In the Studio with Thomas Condon

The one thing that best explains Thomas Condon is a black leather notebook containing his current sketches. Inside the book, roughly the size of an outstretched hand, are 22 pencil drawings compri

Thomas Condon

Thomas Condon uses this photograph of afriend's child as the key image behind hiscurrent artwork on "life."

The one thing that best explains Thomas Condon is a black leather notebook containing his current sketches. Inside the book, roughly the size of an outstretched hand, are 22 pencil drawings comprising the series of artwork Condon is preparing for his Oct. 24 solo exhibition at The Carnegie in Covington.

Many of his sketches have detailed descriptions explaining the types of materials used in the various pieces. Other sketches are intentionally vague. A drawing of a manual typewriter imbedded in plaster simply reads, "Object of physical manifestation of everything you have always known."

On paper, a sculpture made of a fawn's hoof, plaster and clear resin looks interesting. In person, at Condon's Walnut Hills studio, the artwork is astounding.

I predict that audiences will be awestruck by what they see at The Carnegie this fall. I also know that Condon won't be there to witness it firsthand.

In October 2001, Condon was convicted on eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse for taking a series of photographs at the Hamilton County Morgue involving corpses with books, syringes and other items posed on them.

On April 16, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Dr. Jonathan Tobias, the former assistant coroner convicted of aiding Condon, was sentenced to five months at the Hamilton County Justice Center.

Condon's and Tobias' attorneys plan to file appeals, but that doesn't change the fact that Condon leaves for prison in two weeks.

Chances are you've followed the story of Condon and Tobias in daily newspapers and on local TV newscasts over the past year. You've heard Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen talk about Condon's "vile photographs," but you've never seen Condon's artwork for yourself. I visited Condon's studio on a recent weekday afternoon, and his work is dazzling.

The cherubic face of a friend's child is the core image that unites all of Condon's canvases. In one piece, Condon splatters plaster across surgical gauze. After stretching the rough-hewn canvas across a steel frame, he applies powdered pigments until the surface changes into a subtle, pastel image. In another piece, he paints angel wings and heavenly halos onto the body of his child spirit.

What's striking is how the child's face changes from one canvas to the next, shifting from girl to boy and from boy to man.

If you believe everything you've read in the daily newspapers and hear on local news, you'll be shocked to learn that Condon's studio isn't a gothic death chamber. He loves British Pop music, and he discusses his favorite bands enthusiastically. In the afternoon sunlight, he appears soft and harmless, much like the Winnie the Pooh toy that's fixed in a nearby sculpture.

Some of Condon's friends call him Mr. Black as a joke. Others think of him that way seriously. It's all part of the chilling effect of Allen's witch hunt. During the past year, most of Condon's corporate clients left him for other photographers, and his Gilbert Avenue photo studio has closed as a result.

Asked about his future, Condon turns somber.

"I have been able to focus entirely on my fine art work," he says, speaking quietly. "But I'll never do commercial work in this city again. I'm not going to say that I don't want to, but...."

In two weeks, Condon's casual shirt and pants will be exchanged for prison garb. Family members have recommended that he cut his thick hair and sideburns short. For the first time in his life, Condon will make a conscious effort to be someone other than himself. He'll enter prison as a promising artist, but what type of artist will he be upon his release?

In the process of protecting the Hamilton County Coroner, who seems likely to have granted Condon access to the county morgue, Allen has rid Cincinnati of one more "controversial" artist — for the time being. I know the prosecutor must be feeling extremely proud, although justice, like art, is in the eye of the beholder around these parts.

Come Oct. 24, you can judge Condon's artistic talent for yourself. Just don't expect to see him at the opening night reception.

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