Saturday, September 10, 2016

Yours Truly

Tomorrow we're going to be pouring the concrete platform for the permanent sculpture commemorating Raymond Thunder-Sky's cultural status here in the area.  I've written so many times about Raymond sometimes I think I'm really not writing about him anymore, just telepathically conveying what he means to me over and over until the meaning becomes my status of things, the way I hope people see the way I think.  Raymond, to me, was a godsend because he helped me in many ways imagine and re-imagine what I wanted to make happen in the world, as well as how to survive what happened once things get put into place.  

That may sound odd, but Raymond was a specter of survival more than anything else; he used the world to his purposes and found ways to keep going even though the world often seemed not to care.  His ghostliness, his weirdness, made him more powerful and yet also easy to dismiss, and his art, elemental and hilarious renderings of destruction and madness and creativity done in Magic Markers, has that same quality:  some people look at what he did as endless unnecessary doodles, others as social commentary, and then others (like me) simply a vibrant, anarchic diary of existence translated through a need to be seen while disappearing.    

Here's the official data about the sculpture:

“The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower”
The Center for Great Neighborhoods

“The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower” is an outdoor sculpture created by renowned international sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, commemorating the life and legacy of Raymond Thunder-Sky, a Native American artist (also labeled with a developmental disability) who traveled around the region dressed as a construction worker and clown, drawing construction and demolition sites in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Northern Kentucky.  He left behind over 2300 drawings after his death in 2004, and these drawings, along with many of his tool-boxes, costumes and other items, are archived at Thunder-Sky, Inc., a gallery opened in his name in 2009 in Cincinnati.  Mr. Tsuchiya has completed many private and public sculpture commissions, including statues of Cincinnati Reds players at Great American Ball Park, completed in 2004.  In 2009, he was commissioned to create the "Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award,” the trophy that is annually given to the National Football League's best offensive line.  Other works have been exhibited at Cincinnati's Fountain Square, New York City's Grand Central Terminal, and Washington D.C.'s National Mall.  On September 15, 2016, 4 to 7 pm, “The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower” will be unveiled at the old Hellmann Lumber Mill at the corner of Fisk and MLK (formerly 12th street) in Covington, the new office complex for the Center for Great Neighborhoods.  During the unveiling ceremony featuring Tom Tsuchiya with give a short talk about the creation of the sculpture, as well as what Mr. Thunder-Sky meant to his creative process.  As well, inside the Center of Great Neighborhood’s new offices, works by local artists commemorating Mr. Thunder-Sky’s legacy will be presented, as well as a video documenting an educational program that took place at the Carnegie this summer in which Mr. Thunder-Sky’s drawings were used as inspiration for short plays.  “Demolition Man: Selected works from the Raymond Thunder-Sky Archives,” the first retrospective of Mr. Thunder-Sky’s works since his passing in 2004, opens April 28, 2017 at the Carnegie.  All of Mr. Thunder-Sky’s drawings can be viewed at www.raymondthundersky.org.    

Bill met Raymond back in 1999.  He introduced me to Raymond's drawings before I got to meet the man himself, and I was kind of blown away by the simplicity of his art's philosophy and execution. Bill and I were members of an artists collective in Cincinnati and so we were able to curate/sponsor Raymond's first show of drawings.  From that a lot of things unfurled, including a relationship with the great Antonio Adams, lots and lots of shows, eventually founding a non-profit called Visionaries + Voices and opening a studio in Essex Studios in Walnut Hill which was modeled on the artists collective we were in.  And then V+V transforming into an organization/studio solely about artists with disabilities, and then Raymond passing away in 2004, and Bill and I helping V+V to grow into 2 facilities/programs with a staff and clientele.  And then figuring out we needed to keep Raymond somehow in the mix, in 2009, we left V+V and started Thunder-Sky, Inc. in order to reclaim that sense of art without labels, harkening back to that moment when Bill first showed me those Raymond drawings in 1999, using that nostalgia and stubbornness to keep ideas and aesthetics in the mix without the  diagnostic/programmatic/charity overlay.  

For seven years we've kept it going at Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  exhibits and stunts and events that feature artists of all socioeconomic, cultural, educational, etc. backgrounds showing what they can do under the regal banner of a Native American construction-worker dressed up like a clown with a tool-box of markers, getting a kick out of how people build things only to tear it all down and rebuild.  Rinse and repeat.

