Sunday, February 22, 2015

"The Master of Loyalty Is in the Gallery Tonight"

Antonio Adams, "Unrealized and Unforeseen Day," acrylic on canvas, 2012.

Antonio Adams, Cedric Michael Cox, and Artworks apprentices, "Raymond Thunder-Sky Mural," on the outside of Visionaries + Voices, finished 2009. 

Antonio Adams, "There's a Circus on the Corner of the Streets," marker on large copy of an unfinished Raymond Thunder-Sky drawing, 2010.  In the collection of the Museum of Everything, London, England. 

Antonio Adams, "The Master of Loyalty Is in the Gallery Tonight," marker on paper, 2012 

Antonio Adams teaching a class at Miami University, 2012. 

Raymond Thunder-Sky Polaroid, with clowns, date unknown. 

Raymond Thunder-Sky, "Wrecker Tear Down Old Middletown Nursing Home," marker on cardstock, date unknown.

I wrote the essay below a couple years back for a show at Thunder-Sky, Inc., but I forgot to use it. Found the doc in an old email file.  It's all about Antonio and Raymond, and everything.  These photos were in the same file.  I think I was going to do a little booklet or something, but it seems like a really good blogpost too...  

Antonio Adams wears an elaborate costume to every art opening he attends. Made from felt, glitter, and fabric paint. Antonio calls it his “Art Thing Kingdom Master” attire. A triangular facemask shields the bottom of his face, and on his head he wears a crown. Antonio features himself in this costume in many of his drawings and paintings as well – most significantly in one of his latest works, “Unrealized and Unforeseen Day,” a large 5’ X 4’ acrylic-on-canvas. In this vibrant, rigorous painting, Antonio as the Art Thing Kingdom Master presides over a crowd of “regular people” being summarily transformed into heavenly celebrities, while the “bad celebrities” scale the brick walls surrounding a majestic stage with tears burning in their eyes, unable to get into the Kingdom.

If “Unrealized and Unforeseen Day” is a revelatory moment for Antonio, it’s because since 1999, when he was a lonely depressed high school student with a learning disability, he has been diligently building a visual and moral philosophy that has sustained him through a lot of stress and strife, including the untimely death of his mentor and friend, Raymond Thunder-Sky.

Raymond was a fixture of downtown Cincinnati street-culture for over 20 years before Bill Ross (my partner and co-founder of Thunder-Sky, Inc., the art gallery we run in Raymond’s name) found out he was secretively making incredible drawings in 1999. A social-worker assigned to help Raymond toward the end of his life, Bill at first was taken aback by Raymond. A Native American whose father Richard Bright-fire Thunder-Sky had been a Mohawk chief and a Hollywood actor in the 1940s, Raymond was known as the Construction Clown by those who would see him walking down city streets in a construction-worker/clown costume, a huge toolbox in tow. He spent much of his time traveling to, and drawing, buildings being demolished at sites all over town. At a meeting one day held to discuss Raymond’s deteriorating health, Raymond pulled out a stack of drawings from one of his toolboxes. Bill was flabbergasted.

Raymond’s drawings are done mostly in pencil and magic-marker, and depict buildings being torn down and replaced by imaginary facilities with titles like Clown Suit Factories and Card Trick Amusement Parks. Each drawing is organized straightforwardly, with imagery of construction and demolition festooned with a few lines of narration in a careful script. In one archetypal drawing, a movie theatre is gutted, with a wrecking ball suspended above the wreckage, a nearby caption reading: “Last showing at Old Valentine Theatre in Downtown Toledo Will Being Torn Down to Clearing Way for New Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus Store.” (The whole archive of Raymond’s 2200+ drawings can be seen at

A few months after meeting Raymond, Bill and I met Antonio. At the time, Antonio was 19 and barely speaking. Bullied at his high school, he took comfort in creating art as a way to endure isolation. At the time, he was making cat sculptures from pieces of wood he’d find. His bedroom was overflowing with them. We introduced Raymond and Antonio in 2000 at Base Gallery in downtown Cincinnati, where we were pulling together an exhibit. Antonio writes about that day, in a caption to a drawing he made commemorating the occasion: “That first time am met Raymond Thunder-Sky at Base Art Gallery he was a Native American outsider self-taught artist of clown-construction-worker. He usually very shy but he also hysterically of sitcom person.”

