Cincinnati's "Outside" Artists Thrive

Steeped with a rich history and supportive artistic community, for many years Cincinnati has been a place for new and upcoming artists to grow and thrive. Notwithstanding, many artists who might be viewed as "outsiders" because of their disabilities were falling through the cracks, along with art they created that the world might never see.  

That changed when Visionaries and Voices became the place for disabled artists in Cincinnati to create and improve their art. Memorably, this movement of "inclusionist" art might be attributed to one man: Raymond Thunder-Sky. 

Dawned in a colorful clown collar and hard hat, Thunder-Sky was a local artist who would roam from construction site to construction site in Cincinnati, documenting what he saw.  Using art supplies he would store in his toolbox, Thunder-Sky would sketch, draw and paint the demolition of landmarks and buildings throughout downtown and surrounding locations.  Using his artistic ability along with a vivid imagination, he would create pieces which depicted what he saw as well as the futuristic vision of what he believed belonged at the newly deconstructed site.  Eventually, both construction workers and Cincinnatians began to recognize the "construction clown" for more than his colorful costume and took notice of his talent. 

These, however, were not the only ones who recognized something special in Thunder-Sky.

"Bill Ross was Raymond Thunder-Sky's service coordinator," explained Gena Grunenber, Studio Coordinator for Visionaries and Voices. "He [Ross] saw [Thunder-Sky's work as a] prolific documentation of Cincinnati and wanted to establish a place for him because he realized the value of his art."

Following this interaction, Ross began to discover other artists with disabilities and "Art Thing" was formed in 1999.  Renamed Visionaries and Voices, the gallery now stands to serve all artists who wish to create.

"We provide a unique experience here," said Nick Paddock, Marketing Director for Visionaries and Voices.  "We provide the opportunity for artists who are brilliant to come and create work."

Visionaries and Voices, however, is not the only place in Cincinnati that supports "outsider" artists.

From Slinkys photographed in black and white, to the human form encapsulated in glossy-finished clay, and poetry on CD, Art Beyond Boundaries' gallery showcases artistic works in all media. Located in Over-the-Rhine, Art Beyond Boundaries has been displaying the efforts of disabled artists for the past four years, giving them an outlet to both market and improve upon their work.

"I began a personal relationship with CILO [Center for Independent Living Options] when I was working as the photo editor for City Beat. They were right next door," explained Jymi Bolden, now curator of Art Beyond Boundaries. "They realized there was no access to the arts, symphony, etc., to those who were disabled. Not as spectators, but as participants."

What began as a temporary exhibit partnering Bolden and CILO, has now become a living and thriving avenue for artists in a Main Street storefront. And like the artists of Visionaries and Voices, they are breaking down barriers with sheer, artistic talent .

One such local artist is Thom Shaw, nationally recognized for his print work.

Shaw, an artist with 35 years of professional exhibition experience, lost his leg to diabetes.  After becoming an amputee, he knew he needed to do something more with his work and that he could use it as an outlet to bring awareness to those with special needs as well as those with chronic illnesses.  Together, Bolden, who already had a long standing friendship with Shaw dating back to their days together at the Art Academy, and Shaw displayed a work of prints depicting advocacy for diabetes.

"I think it is important to let everyone know that no one is exempt. I hope that I might be able to wake someone up who has this disease and show them how serious it is," Shaw said.

"I also think a place like Art Beyond Boundaries is very good [for artists with disabilities] because our society is not sensitive to people with disabilities. I think people can start to lose hope and we can all come together and encourage one another. I hope I can encourage people because they see that I am still doing what I love." 

Paddock agrees that the love of the art and development of individual artists is the most important aspect of their organizations, and not necessarily that the artists already face additional challenges. 

"We are an organization that's thriving [to encourage] artists with all abilities to come, create and exhibit their work," he says.

But by providing commission to the artists as well as a venue to sell their pieces, both Visionary and Voices and Art Beyond Boundaries are not only hoping to encourage and nuture a life-long love for art, but develop artists professionally. 

"There has always been a stereotype and the kind of art that is expected when it is called 'outsider art' and how venues perceive artists with disabilities," explained Bolden. "[At this gallery] I demand and have the expectation that the artists here will bring me their best efforts. It is so gratifying to watch their journey and growth and to see that light bulb go off in their heads."  

According to Bolden, the most important thing is that "when you look on these walls, you don't see disability, you see ability."

Want to learn more about Cincinnati's visual arts scene? Check out this neighborhood by neighborhood preview from Insider Ohio.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Visionaries and Voices Gallery
Raymond Thunder-Sky
Jymi Bolden
Art Beyond Boundaries on Main Street, OTR
Visionaries and Voices, artists and staff

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