And now a great sculptor named Tom Tsuchiya has generously created a wonderful monument to Raymond.  When we pour the concrete tomorrow (ironically on the anniversary of 9/11, which is completely unintended and yet kind of brilliant without being brilliant), I'll be thinking of Raymond Thunder-Sky not as a memory but as a force of nature, a weird silent asteroid who came through this area and paved the way forward for a lot of human beings, including yours truly.

To Raymond.

Below are photos with captions of some of the history of Raymond's life, and the history of the sculpture.  

1999:  Raymond with Paul Rowland and Antonio Adams outside the Base Gallery in Over the Rhine, where this whole shebang started.

Raymond drawing, with a mention of Covington, Kentucky.



Antonio with a print of a drawing of Raymond by David Mack, circa 2012.

Drawing of the concrete platform and the Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower by Sculptor Tom Tsuchiya.

Tom with a replica of the Spirit Tower.

Plague for the Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower.  David Wecker was one of the first journalists to write about Raymond.

Tom Tsuchiya's plan-out for the sculpture.

Raymond in Chicago, by the then-named Sears Tower...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

As I Want You to Be

Last Saturday we went to see a Nirvana cover band at Bogart's in Cincinnati, a sort of rundown, grungy, funky venue that houses a lot of memories for me (we saw Foo Fighters there right when their first album came out, Frank Black sans Pixies, Flaming Lips, etc.).  It was a beautiful thing to hear those early nineties songs again, in the land of the living, played the way they should be played, banged out and elemental, no talk.  The cover band's name is Orchid in the Ivy, and I know nothing about them except that they can play Nirvana songs, but that's okay.  They did it exactly the way they should have:  shut-mouthed and reverent in the church of skillful and demented punk-pop.

Kurt Cobain's main talent, above all else, was his obsessive welding together of vulnerable melodies with pure chainsaw fury.  His down and dirty hurt was always glazed with an outsider-art attention to detail, whimsy and torture welling up into a burst of guitar chords that sound kind of familiar at first but right when you get into it you also get assaulted.  The assault was Kurt's art escaping its prison, letting you have it.  He was pissed at you for enjoying his little fucking ditties, and yet those ditties, and your response, was all he cared about.

And so all week I've lived in the shadow of that cover-band cathedral, listening to all the songs again, mesmerized by all he was able to pack in his short time on earth.  One song kind of became my mantra as I drove around in my Kia Soul:  "Come as You Are."  The second single off Nevermind, that song has incredible chops, a powerful bass hook that grinds you into its atmosphere, and lyrics that don't give away anything but also tell you everything you need to know:

"No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun."

What the hell is more vulnerable and succinct than that?

That surrender somehow confiscates an era's cynicism.  It lets us know what the world is about more than a whole slew of newspaper articles or tweets or speeches.  It's not poetry as much as secret code. Needless to say I got into that song in 1992, when I was 27 and in graduate school.  I was in a fiction-writing class, and I played the hell out of "Come as You Are" while drafting the short story I scanned in and uploaded below.  I wrote it in three weeks and decided not to submit it to workshop because I loved it so much and didn't want people to pick it apart.  It turns out to be the first piece I was able to get published in a national magazine.

Christopher Street was the bastion of gay lit back in the 70s and 80s, so I got in on the tail-end of its glory and tenure, but am still kind of proud that they chose to publish "Mars," which I just reread, all caught up in my Nirvana k-hole.  It's not a bad piece of work.  I recognize all kinds of tricks and tics that make what I write what I write forming within it:  simple declarative no-nonsense sentences and paragraphs, a cryptic poetry circulating inside scenes revealed with as little poetry as possible.  Not a lot of laughs in this one, but I learned as I went how to make things at least a little more comic.  "Mars" is about a foster-kid named Paul who eventually gets brutally killed, after a life spent trying not to be what everyone wants him to be.  It has a sort of shadow-narrative, as well (I was all into The Great Gatsby at the time and wanted to white-trash-gay that Fitzgerald shit up), about a gay not-foster-kid who sees in Paul a specter of meaning and transcendence nobody else can in his world.

But that song, right?  "Come as You Are," all momentous and full of doom and tenderness.  I wanted that to be in the story too.  I followed its rhythm and snark as I wrote, and when I saw the watery-rusty-chandelier music video, with Kurt with his dyed-amber hair and nasty green sweater and pale-angel countenance, singing into the camera like the camera was his parole officer, well then I understood where I stood in the world of literature and art and just the world:  I was trying to not so much elevate trash and tragedy as to grasp it through the glamorous haze of punk's magic mirror, a reflection giving off such a shitty glow you start to understand how sometimes you can't turn the lights on and you can't turn the lights off.  You can only wait for things to settle back down so you can go to work.

