robot-like wooden
sculptures. His black and white sketches represent his unbridled
vision of the world as he sees it.

A creative genius by most standards, Antonio’s work has been
exhibited at shows in Columbus, Cincinnati, Nashville, New York
City, and Washington D.C. However, until recent years, his talents –
like those of so many others with disabilities – remained
undiscovered, hidden behind the walls of solitude. Ignored and
unappreciated.

That is, until two social workers with a love of art, took it upon
themselves to open closed doors for these “hidden” artists. Almost
daily, Bill Ross and Keith Banner, who work for county boards of
mental retardation and developmental disabilities, were discovering
masterful talent in basements, bedrooms and garages. It was pure art
at its finest, unabashed interpretation of a world inaccessible
except through the mind.

In 2001, Bill and Keith gave voice to the voiceless. Calling
themselves “The Art Thing Project”, about 40 local artists including
Antonio held an inaugural exhibit at Over-the-Rhine’s Base Gallery.
The event was the highest attended grand opening ever in the history
of the Gallery, and most of the pieces sold.

“What was really great was that the discussions that night weren’t
about the artists’ disabilities. It was all about the beauty, purity
and value of self-taught artists,” said Bill. A grass root effort
had begun.

In August, 2003, as a collaboration with the United Cerebral Palsy
of Cincinnati and PLAN of Southwest Ohio, an accessible 1,200 square
foot studio/gallery in the Essex Studios (home to 100 other artists
without disabilities) was opened.

It was Antonio’s vision. Visionaries and Voices was to be a platform
for voices otherwise unheard, faces normally unseen, talent
historically untapped. The studio/gallery is a central space for
self-taught artists to work on their own or with other artists, sell
their works, and produce resumes, portfolios, and slides to send to
other galleries across the nation. It sponsors exhibits at the Essex
Studios and other venues – inviting artists with and without
disabilities to showcase their pieces.

The 40 plus artists participating in Visionaries and Voices, are no
longer obscure. Admired by art connoisseurs, their creative voices
have inspired a whole new culture that includes academics, art-
collectors, festivals, museums and galleries.

Joe Kestler, 57, said he had a stroke of good luck in 1993. He had
tried his hand at art once before, even enrolled in the Art Academy
of Cincinnati for a semester, but he never really felt like he
could “catch on”. Discouraged, he applied his skills to another art,
as a dog groomer. His first stroke, followed by a second, forced an
abrupt career change. He’s been interpreting life scenes on paper
ever since. He calls his art “paperings” because he uses colored
construction paper.

“Paperings” are sort of like paintings, only the intricate details
are carefully cut and placed pieces of paper. His inspiration is a
favorite photograph or image. Each piece takes about 40 hours or
more to create “When I work on a picture, I have real doubts that I
can do it, but I keep telling myself that I can no matter what,” he
said. Until Visionaries and Voices, Joe’s work was ignored. Now, he
said, “I’m well received as an artist. It gets me to feel more open
because I’m not just doing it for myself any more. Others really
like my work. It’s a gift.”

Antonio would agree. “We are all people and all have energy to
work.”