As their relationship grew Raymond became the prime inspiration that would guide Antonio’s life, imagination, and art. In 2001 Antonio and Raymond were featured in the show we curated at Base, titled “Art Thing.” (The title came from an object Antonio had made, a tiny kelly-green felt pillow on which Antonio had written “Art Thing” in white fabric paint.) One of the first exhibits featuring local outsider artists, the show was packed and many works sold. After this success, Antonio and Raymond also showed their works at the Pittsburgh Folk Art Festival in 2002, the Outsider Art Fair in New York City (2003), and several other regional and national auctions and art fairs.

In 2003, when Bill and I helped to open a studio for artists with disabilities called Visionaries and Voices (, Antonio and Raymond were the first artists through the door. I can still picture that day, a very clear and tender image: Raymond in a hardhat and clown costume, and Antonio in a t-shirt and jeans, sitting next to each other at a folding table, working on their own drawings, using pencils and markers from a shared coffee-can. A few years later, Antonio, along with artist Cedric Michael Cox and teenaged students involved in a summer art-making program called Artworks, painted a mural on the side of the building that currently houses Visionaries and Voices (now a full-fledged service organization supporting over 140 artists with disabilities in a week-day program). The mural stretches across a large expanse of the building, and features a gigantic Raymond in full Construction Clown regalia, a crane hurling a wrecking ball into a building behind him.

On October 29, 2004 Raymond passed away from complications of liver cancer. The day of Raymond’s funeral, Antonio had a large, scrolled piece of paper with him at the gravesite. The service was reminiscent of Raymond’s beautiful strangeness: a Shriner’s clown read the “Clown’s Prayer” aloud (we came to find out that whenever a Shriner’s clown passes away, they have the Clown’s Prayer read at their funeral), and then an honorary member of the Sheyenne tribe oversaw a sage burning ritual. He spoke about Raymond’s spirit being scattered to the four winds.

After the service, Antonio came over to Bill and me, and unraveled the scroll to show us he had drawn a hysterically funny yet vividly poignant back-story for Raymond. The resulting work of art resembles a heady, Byzantine graphic novel with funky, evangelical flourishes – Antonio well on his way to merging his imagination with Raymond’s. Throughout the piece, Antonio narrates and illustrates key semi-fictionalized moments in Raymond’s life. Each moment is titled with a year, as in, “1950: Raymond born when he was a baby.” The image that goes along with the text is of an infant Raymond, swaddled in his mother’s arms. “In 1964,” according to Antonio’s timeline, “Raymond’s dad Richard Bright-Fire Thunder-Sky and Raymond are dancing to the music of the 60s.” An adolescent Raymond (with a sort of Antonio-styled afro/pompadour) dances with his tall and regal father. In 1973, Raymond is “having a shy moment with the hippies.” Antonio’s depiction of Raymond’s death: “Raymond in Heaven with God. Raymond die for cancer, Friday October 29 2004. What a sad day.” The image is Raymond with his toolbox standing beside a large Christ figure, like brothers reuniting at a celestial barbecue.

Antonio eventually appropriated the “four winds” metaphor from Raymond’s graveside service to create a suite of nine 2’ X 2’ wood-panel portrait paintings, with Raymond’s portrait at the center of them. Embellished in loud circus-neon stripes, each painting pays tribute to the people in Raymond’s life who were instrumental in showing and celebrating the art he made while he was still alive. Directly above Raymond’s portrait is a self-portrait, Antonio in full “Art Thing Kingdom Master” regalia, a direct descendent or possibly even prodigal son. The costume first came into being right after Raymond’s death in 2004, and over years evolved into the blend of superhero kitsch and Samurai finery it is today. The evolution, like all of Antonio’s art, is hyper-intentional. Antonio uses the costume as a reminder of Raymond’s status both as artist and as spectacle.