It's a sad story, "Mars."  I was afraid to go back and read it again because I thought I might be embarrassed by its sophomoric attempts at gay grunge, but nope:  it's pretty good.  It has all kinds of chasms and humorless hurts and yet there's also a strange, sweet, unspoken love that slithers through it, kind of the way Kurt's voice growls and whimpers through "Come as You Are."

No it doesn't have a gun.      










Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Horror, the Horror


Trey Edward Shultz and Krisha Fairchild in Krisha.  Shults not only writes and directs, he stars too.

I haven't written a post in almost three months.  Too much stuff to do, plus I'm working on getting a draft of a novel done, which takes a lot of concentration and soul and nerve.

Which brings me to why I'm blogging now:  I stumbled on so much concentration and soul and nerve in a new independent movie I've watched twice now I felt compelled to sit down and do this.   The movie is Krisha, and it is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, starring his aunt Krisha Fairchild.  It's his first full-length movie, and it is a masterpiece of technical skill and empathy and horror.

Watching Krisha is so revelatory because of its concise, controlled madness, banality and sorrow merged with a slick, dynamic sense of style, kind of like if Hitchcock and Cassevettes had a baby.  It mostly takes place inside a Houston, Texas suburban McMansion on Thanksgiving Day, with cars parked all along the grass and in the driveway.  A sad busted-up truck pulls up, the bottom of a hippie skirt sticking out of the closed driver door.  Krisha gets out in all her Sleeping-Gypsy glory, grabs her suitcase on wheels and initially goes to the wrong McMansion, finally stumbling onto the right one, where her sister and other family-members, including a son she abandoned many years ago, take her back into the fold in scenes so awkwardly meaningful and breathtakingly real you feel like you're watching security footage, not a movie.

And yet it's security-footage once removed, filtered through the brain and heart of a true artist.  Shults knows exactly what he is doing, and on a shoe-string budget with his actual family-members doing the acting he produces thrilling set-pieces, lush camera-work, effortlessly composed yet completely on-point scenes that reveal so much without curling into sentimentality of any kind. He can pan, grab a close-up, mute the sound, fixate on an everyday object, all in one swirl, and with all of that he's able to relay tons of fact and joy and hate without dabbling in exposition or dialog.  It's all visual and movement.  He's done his homework, and yet he doesn't show off:  it all serves the story he's telling, the people he's trying to figure out.

The lead actor, Krisha Fairchild playing Krisha, devastates with her moves from smug spiritual priestess to terrified little girl to jealous drunk Medusa yearning for her own version of innocence and happiness to return.  It's one of those performances that linger in your head, just like the movie does, and you can't think of anyone else, movie star or not, who could have pulled it off any better.  Krisha sets up her own little fiefdom in an upstairs bedroom in the house, pulling out pictures and her little locked box of drugs, her Ziplock baggie of makeup, resting her sweet little dog in a blanket on a sofa. That room she takes over is like the psychological nest in Roman Polanski's Repulsion, with Fairchild taking on Catherine Deneuve in the vulnerable yet terrifyingly insane department.  But you fall in love with Krisha in a way you don't with Polanski's character-study.  It's Schults' gaze I think.  Even though his aunt is playing a part, you feel a connection through the camera that's truthful, hurt, full of love, not willing to make amends.  The whole setup is dead-on kitchen-sink tragedy but then it reinforces itself, building into a love-letter written to someone you can't find a way to love even though it's all you want to do.

Krisha is at times a horror movie, a high-style sitcom, a meditation on family and love and loss, an experiment in style, and a visual poem that takes everyday objects and situations and invests in them a Kubrickian coldness and intensity that leave you feeling as though you've seen something brand new and yet totally recognizable, comforting in its strangeness.

At the end of Krisha, when all goes to hell, you feel bruised and elated, kind of astounded by what art can really do.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Very Special Episode



"Gloria's Boyfriend" is an episode from the fourth season of All in the Family (2/2/74 is when it first  aired).   Just stumbled onto it a little bit ago on cable, and then rewatched the episode on You-Tube (here).  I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to help job seekers with developmental disabilities access good jobs in the community, and "Gloria's Boyfriend" is all about that very topic, albeit a little dated.  And yet the way the subject matter is handled and worked through reminds me of how much things really haven't changed too much.  Possibly the language has been overhauled (the "R" word is used both pedantically and insultingly in the episode), but the actual tropes and metaphors and fears still kind of linger when you approach the idea of someone labeled as developmentally disabled being able to be a part of the workforce, a contributor to the way we all get things done everyday.

