Best Of 2021

Socially-distant bumper cars on ice. Here’s hoping they become an annual attraction. myfountainsquare.com.

Since 1998, Rabbit Hash, Kentucky has been electing dogs as mayors of the unincorporated hamlet instead of humans. And on Nov. 3, 2020, a six-month-old French bulldog named Wilbur caused a national stir when he was declared the new ruler, unseating the former mayor: a pitbull named Brynneth Pawltro. Adding to the attraction, Rabbit Hash’s election system is openly corrupt — voters can cast their ballot more than once, and each vote equals a monetary donation to help with the town’s historical upkeep. And while previous elections have attracted news coverage (and even a one-hour TV special on Animal Planet), the 2020 election seemed to be just what people wanted to read while the country tore its collective hair out waiting for the presidential election results. Thankfully, Mayor Wilbur is anything but divisive. And he’s ready to take charge of Rabbit Hash. “The duties of the mayor,” says his owner Amy Noland, “are to show up in town and gnaw on a bone.” rabbithash.com.

Best Amusement Park Accolades
Photo: Provided by Kings Island

Kings Island’s Orion giga coaster — one of only seven giga coasters in the world — won USA Today’s Best New Amusement Park Attraction in this year’s 10Best.com readers poll, beating out rides at Disney, Six Flags and Universal Studios. To be specified as a “giga coaster,” a ride must have a height or drop of 300 to 399 feet. To put that into perspective, Kings Island’s Eiffel Tower is 315 feet; Orion’s first drop is 300. visitkingsisland.com.

The Simpsons’ episode “The Road to Cincinnati” follows Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers on an “800-mile” voyage to the Queen City for an administrators’ convention. As it’s set in Cincinnati, the episode features some iconic local spots including the Roebling Suspension Bridge, Duke Energy Convention Center and a flying pig wearing a Reds uniform — holding a sign which reads, “Welcome to Cincinnati: Birthplace of Pete Rose’s Gambling Problem.” There was even a cameo by the Clifton Skyline (although the 3-ways were served in bowls and not on plates). Apparently, while researching the episode, The Simpsons’ crew scored some “sweet mail-order Skyline chili,” and when the pandemic hit, Executive Producer Matt Selman happily took it home to ride out “the end of times.”

Anila Quayyum Agha (b. 1965), All the Flowers Are for Me (Red), laser-cut lacquered steel and lightbulb, 60x60x60 in, Alice Bimel Endowment for Asian Art, 2017.7
Photo: Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum
Anila Quayyum Agha (b. 1965), All the Flowers Are for Me (Red), laser-cut lacquered steel and lightbulb, 60x60x60 in, Alice Bimel Endowment for Asian Art, 2017.7

Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha’s super popular sculptural installation All the Flowers Are for Me (Red) returned to the Cincinnati Art Museum (on view until May 30, 2021). First on view at the CAM in 2017, this immersive artwork features a decorative 5-foot laser-cut cube, which illuminates and splays geometric and floral shadows across the floor, walls and ceiling of the gallery. cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

Hundreds of celebrities have received strange drawings from local comedian Alex Leeds of Dumb Celebrity Drawings, who has the uncanny ability to convey simple-yet-esoterically contrived irreverent jokes and jabs at their intended recipient. And celebrities tend to autograph and return the drawings with a shocking frequency. Some recent items of mail? Alec Baldwin signed a drawing of Tina Fey dressed up as Sarah Palin for SNL; Willem Dafoe signed a picture of his face on the Dafoe Code; and ’90s Hip Hop star Coolio autographed and sent back an illustration of a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Just another reason to support the USPS. instagram.com/dumbcelebdrawings.

This holiday season, Cincinnati’s Dad Skate Squad — a group of 40-plus skateboarding dads (and sometimes their kids) who started riding together each week during COVID-19 with the goal of “spreading positivity and good vibes in our communities and putting smiles on peoples’ faces” — turned into the “Santa Skate Squad” to donate new skateboards, skate shoes, helmets and other accessories to kids in need. They partnered with local nonprofits like the Brighton Center and CityLink to help distribute the goods. instagram.com/dadskatesquad.

