For years Raymond Thunder-Sky could be spotted around Cincinnati construction sites, wearing a hard hat and clown collar. Few people knew that he was drawing the buildings as they were demolished and built anew, imagining fantastical venues like the “Electricians Amusement Parks” and “Carnival Costume Shop.”
Thunder-Sky, who was mentally challenged, began meeting with Bill Ross, a social worker, in 1999. Over time he shared his drawings with Ross, an artist himself, who was thrilled with the work. When Thunder-Sky succumbed to cancer in 2004, he left behind more than 2,000 drawings, now in possession of the gallery. Half a decade after his passing, Bill Ross, along with Keith Banner, another social worker, founded Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery to honor Raymond’s legacy and to exhibit the work of “unconventional artists” in the region.
Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery, now in its seventh year of existence, portends that 2016 will be a year for “radical” art. They describe their upcoming slate of artists as possessing a “distinct and powerful sense of authority and ingenuity in sync with Raymond Thunder-Sky’s legacy.” The first of these exhibits, titled “The Garden of Restoration,” features work by Tom Towhey, a local artist, and Adrian Cox, from St. Louis, Missouri. The title of the show, derived from the section of Arlington Memorial Gardens in which Raymond Thunder-Sky is buried, is a nod to his interest in construction, but also to the content of the paintings themselves.
Tom Towhey, a local artist educated “briefly,” he says, at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati, considers himself to be largely self-taught, though he acknowledges a debt to various artists and non-artists whose collective insight has helped him evolve over the years. Towhey’s oil paintings are large and vibrantly painted, with rich primary colors coming to the forefront. Whimsical content is matched and even outdone by outrageous titles like The Bipolar Bear’s New Frontier and Cock-a-Doodle-Doo & Uncle Snowflake Ponder the Pros & Cons of Sister Fiddlesticks Pending Vasectomy Bonanza. In the latter painting, a rooster and albino gorilla sit contentedly amidst a lush, multicolored jungle, seemingly unbothered by the forthcoming operations. Snowflake, it turns out, was a real gorilla who spent most of his life at the Barcelona Zoo after his family was killed by a farmer in Equatorial Guinea.
The Reincarnation of Wyatt Earp features a buffalo balancing atop a rocket-shaped pedal car as it zooms through the air. This piece opens up more than its peers: other than a tree in the immediate background, the rest of the painting consists of a faraway landscape. Towhey’s work is much more successful when it is densely packed with colorful foliage and figures. In this case the buffalo, out in the open, reveals a lack of subtlety in the painting that is discernable upon close inspection of the other pieces as well. What seem like beautifully-rendered leaves from afar are, in fact, somewhat clunkily painted patches of color. In Panda Land, a painting filled with miniature lopsided houses being lorded over by a goofily-rendered panda, whimsy wrests the power from the work, supplying imagery more suitable to a children’s book illustration. The result is a mixed body of work. Towhey’s strong color choices and hysterical titles are underserved at times by inattention to detail and weak concepts. The Sentinels of Bwindi, a richly-packed scene full of dense foliage, is an example of Towhey at his strongest, but even here the magic begins to dissipate the closer one travels to the canvas.
Contrasting Towhey’s large paintings are the smaller offerings by Adrian Cox, whose canvases never exceed a two foot width. Cox, a painter, gallery coordinator, and lecturer from St. Louis, Missouri, works primarily in oils, painting a series of figures he calls “Border Creatures.” These figures, fleshy pink and somewhat grotesque, adopt properties of the local environment, becoming hybrids. Their world is the Borderlands, which Cox describes as “an interstitial place that holds conflicting qualities in equilibrium.”
Immediately apparent in Cox’s work is a mastery of light. A gorgeous, consistent color palette of pinks, oranges, and greens is highlighted by lamplight and the setting sun, which plays at just the right angles on his figures. Consulting Crystal Healer and Spooky Forest are the finest showcases of this skill, but the variety of actions and locales depicted in Cox’s wider collection offer an abundance of content from which viewers may select personal favorites. Incredibly, the two pieces that don’t depict Border Creatures are even more stunning, both compositionally and as a showcase of artistry. Titled Snake Gardener by Starlight and Painter with Oncoming Storm respectively, both images exude a gorgeous alien beauty that draws the eye back when it attempts to wander, capturing both the attention and the imagination of the viewer.
This first show of the new year certainly meets Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery’s mission of showcasing radical artwork. The hit or miss, often ludicrous, heavily saturated and vibrant paintings of Tom Towhey are worth a look, and the more restrained, alien, and beautifully-rendered paintings of Adrian Cox should not be missed. Raymond Thunder-Sky was a wonderful and unique part of Cincinnati’s recent history. For those who never had the opportunity to meet him, the gallery named in his honor is an excellent place to explore his legacy and to discover new artists who carry the torch in his absence.
“The Garden of Restoration: New Works by Tom Towhey and Adrian Cox” opened on January 9, 2016 and will run through February 13, 2016 at Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery, located at 4573 Hamilton Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45223.