 "Gloria's Boyfriend" tells the story of George the Box Boy at Ferguson's Grocery, and the one day he brings the groceries home as a favor to Gloria.  It's obvious he has a crush on her, and for a minute or two you get the feeling that's the creepy direction the story is going.  But the actual narrative gets focused around a subplot, in which Archie and Michael are using an adjustable bench-plane to help refit the upstairs bathroom door that isn't shutting properly.  That door becomes both a metaphor and a plot device, as does the faulty tool Archie is using:  the bench-plane's blade is not yielding any wood shavings as Archie glides it across the door. 

In the episode, George is given to us as a big, sweet guy who is a little slow, but capable of expressing himself as well as having the ability to understand when he's mistreated  and when he's welcome.   The conversation about him among the Bunker clan is a survey of the ways people with developmental disabilities have been represented and seen over the course of the 20th (and now 21st) Centuries:  menace, innocent, deviant, oversexed, simpleminded, and so on.  The pendulum from "how sweet" to "how dangerous" is quick and steady, especially when Archie talks.  In fact, Archie in the episode is a sort of stand-in for the way many people understand what "developmental disabilities" are.  He's constantly warning his daughter to watch out for George's advances ("Stop getting him all excited -- people like him have a one-track mind," he says), while when speaking directly to George he's condescendingly kind and didactic (he tells George to take a break, sit and watch as Archie and Michael try to whittle down the door so it'll fit, using the tool that does not work). 

The crisis moment comes when Archie again speaks to Gloria about the possible dangers of her friendship with George, and George overhears.  Archie feels the need to spell what he considers is George's main diagnosis and prognosis:  "You gotta be careful around a d-u-m-m-y."

It turns out George can spell, and he tells everyone that in fact he's not a dummy, and he's going to show them all he's not.  He runs out the backdoor.  This instigates a conversation among all of the family about how George from Edith's perspective is a "nice gentle boy," and Archie counters with examples of "his kind" from movies like Of Mice and Men and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while Gloria and Michael defend George as "special" and "retarded," but able to work and live in the world just like anybody else. 

Later in the day, Gloria goes back to Ferguson's to get ice cream, returns to tell everyone that George has been fired.  They all hope it wasn't because they asked him to stay a while earlier, and also because of what Archie had said.  Then a knock at the door, and George's dad comes to find out where George is, as he had heard from Mr. Ferguson about the firing, as well as the fact that George's last delivery was here at the Bunker's.  Another history and

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dog and Butterfly


I bought Big Science by Laurie Anderson (LP version, not CD or cassette) with money from one of my first paychecks from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  At sixteen, I was entranced by her music and her image after serendipitously seeing a video of "O Superman" one winter evening on some late-night cable basement TV show.  That light emanating from her mouth, that electric-bolt style of hairdo, that voice, oh that technocratic-lady voice.  The synthesizer sadness of it all is what truly got me though:  there was a hook there, a pop-song need to please, and yet Anderson never escaped her own beautiful, repetitiously mournful pretentiousness, her need not to please.  Every song on Big Science opened up new little doors inside a melancholy/psychotic dollhouse; it became the soundtrack of my high school years.  I returned to it over and over, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with myself, and then most of the time I would just give up and luxuriate in the big strange universe Anderson conjured, constantly edified by the sarcastic sincerity of her voice, her way. 

I've seen her a couple of times live, and still that same feeling comes through.  She's all-out, balls-out art-school-precious, but also there is a mean-spirited and wild blankness to her delivery that counteracts that preciousness.  It's that off-kilter meanness that blossoms into her sense of humor too.  Her music and writing brim with self-deprecation and moral wiliness; when she's not meditating on something serious, she's pulling the mask off her own seriousness:  

I turned the corner in Soho today and
someone
Looked right at me and said:  Oh no!  Another Laurie Anderson clone!   

That's from "Talk Normal," a little ditty off her 1986 album Home of the Brave, a jaunty, funky hot mess of songs and ideas and jokes that gives off a toxic glow, while also somehow summoning the smell of suntan lotion being applied on the beach. 

Anderson is a mixed bag of greatness, a clone of herself, and a sort of touchstone I'm glad is there.  Without her, I wouldn't be the same.  The world wouldn't be.