For the past 39 years, Marquicia Jones-Woods has devoted her life to the children of the West End. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Jones-Woods — known affectionately as Ms. Quicy — began her outreach when she was just a teenager. She started hosting beautification projects with the kids — painting rocks and benches, planting flowers, picking up trash — and taking them to Bible study, where they could get a free meal. Then she added in the arts, creating short plays and dances to “keep them engaged,” she says. “The dance piece took off.” Thus the Q-Kidz Dance Team was born. But it’s about more than movement. The community studio on Linn Street also offers a support system — a place where kids can get hands-on attention, positive reinforcement, even help with homework. “It’s really not about dance. It’s about providing a better life,” Jones-Woods says. Q-Kidz performs frequently locally — you’ll see them onstage at Music Hall, the Aronoff Center, in the Opening Day Parade, BLINK — and they travel across the country to cities like New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles to take part in (and win) dance competitions and events. Q-Kidz dancers have also been immortalized on film in the highly acclaimed 2015 indie movie The Fits. The organization will turn 40 this May. q-kidz.org.

ish, Cincinnati’s nonprofit Jewish and Israeli arts and culture group, created a calendar of creative virtual and streaming events to connect community this year — especially important because they were unable to host their annual in-person ish Festival. Programming ranged from High Holidays in a Box (featuring local honey and artwork to celebrate Rosh Hashanah) to ishUES interactive art and culture workshops to The Secret Singer, a local version of The Masked Singer, just in time for Purim. facebook.com/ishfestival.

The popular Newport Dog Park was forced to close in 2020 due to overcrowding and infrastructure issues, which led to greener pastures. The community teamed up with the City of Newport to raise funds and resources to reopen the park even bigger and better than before — just 500 feet away and behind the Campbell County Public Library’s Newport Branch. The off-leash dog park is twice the size of the former park and features a separate space for small dogs. Concrete pathways and community walking paths wind throughout, along with “pet-friendly benches” and landscaping. The new park also features a dedicated parking area for visitors, plus a water fountain. facebook.com/newportdogpark.

Hollywood Drive-In Theater
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hollywood Drive-In Theater

Over Memorial Day weekend, the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation transformed the neighborhood’s historic Hollywood Theater parking lot into a drive-in experience for the community — the Hollywood Drive-In Theater — with films played on a large screen tacked to the back of the building. Originally, the event was planned for one evening, but it was so popular that the pop-up drive-in stayed active all summer. Films ranged from local fest fare and Marvel hits to cult classics, and moviegoers could even grab snacks from College Hill businesses at the parking lot refreshment stand. hollywooddriveintheater.com.

Every summer, C.A.S.T. (Commonwealth Artists Student Theatre) brings together teens from area high schools to perform musicals, but 2020 presented some big challenges. The smart folks in charge overcame them by staging a production of Newsies — drive-in style — in the parking lot at Coney Island. Audiences sat in or on their cars as the socially-distanced kids danced from platform to platform and sang their hearts out. caststages.org.

As a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic, nonprofit ArtsWave offered financial relief in the form of emergency grants, interest-free loans and other funding to local artists and performers in need through their Community Campaign. They also put together a broader COVID toolkit with info on how to find and apply for additional funding at federal and state levels. artswave.org.

Roo Valley at the Cincinnati Zoo
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Roo Valley at the Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s highly anticipated Roo Valley opened this past summer. The interactive experience allows visitors to enter a kangaroo walkabout — a 15,000-square-foot green space where ’roos roam as you wander by. As in: You are in the same space with the animals. No barrier. If you don’t feel like socializing with the troop of red and grey kangaroos (why wouldn’t you?), you can enjoy a “coldie” — as they say in Australia — in the Hops Beer Garden and watch them from above. cincinnatizoo.org.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s interactive Motel X took visitors inside a recreated motel room where they could hear stories of those forced into sex slavery or slave labor. The exhibit provided statistics and facts, different warning signs and actionable ways for the public to fight against human trafficking. Designed by area filmmaker Christine Marque specifically for the Freedom Center, Motel X hoped to bring to light to reality that slavery is very much alive today and that I-75 is one of the worst “pipelines” in America as it creates an easy way for human traffickers to transport people across the country. freedomcenter.org.

