Once a month over the next year Sothis Medias will feature a brief sketch of someone who did things their own way, who lived their own iconoclastic life. Last month we looked at the transformations of the Butterfly Bard, Brother Blue. This month we are going to explore Cincinnati legend and outsider artist, Raymond Thundersky.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
Once upon a time when I was in junior high and high school, I started seeing a man out and about on my skateboarding-and-metro-bus-riding excursions around the city. It was a man I became somewhat afraid of, though I later learned those fears were unfounded.
I was afraid of him because he wore a clown collar and carried around a construction workers lunch box. Some people called him the construction clown. As I got older I wondered if he was some kind of John Wayne Gacy impersonator, as Gacy had been a construction worker who moonlighted as a clown. Even though I love the circus, clowns are high up on the spectrum of creepy, for me anyway. Maybe he was just a fan of ICP, yet I never saw him with a bottle of Faygo.
Most of the time when I saw him it was downtown, near construction sites. I've always loved going downtown, ever since the summer after the sixth grade when in the summer my mom put me on a metro and sent me down to see my sister at her workplace, the Bagel Stop, and go to the Friend's of the Library book sale on Fountain Square. I still have the poetry anthology I picked up that day. As I got further into skateboarding, downtown became one of my favorite spots, and it was just a quick bus ride away, and only fifty cents on the weekends, and during the summer. Downtown also happened to be a favorite spot for the construction clown, but at the time, I didn't know why.
There was one occasion where I was waiting at a bus stop in Westwood -a layover stop across the street from the then still going Westwood Movie Theater- and the construction clown was waiting with me. He kept staring at me but not talking, as if he knew I was scared, and delighted in making me more so. I contemplated skating down the street to another bus stop, but knew he would still end up on the same bus with me.
Another time, stoned and cotton mouthed on my way back home with a friend who was spending the night, the construction clown got on the bus and sat behind us. He put his hands on the arm handle or rest in front of him, that was also part of the seat I had my bottom on. It was quite unsettling. Most people don't rest their hands on those blue plastic bits if a person is sitting on the seat in front of them.
I'd see him around for years to come after, though in time, without as much frequency. It was only later I learned he was an artist. An outsider. An outsider artist. And that it wasn't his lunch he was carrying in the lunchbox, but his colored pencils, crayons and paper.
Raymond Thundersky was obsessed with construction sites, and deconstruction sites. It was the demolition of buildings he most liked to draw. And I also learned he was a Native American. Besides the construction clown his other nickname was the Chief or the Mohawk Chief.
Though Cincinnatian's inhabit a landscape vibrant with the traces of past cultures, the Moundbuilders, the Adena, the Hopewell, and later the Shawnee, with burial mounds set in the midst of urban neighborhoods and in our many parks, the presence of a Native American community here seems absent to me. Personally, I have known just one or two Native American's in this town.
His obituary in the Cincinnati Enquirer says he was born in California in 1950. His father was Richard Brightfire Thunder-Sky, the last full blooded chief of the Mohawk tribe. His dad was born on St. Regis Reservation on border of New York and Canada. At some point Richard went out to California to work as an artist and actor. He had appearances in nine Hollywood Westerns... Cowboy and Indian films in other words.
He was Hungarian on the other side of his family. Another form of noble lineage, came from his mom whose father hailed from the Habsburg Dynasty. Irene Szalatzky met Richard at a party in an American Legion in NYC, where her father had emigrated to after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Married in 1946, the couple popped out two before coming to Cincinnati in 1961. & they had a long marriage of forty-three years. The couple had settled in the Northside neighborhood, and this was where I encountered Raymond around the streets and waiting for the bus when I was in my early twenties, just before his death in 2004.
Raymond's drawings were monomaniacal, in a way similar to Louis Wain's: whereas Wain was obsessed with drawing and painting cats, cats, more cats and when painting cats he was drawing cats. Thundersky's single minded focus centered on construction and demolition sites, with a small dose of clown. The clowns weren't so much in the pictures as they were in the cryptic captions he would write on a drawing where something was being built such as "New Clown Costume Factory." He also brought his ancestry and their possible trajectories into the mix with titles like "Future Mohawk Freeway."
I have friends who also have tendencies towards a certain single minded focus. Some might say they are on the spectrum. Hell, we're all on the spectrum somewhere, or there would be no spectrum to be on, no point A or point B. Yet those close to Mr. Thundersky thought he might be autistic even though he was never formally diagnosed.
Yet he was assigned a social worker named Bill Ross in 1999. Ross was also an artist and once he gained the trust of Thundersky he was invited into the mans Northside apartment, where over time he got to know a bit more of the background of Thundersky's family. Thundersky's father apparently left California to get a job here in Cincinnati as an ironworker alongside several other Mohawk families.
For her article "Trickster, Artist and Native American" Mary Annette Pember notes that, "Ray Cook, an editor at Indian Country Today Media Network who is from the St. Regis Mohawk tribe notes that “Thundersky” is not a Mohawk name. He speculated that Raymond’s father might have changed the family name while working in Hollywood into something considered 'more Indian.'"
And further: "According to David Stadden, Ojibwe, Public Relations coordinator for the St. Regis Tribe, neither Raymond nor his father Richard Thundersky are enrolled in the tribe."
Cook however did note that photos of Raymond showed a strong resemblance to Mohawk families.
Raymond's childhood love of the circus and admiration for his father's work on construction sites gave birth to his distinct and unique way of dressing, and his independent vision as a self-taught artist.
In 2001 Keith Banner and Bill Ross put together a small show of Raymond's artwork, and it set the stage for the legacy that was to follow the Cincinnati icon, with his pieces later traveling to shows across the nation and around the world.
He left behind over 2,000 drawings of demolition and construction sites when he died. Building and destroying were for him fused together. There was no creation without destruction.
In 2004 Ross and Banner Founded Thunder-Sky Inc. This is a non-profit gallery and small storefront in Northside that has been a home for other outsider artists. It provided workspaces and a place to exhibit works whose origins lay outside the academy, outside the realm of production conferred by the economy of the art world and beyond the scope of art schools.
Raymond was still alive when the space first opened, but he didn't like to work there. He preffered his own routine and methods, though he did like to go to the parties and openings held in the space.
Keith Banner noted that “Raymond was a cultural and spiritual figure who, through the persistence of his art-making and brave exploration of his own aesthetic universe became a touchstone for what it means to be creative and alive.”
The same year the gallery was founded Raymond passed away from cancer. Artworks, a non-profit group that pairs students and professional artists to paint murals all around Cincinnati made a mural of Raymond Thundersky at another outsider artist hot spot, Visionaries & Voices.
As a youth I didn't understand Raymond or what he was about. I didn't see beyond the clown suit or beneath the hard hat or what lay inside his lunchbox. Even though I was naively afraid of him, I'm appreciative of my encounters with him around the city.
Thundersky Inc. closed its doors at the end of 2020. But I swear I can feel the spirit of Raymond walking down the streets, looking for new demolition sites and seeing what new buildings are sprouting up in his old haunts.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.