Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s breakthrough 'Jim Bowsher and the Temple of Tolerance' exhibits odd historical ephemera and a glimpse into Bowsher's expansive land art

Using photos and artifacts, exhibit shows how this artist/collector/storyteller from Wapakoneta, Ohio deserves far greater recognition

Jul 10, 2018 at 10:20 am
click to enlarge Jim Bowsher's "Temple of Tolerance" - PHOTO: Merrilee Luke-Ebbeler
PHOTO: Merrilee Luke-Ebbeler
Jim Bowsher's "Temple of Tolerance"

The exhibition now at Northside’s Thunder-Sky, Inc. gallery through Aug. 3 is different from shows I’ve seen there recently. Indeed, it’s different from what I’ve usually seen here at our smaller, nonprofit alternative galleries — I think it’s a breakthrough.

The exhibit’s full name is Jim Bowsher and the Temple of Tolerance. I’m not sure that the title is going to immediately resonate with a Cincinnati audience — Bowsher is an unfamiliar name here as he lives in Wapakoneta, the small town between Dayton and Toledo that is best known as the birthplace of astronaut and first moonwalker Neil Armstrong. On the basis of this exhibition, it should also become well known for being the home of Bowsher and his outdoor art environments.

In terms of the way the exhibit approaches an offbeat and alternative (but important) subject with scholarship and documentation — and balances history with art — Temple of Tolerance reminds me of The Keepers, the influential 2016 show at New York’s New Museum that posited collecting itself could be a form of creating art.

Bowsher is a collector whose passion for discovering the overlooked significance in older objects approaches heroic proportions. But he doesn’t treat them like trophies to show off, the way a crass or bourgeois collector would. He instead uses them as the basis for storytelling — both by collecting their histories from those who know, and by then telling their stories to others. (He spoke in June at Chase Public in connection with the opening.)

At the same time, Bowsher took 18 years to create his backyard “Temple of Tolerance” with found and repurposed materials — large rocks, primarily. What he has built is an impressive art environment that has drawn increased international attention.

While this exhibit can’t bring the actual “Temple of Tolerance” here — it weighs hundreds of tons, occupies two acres and is bigger than the gallery, itself — it certainly makes you feel its presence. The exhibit has been curated by Scott Bruno, a Wapakoneta native who has long been interested in Bowsher and who runs a Cincinnati-based graphic design firm.

Temple of Tolerance contains wonderful photos by Merrilee Luke Ebbeler, artful and worthy of their own exclusive exhibition. There’s one that’s a ground-level view of the actual “temple,” rising like a rocky volcano from the neatly cut backyard grass, that makes it look as otherworldly as something Armstrong might have seen on the moon. Within its confines, green wilderness has started to peek and climb through the cracks. At the top, where thinner and more shaped rock has been assembled to create an altar, a boy squeezes through a passageway. Overhead, dramatic clouds fill the sky. Magic is in the air.

There is also a photo of another large outdoor sculpture, a war memorial for which Bowsher collected shell casings from firing ranges and displayed them inside a see-through acrylic canister. That object is the centerpiece of an archway made with wrought-iron fencing.

The most engrossing part of this show is the selection of actual objects that Bowsher has collected over the years, displayed in cases. A pamphlet describing them and the story behind Bowsher’s acquisition is available, and it makes fascinating reading while you study the objects.

I can only mention a couple: A spoon that Bowsher discovered amid the rotting logs of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond; a child’s cup with “James Earl” engraved on the side, recovered from the fire-damaged remains of assassin James Earl Ray’s childhood home in Alton, Ill.; a late-1800s photo of a girl suffering from excessive growth of hair who Bowsher had met and interviewed when she was almost 100.

You’ll understand Bowsher’s approach to history after you see this exhibit. He explores through often-ephemeral objects how, for better and worse, we develop from our past as individuals and as a culture. Everything, thus, has value — even a child’s sled. We weren’t just arbitrarily created good or evil. Whether you consider it art or history, Bowsher’s work is a noble undertaking.

Temple of Tolerance is at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside) through Aug. 3. For more information, visit Thunder-Sky’s Facebook page or call 513-426-0477.