The “Four Winds” suite of paintings was created for the opening of the art gallery we established in Raymond’s name, Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009. Antonio is currently the permanent Artist-in-Residence at Thunder-Sky, Inc., and curates exhibits, as well as oversees an art-making workshop every Saturday in the basement of the gallery.

Of the 2200+ drawings Raymond left behind, about 500 of them were never completed. In 2011, as part of an exhibit at Thunder-Sky, Inc., Antonio picked four of his favorites. We had prints made of them on large pieces of paper. In six months, Antonio merged the unfinished remains of Raymond’s art with his own rich, allegorical consciousness. In each piece, Raymond is depicted as a mischievous god overseeing the destruction of the old world and welcoming in the new. Or in Antonio’s words, “The one and only construction clown who taking over the demolition.” Straddling a crane and smiling gleefully with angel wings sprouting from his clown-suit, Raymond is now, in Antonio’s universe, a sort of go-to spirit, a prophet he can consult with. All four of these drawings are now in the permanent collection of James Brett’s Museum of Everything in London, England.

August 29, 2012, Antonio’s one-man show at Thunder-Sky, Inc., “Unrealized and Unforeseen,” opened. Antonio choreographed the whole reception, giving us a list of foods, people he wanted to invite, as well as a very structured layout of where each painting, drawing, photograph and sculpture should be installed in the space. The result felt as if we had been given access into Antonio’s brain, a territory of vivid colorful landscapes, stringent common-sense rules, and a penchant for tragedy and comedy blending into absurdity and bliss. He had been working on the concept for over a year, creating an epic portfolio of artworks in which famous “bad” celebrities (including Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen) get “unrealized” (meaning returned to non-celebrity status), while unfamous folks (people Adams has selected from his everyday life) become major celebrities in his own personal cosmos. In the same way Raymond appropriated construction/demolition tropes for his aesthetic purposes, Antonio uses tabloid stories and reality-TV as a framework to tell his own story in each of the “Unrealized and Unforeseen” works, culminating in his to-date masterpiece, “Unrealized and Unforeseen Day.” In transforming universal gossip into personal gossamer, Antonio has reinforced a vision and morality that has been in all of his work since Bill and I first met him. It is a message of epic transformation, imagination trumping rational thought in the pursuit of truths no one is ready for. In “Unrealized and Unforeseen Day,” the message is clear: no matter whom you think you are, you’re still like everyone else, and that subjugation is your freedom, your chance at grace. On the right side of the painting, where the canvas curves over the stretcher bar, Antonio has painted a blue, translucent rendition of Raymond smiling in the periphery – always there, quiet and calm, like an angel sanely orbiting and overseeing his world.

Born in Cincinnati in 1981, Antonio Adams has been drawing, painting and creating since he was a little boy. Now his work is exhibited and collected nationally.  He is one of the co-founders of Visionaries & Voices, an arts organization for artists with disabilities in Cincinnati, as well as Thunder-Sky, Inc., an art gallery also in Cincinnati.  His sculptures, paintings and drawings have been featured at White Columns Gallery in New York City, The Outsider Art Fair (New York City), The Contemporary Art Center (Cincinnati), The Cincinnati Art Museum, Base Gallery, Visionaries + Voices, the Pittsburgh Folk Art Exhibit and Symposium, Middletown (Ohio) Fine Arts Center, Fitton Center for Creative Arts (Hamilton, Ohio), University of Cincinnati Gallery, Kennedy Heights Arts Center (Cincinnati), Country Club Gallery (Cincinnati and Los Angeles), and In the Gallery (Nashville, Tennessee). His art was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Everything in London, England.  He has an upcoming exhibit at the Westin Gallery in Cincinnati in November 2015.