And so last night I watched her 2015 movie Heart of a Dog, and I was completely floored.  A documentary that loops around itself, meditation into riddle into sidebar into punchline into philosophy, the movie is a sort of Laurie Anderson manifesto after the fact.  And the whole shebang hinges on her love of her dog Lolabelle, a little terrier who passes away and yet leaves such a distinct impression I'm still kind of reeling from the experience of witnessing Anderson's total love and aesthetic devotion to her.

Heart of a Dog in short is a masterpiece of seriousness of purpose, of intent, of mode and mission.  A cinematic hodgepodge of thoughts and feelings, drawings and mood music, texts and poems, the movie captures what it means to be a human being in all of this shit by investing all its intentions in the spirit and image of a dear little dog.  While that sounds a little twee I'm sure, it's really all we've got to go on, if you get right down to it.  Loving someone, something, that's beyond your scope of comprehension, and yet returns that love with an intensity and grace beyond any understanding.  That's Lolabelle in a nutshell.  That's Heart of a Dog.

Anderson's narrative voice in the movie is the same as the narrative voice in Big Science, thank God.  Cartoonishly erudite, a little too full of itself and careful, it has a cadence and tone that turns musical in one moment and caustically cautious the next.  It's like coming home. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

I'll Stick with You Baby for a Thousand Years


Last Friday, April 29, 2016, we hosted a great big extravaganza at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that allowed me to understand better why we keep doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Upstairs it was "Radically Visible," a fashion-show/danceathon/performance-art-glitter-fest, with Sky Cubacub, Lindsey Whittle, Antonio Adams, and Craig Matis all delivering the goods in the form of neon-colored fashion, ecstatic make-up, big gaudy collages, gloriously stylized poster-sized photos, and the kind of energy that helps you to re-invigorate what you want not only out of art, but out of life.  It was like an extended funky parade all night, all that electricity boxed in and vibrant and burning in all directions, and by the end, when everyone was dancing and carrying on, the floor felt like it was about to collapse.  That almost collapse is what "Radically Visible" was truly about, a beautiful crew of artists and models and everyday people blending into one big bombastic moment when snobbery and skepticism leave the room to go sit outside in their cars, and vision replaces judgement:  all feeling, walls and floor shaking like a kite blown around by wind.  All smiles, sweat, and silliness.  You don't need anything else sometimes.  

And then downstairs we were doing a David Bowie tribute (curated by Emily Brandehoff) that pulled together over 40 or so artists' visions of what Bowie meant, our basement wall-to-walled with interpretations of his greatness.  Crayon drawings right next to oil paintings, conceptual found objects situated with upfront portraits of the artist as he was, as he wanted to be.  Bowie's world was about being radical and visible too, of course; he was always in search of some otherworld to replace the glum, phony one we're all usually stuck with.  

We karaoked the hell out of some of his greatest songs in that basement.  And as I screamed out the lyrics to "Golden Years," I felt somehow vindicated, although I really didn't understand the point of the vindication outside of the fact that we are keeping Raymond alive in the humblest of ways, dedicating art and time to his memory, archiving almost everything he left behind:  Raymond Thunder-Sky, urban legend and Cincinnati curiosity transforming year by year into mythological god and mentor.  And mid-song, my lungs burning from me trying to imitate Bowie's angelic/demonic baritone, I realized I was staring up at the shelves holding Ray's toolboxes, all those toolboxes he carried around town as he rode buses to get to demolition sites so he could draw them.  Those metal and plastic boxes contained his drawing supplies, candy, photographs, pieces of his ongoing clown costumes... 

Everything we do here celebrates the triumph of his strangeness, the rigor of his freakishness. 

I'll stick with you baby or a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years...



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Alien Day


The head has lost its condition
all the world has been bitten into
Tentacles smell like nasty ice
The back of the mouth has that battery-acid tenderness

The colors are what you see back-lit in fever
Not colors but fingers
Facelessness is the true expression
Particles inching into place

What you've always wanted
is to be defenseless
Primary, pulled into and out of the world
You crave the shape of things hiding inside

Stainless steel eyelids
You crave the love of a dog
But nothing else comes through
until your bones and muscles feel

That flush of loss
a disintegration
blurred into a furious coupling
reptile and rigor, motors and flab

The tissue always wins
in this world
metal inside a million little cells
tiny teeth biting and biting, chewing into

the one reality left on a planet no one knows.