"Identity" at the CAC's exhibit Haze
Photo: Kaitlyn Handel
"Identity" at the CAC's exhibit Haze

Portuguese street artist Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils, is best known for his pioneering bas-relief carving technique, in which he literally scratches the surface of urban environments by carving large-scale portraits of everyday people directly into outdoor walls. He does so through industrial means — drilling, controlled explosions, ripping away debris, etc. And in February 2020, Cincinnatians could see the artist’s work rendered on gallery walls at the Contemporary Arts Center. Titled Haze, the exhibition marked Vhils’ first large-scale solo show in a United States art institution. It was also the first time Farto and his team used explosives inside a museum. They detonated more than 100 “air burst” charges embedded in a wall to create “Identity,” the show’s centerpiece artwork. Although COVID interrupted the original run, the CAC extended Haze through February 2021 so more viewers could visit. contemporaryartscenter.org.

As part of their “Home for the Holidays’’ line-up, the Taft Museum of Art launched a livestream of the former home’s historic fireplaces — cozy and flaming — which viewers could access via YouTube (the Taft was once the private residence of notable locals including Nicholas Longworth and Charles Phelps Taft). A riff off of the Netflix virtual fireplace concept, the videos featured the museum’s collection of 200-year-old hearths, complete with the sound of crackling wood, backed by holiday tunes. taftmuseum.org.

One of Jill Cleary’s psychedelic “Jibe” murals
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
One of Jill Cleary’s psychedelic “Jibe” murals

Pendleton artist collective and gallery Bunk Spot got a new home in Northside in 2020. And the space at 4148/4150 Hamilton Ave. is shared with (DSGN)Cllctv, an arts consulting business. Bunk Spot — also known as Bunk News — has a strong DIY bent and has been behind a slew of local art and music shows since its formation in 2005. Described as a “place where scenes and genres disappear,” the gallery has also dissolved the delineation between interior and exterior art by turning the building itself into a focal point. Curator Ben Brown refers to the structure and the alley that runs alongside it as “kind of like a public gallery,” and local artists have taken to leaving their mark. Covered in vibrant street art, passersby can see one of Jill Cleary’s psychedelic “Jibe” murals, batty work by Vladimir Plitsyn, Hitchcockian creations by Technique 2012, a blue gradient piece by Tenzing and a blazing mural by Empire Citizens before even entering the gallery doors. The first exhibit they hosted at the new location was equally impressive. Cincinnati-based photographer and videographer Asa Featherstone IV’s self-portrait exhibition OVER / TIME was initially created and displayed as a series via Featherstone’s Instagram over the summer as an “immediate response to the frustration around police brutality, the murder of George Floyd and the generational fatigue around living through these cycles.” The Bunk show featured 26 self-portraits joined by brief conversations or considerations that offered a glimpse into the all-too-common occurrences of racism experienced by Black people. instagram.com/bunk_news.

Over the summer and fall, Greater Cincinnati farms exploded with an abundance of sunflower fields as a way to spark some joy — and fabulous selfies — to counteract the claustrophobia of lockdown. Some destinations allowed guests to explore the beautiful blooms for free; some required a fee. For example, Lebanon’s Black Barn greenhouse and farm market planted an acre of sunflowers for the public to enjoy at their leisure. While Evendale’s Gorman Heritage Farm canceled its official 23rd-annual Sunflower Festival, but still opened the flower fields for timed and ticketed visits. They even had a local biergarten pop-up during one weekend.

Thunder-Sky, Inc.
Photo: Adam Doty
Thunder-Sky, Inc.

Northside’s Thunder-Sky, Inc. closed its doors in December 2020 after a decade of innovative and inventive art exhibits. Founded by Bill Ross and Keith Banner, the beloved art space first opened on Oct. 30, 2009. But it was earlier, in 1999, that Ross first met the gallery’s namesake: Raymond Thunder-Sky. Ross was a social worker at the time and Raymond was one of his clients. “He just opened the door into a whole new world for me,” Ross said. “I never expected to find somebody with such an intense sense of what they were doing.” A man who frequented demolition sites clad in a hard hat and known for wearing clown collars, Raymond would draw the scenes with markers on paper. Upon seeing Raymond’s art, Ross knew that it needed to be shared. Raymond died of cancer in 2004 but his name and legacy lived on in the gallery. The final show Thunder-Sky, Inc. displayed was Violet % Generous, in which artist Antonio Adams completed “a cycle of works and shows from his experience as the Artist-in-Residence of Thunder-Sky, Inc. for 11 years.” The exhibit also included work from locals Pam Kravetz and Tony Dotson. “Our work is done in many ways, and we’re ready to pursue other endeavors,” Banner said of the gallery closing, “always keeping Raymond in our minds and hearts, of course, and also maintaining his archive and his memory online and in any other way that pops up.” raymondthundersky.org.