Raymond Thundersky roamed the streets of Cincinnati – a Native American in a clown costume who drew urban construction scenes, both real and imagined. Mary Annette Pember relates her own search to find the story behind this enigmatic “trickster” who connected worlds as he created his own.
Raymond Thundersky drew thousands of pictures of construction sites, often in their demolition phase. In this drawing, the wrecking ball is a pumpkin, and the building is being cleared for the imagined Chief Richard Brightfire Thunder-Sky Expressway. More images are available at the online archive of Thundersky’s work.
Some people thought he was a great Mohawk chief, some thought he had royal blood, some thought he was Jesus and some just thought he was crazy.
Raymond Thundersky’s life was a mystery that provided fodder for the growth of a tantalizingly vague urban legend.
The real story of Raymond is like the trickster stories so common among Native peoples in which a character, often an animal, unceremoniously unseats man from his silly notions of comfort and superiority. Raymond’s gentle trickster spirit recently affected my life as I was drawn into putting together a show in the little gallery, Thunder-Sky Inc., that was created in his honor. My show, Digital Wigwam, takes gallery visitors on a journey into the little known U.S. history of Indian boarding schools through my family’s experience. The little gallery provides a sanctuary for the real stories of Native people living in cities as well as a haven for all the “outsider’ artists living as humans in an often inhuman urban world.
Prior to his death in 2004, Thundersky roamed the streets of Cincinnati wearing a clown costume and hard hat while carrying a toolbox. An enigmatic figure, he frequented construction sites, creating a colorful trickster-like presence among the cranes and cement trucks. He seldom spoke, preferring instead to draw – and draw and draw.
Obsessed with demolition as well as construction, his childlike drawings always envisioned the future. Taking his markers and paper from his toolbox, he would set up a temporary easel at construction sites. His works were titled with names such as “Future Mohawk Freeway” or “New Clown Costume Factory.”
To most people in Cincinnati, he was known simply as “Chief” and occupied a certain celebrity status around which many stories grew. According to some, he was of noble birth and descended from “the last Mohawk chief.” In a city far from Indian Country, with no Native community, most people’s concepts of American Indians are stereotypical notions that come from Hollywood. In this environment, romantic rumors about Thundersky’s identity and past easily morphed into fact for the citizens of Cincinnati.
According to his obituary in the Cincinnati Enquirer, he was born in California in 1950 and
[W]as the son of Richard Brightfire Thunder-Sky, the last full-blooded chief of the Mohawk tribe. The elder Thunder-Sky was born on St. Regis Reservation on the New York-Canada border. He was an artist and an actor who appeared in nine Hollywood cowboy-and-Indian movies.
Mr. Thunder-Sky’s mother was the former Irene Dianna Szalatzky, daughter of a Hungarian nobleman of the Habsburg Dynasty. She met the Mohawk chief at an American Legion party in New York City, where her father had moved after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Married for 43 years before Richard Thunder-Sky died in 1989, the couple brought their two sons to Cincinnati in 1961 and lived for many years in Northside.
In many ways, the myth that Cincinnati generated around Raymond is an allegory for the Native diaspora from rural reservations to cities. Raymond’s story brings to mind the failed logic of the Federal Indian Relocation program of the 1950s to 1970s that sought to alleviate reservation poverty by moving Indians to cities. (Read more on the history of the relocation program.)
Moving poor, rural people of color to cities simply transformed them into poor urban dwellers of color, all similarly disenfranchised.
The story of Raymond also reminds me that although you might take the Indian off the rez, you can never take the rez out of the Indian. In looking at his work, I note that he was always creating the earth-centered mindset that defines the Native worldview. That view envisions a world in which human creations celebrate our connection with each other and with the earth. Raymond’s drawings destroyed the inhumanity of institutions and replaced them with structures that symbolized that ethos.
Although never formally diagnosed, many who knew Raymond Thundersky considered him to be autistic. In 1999 Bill Ross, a social worker with Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities, was assigned to Raymond’s case.
Most of Ross’s initial visits took place through the closed door of Raymond’s apartment. According to Ross, Raymond must have detected a kindred spirit (Ross is also an artist) because eventually he opened the door of his tiny apartment and invited Ross inside. Amid the clutter of toolboxes, bits and pieces of machinery and clown costumes, the two men silently watched the Teletubbies together. Slowly, a partnership of appreciation and trust developed between them.
According to information that Ross was able to gather, Raymond’s father, Richard Thundersky, moved his family to Cincinnati when he got a job working in ironwork or construction along with several other Mohawk families in 1961.
Ray Cook, an editor at Indian Country Today Media Network who is from the St. Regis Mohawk tribe notes that “Thundersky” is not a Mohawk name. He speculated that Raymond’s father might have changed the family name while working in Hollywood into something considered “more Indian.”
According to David Stadden, Ojibwe, Public Relations coordinator for the St. Regis Tribe, neither Raymond nor his father Richard Thundersky are enrolled in the tribe.
In looking at photos of Raymond, however, Cook notes that he bears a resemblance to some Mohawk families.
Ross speculates that Raymond’s fascination with construction sites may have been influenced by his father’s work as an ironworker. When Raymond was a child, a family friend took him to the circus, an experience that was transformative for the boy. By all accounts, Raymond maintained a lifelong obsession with clowns and circus-like themes.
“Although the legends surrounding the Thundersky family are many, we do know for sure that Raymond was a uniquely talented artist whose silent presence affected and inspired people deeply,” notes Keith Banner, a social worker who also worked with Raymond.
When he died, Raymond left behind more than 2,000 detailed drawings inspired by demolition and construction sites. For those who knew him, his work was an allegory for his life, in which the performance was as important as the creation itself, according to Ross.
“Living his art was part of his performance,” said Ross.
In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Ross noted that Raymond was truly a rare person. “Anybody who had the opportunity to meet him knew right away they were in the presence of someone who was very unique and unusual,” he said.
Ross and Keith Banner, also a social worker, arranged an exhibit of some of Raymond’s drawings in 2001. Since that small show, Raymond’s popularity has grown. His drawings have been exhibited in galleries in San Francisco, New York, Washington and Denmark.
In 2004, Ross and Banner founded Thunder-Sky Inc. gallery, a small storefront space in the Northside neighborhood that Raymond called home. The gallery is a haven for “outsider” artists, providing both an exhibition space as well as a workspace in the basement. On most weekends, the little basement workroom is crowded with artists, some with special needs, some typical, painting, drawing and creating their art. The benevolent trickster spirit of Raymond that seems to permeate the space draws them here. Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a safe, welcoming place that wordlessly speaks the word “home” to those who need to hear it.
Visitors to the gallery, however, also detect a wry challenge from the art and artists gathered there, a challenge to smash the comfortable and known and create something fun and beautiful in its place.
Created to honor Raymond and provide a stable work place for him to create his art, he chose instead to continue working outside. Ever the gentle anarchist, Raymond followed his own path according to Banner. “Raymond was a cultural and spiritual figure who, through the persistence of his art-making and brave exploration of his own aesthetic universe became a touchstone for what it means to be creative and alive.”
Ross and Banner noted, however, that Raymond did enjoy attending parties at Thunder-Sky Inc. Smiling his far away smile, they recall that he seemed genuinely pleased.
Although Raymond passed on in 2004 from cancer, his spirit and legacy live on at Thunder-Sky, Inc. where they continue to inspire and delight his fans.
A trailer for a documentary about Raymond Thundersky produced by Alfred Eaker and J Ross Eaker of Eaker Productions.