Celebrating a Decade of Northside's Thunder-Sky, Inc.

Gallery founders Bill Ross and Keith Banner look back on 10 years of the beloved Northside art space

Oct 28, 2019 at 5:12 pm

click to enlarge Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside) - Adam Doty
Adam Doty
Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside)
It’s a Saturday afternoon in the basement of Thunder-Sky, Inc. Strands of holiday lights cast a celebratory glow on artists sitting around a table discussing their work. In a corner, Bill Ross, who co-founded the gallery with Keith Banner, hunches over a brightly-colored canvas of a tentacled figure poised to smash a cupcake with a hammer.

On Oct. 26, exhibitions The Last Picture Show and Shelter In Place 3 opened at Thunder-Sky, Inc., ushering in the gallery’s 10-year anniversary.

“Gosh, I don’t even know where to start,” Ross says. “It’s like pulling the thread on a sweater.” 

He can hardly believe a decade has gone by. And it all started with Raymond Thunder-Sky.

In 1999, Ross, an artist and social worker, had been assigned a new client named Raymond Thunder-Sky. It wasn’t long before he recognized something special.

“He just opened the door into a whole new world for me,” Ross says. “I never expected to find somebody with such an intense sense of what they were doing.”

Raymond was already something of a public figure: A man of few words, he was frequently spotted at demolition sites wearing a hard hat, drawing the scene with markers on a pad of paper. But it wasn’t his toolbox of art supplies that captivated onlookers. It was his clown suit.

Ross didn’t know any of this yet. But after seeing his art, he knew the world needed to know Raymond.

Ross and Banner — then involved with Over-the-Rhine’s Base Gallery — exhibited 12 of his drawings in the spring of 2000. Raymond’s idiosyncratic portrayals of cranes and half-demolished buildings revealed a desire for a better world. Ross recalls lines around the block to see them.

click to enlarge From left: Raymond Thunder-Sky, Keith Banner, Bill Ross and Antonio Adams at Base Gallery in 2002.
From left: Raymond Thunder-Sky, Keith Banner, Bill Ross and Antonio Adams at Base Gallery in 2002.

It also attracted the attention of Antonio Adams, who would become a key figure in the Thunder-Sky, Inc. community — and something of a spiritual guide for Ross. (Adams has requested that I refer to him as “Art Thing: Kingdom Master of the Universe” in this article.)

“I saw Raymond and his work, and then I came up with my own alter ego,” Kingdom Master says, sipping a glass of orange juice at The Comet, a bar located next door to the gallery. Like Ross, he grows buoyant when speaking about the people brought together by Thunder-Sky, Inc. 

Ross and Banner began regularly exhibiting Raymond’s and the Kingdom Master’s work alongside other similarly unconventional artists at Base Gallery. Later, merging curatorial and social work led to Ross and Banner founding Visionaries + Voices (V+V), a studio day program for artists with disabilities.

In 2002 Raymond was diagnosed with cancer. At the end of October 2002, Raymond would be cancer free; V+V opened the following August.

But Raymond’s cancer returned in 2004 and he died that October.

“It was a beautiful full moon,” Ross recalls of the night Raymond passed away.

As V+V grew, Ross and Banner felt like they were losing control of their own creation. By 2007, fractures in the relationship appeared, leading to a messy split in 2008. (Both emphasize that they have since made amends and are proud of what the organization is doing today).

The story has all the elements of a Thunder-Sky drawing: There’s a demolition, but it’s not really about destruction; it’s about imagining a better world, through the eyes of a man in a clown suit and hard hat.

“It’s really hard to create utopia, and that’s where we came from, that innocent idea that art can make things come together,” Banner says.

In 2009 they gave utopia another try. On Oct. 30, Thunder-Sky, Inc. opened its doors in Northside. The exhibition, Raymond Nation, doubled as a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for Raymond’s grave.

Soon the focus of the gallery would shift to bringing unconventional artists together with more established ones. 

“And that was like kerosene,” Ross says.

The Cincinnati art world agreed. In the past decade, Thunder-Sky, Inc. has cultivated a reputation as a beloved iconoclast. Openings are joyful and weird. One of Ross’s favorite memories was at the opening of Radical Visibility, featuring work by Chicago fashion designer Sky Cubacub. 

“Oh my God, the energy that night was so insane. It was just beyond,” he says. “And it was all positive energy. I thought we were going to collapse the floor.”

Flash forward and we’re back at The Comet enjoying drinks after a closing. Ross and Kingdom Master are there, as are other members of the Thunder-Sky, Inc. community.

Emily Brandehoff says she never viewed herself as an artist until she met Ross nine years ago. She now exhibits regularly.

“(When) you meet someone like Bill, who fills you with so much confidence, it makes you want to show people what you do,” Brandehoff says.

She now looks to extend that generosity to others.

“A show is never about one artist,” fellow local artist John Humphries adds. “It’s always about an artist in conversation with other artists, or a bigger community.”

Banner points out there’s more to Thunder-Sky, Inc. than a feel-good sense of community.

“Raymond was a figure people were afraid of. The police were called on him,” he says. “People were repelled by him.”

He was an “other” in every sense. Maybe this is Thunder-Sky’s radical proposition.

“When you actually confront the otherness and weirdness of people, it’s a little jarring,” Banner says. “It’s hard to have equality and acceptance in the art world, where it’s about a meritocracy. We’re not after that. We’re after this shared aesthetic that isn’t even an aesthetic. It’s more like a club, where everyone makes art. It may not be good art, it may not be bad art, we don’t even know. But we’re gonna frame it and put it up on the wall every two months to see what happens. We’re trying to figure something beyond all the other shit that other people figure out. I think that’s what Raymond was trying to do.”

Call it a sensibility, or an aesthetic, but there’s something here. A Thunder-Sky-ness that brings everything together. Maybe it’s a spirit of rebellious generosity. Whatever it is, it tells of art’s capacity to bridge disparate realities to find a place of solidarity.

The hand-painted sign above the entrance says it best: Vital Art Spirit.

The Last Picture Show and Shelter In Place 3 run through Dec. 13 at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside). More info: raymondthundersky.org.