Sunday, October 19, 2014

All of the Above

Five years.  When I think about it, it's kind of dumbfounding and inevitable at the same time.  Bill and I have been doing Thunder-Sky, Inc. for five years.  We've had a lot of help from a lot of great people, but we've kind of been the ones who push and prod this whatever-it-is (gallery/studio/fan-club/clubhouse/limbo) forward, very slowly forward, the way Raymond kind of moved:  intent, focused, but also nonchalant, maybe insouciant, not caring and yet caring, building and demolishing simultaneously because he knew how the world works. 
Above is a photo from October 30, 2009.  That was the debut gig at Thunder-Sky, Inc., when we opened a show called "Raymond Nation."  Looks like a stalwart ghost dangling in a walk-in freezer.  I love that chill Raymond imparts.  He never really let you know exactly how he was feeling or what he was thinking; he was cryptic in the best possible way.  I respect that so much looking back, how he just followed through on his own strictly self-determined purpose, how he built a life out of demolition and fury and happiness, how it all became what he wanted it to become till the very day he died. 
And that's why I keep beating this dead horse.  Because Raymond's purpose was to make something out of nothing and to do it without a lot of bull-shit or a lot of attention.  He had a purpose beyond all that and yet he wasn't above any of it.  He relished obscurity as much as relishing those tiny moments of appreciation he was allotted at the end of his life (a few shows of his work at Base Gallery, Visionaries + Voices, and other places we were able to find to exhibit his drawings).  But he also understood the joke of his existence so much so that the joke became his kingdom.  He played it all up -- clownishness, construction-worker-ness, his strangeness and alienness given superhero qualities by his own hand.  And in those drawings he left behind you feel him laughing, sneering a little, letting us know he does not give really a shit, except for the big things like prisons crumbling and being replaced by card-tricks and clownishness, a whole industry of trickery and sarcasm.
He was punk.  He was innocence.  He was experience.  He was a freak who made that freakishness a route to grandeur and hilarity and self-knowledge.
Most of all he was what he was, without apologies.  He was scary in the way clowns can be scary.  He was lovely in the way clowns can be lovely.  He was hard-working, he was mysterious, he was very simple. 
And so this is why we keep doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  because I truly can't find any other role-model, any other reason, to organize/coordinate artistic endeavors outside of that stream of light.  Maybe it's obsession or stupidity or stubbornness (probably all of the above), but somehow Raymond's life was too elementally metaphoric and wildly outlandish and secretively productive to forget, to be placed in a pile of other file-folders marked "outsider art" or "people with disabilities" or "folk hero" or "mysterious stranger."  He deserves his own little hall of fame, and so here it is, at least for a little while.  At least another year. 
This is a year to year thing.  It has to be.  We don't want it to become bigger than it needs to be.  So Thunder-Sky, Inc. has an under the radar quality, a homespun do-it-yourself-ness that tries to run away from being labeled or even being appreciated.  It is a little place that does not want to be anything except exactly what it is in the very moment you see it.  And for most of the year it's doors are closed anyway.  Open only on weekends, and on the Fridays we have opening receptions (6 times a years), or when someone wants to do a poetry reading, or any other special occasion that seems worth it. 
Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a non-profit ghost in the machine.  We do what we have to do to make things move, but not a lot of anything else.  Like Raymond and his drawings:  elemental, precise, completed, on to the next thing.
We're celebrating the five year anniversary next Friday, October 24, 2014, with a show called "The New Clownville Amusement," with Raymond-inspired works by Robert McFate, Curtis Davis, artists who use the Visionaries + Voices studio, artists from Able Projects, Antonio Adams, the Waldecks and friends, and many wonderful others.  This show came together like all of the other ones we do, things piling up and then somehow organized into a semblance of order through just doing it.  The five year anniversary means Raymond has been gone for ten years.  Ten years.  Good Lord.  He won't disappear.  Even if Thunder-Sky, Inc. disappears Raymond won't.  He is building and destroying things in all kinds of ways right now that we can't even fathom, which is the way it always was anyway.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prison Life

I went for a tour of a prison this week, as part of a chamber of commerce leadership training class thing I'm doing.  It's a weird industrial kind of faded sadness the place evokes.  Everything in the architecture and décor is spare and metallic and rote, but there's a feral smell wafting through the air, a smell of sleep and old socks and sore throats and rainy afternoons in trailers.  It's the smell of an Arby's uniform after work, a stink that goes undetected mostly because it's never allowed outside of its vicinity, its distinct zone.  You are trapped with that odor if you have any connection to it though.  It's yours.  And the prison pods I toured with other professional types had that stink but it was captured so you could breath it in without having to live through it, so it almost becomes a sort of souvenir, a sense memory, a joke. 
But I've lived with that smell many times in my life.  I'm from lower-income stock, have lived in Section 8 apartments, have worked a number of really crappy jobs.  I know what that smell is, and it really made me feel connected to something you don't really want to be connected to, but you have to get used to because its who you are, not so much a destiny as an element, a chemical vapor.
When we toured the pods, you could see a few prisoners waiting out our visit in their cells.  We even were told we could look into a cell or two, and what we saw was what you'd think we'd see.  A silver metallic sink and toilet, bunk beds, linoleum, cinder-block blankness.  It was not horrifying in anyway, just routine and drab and on the edge of total disappearance, that exact moment before everything gets taken away. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Piece of Cake

Gone Girl is a zeitgeist-fueled masterpiece of exurban, media-drenched, cynical, creepy, hilarious, 21st Century, true-crime-porn, all of that fermenting and fomenting inside a McMansion straight out of a Sominex commercial, with a backyard shed filled with man-cave accoutrements as if Santa Claus has had a bipolar episode.  It is maximally vicious and empty-headedly blissful at the same time.  You watch with a sense of dread and also a strange giddy anticipation.  David Fincher has directed it as a grotesque yet hyper-elegant gloss on film-noir, as well as a shiny-switchblade parody of Lifetime TV movies.  It moves effortlessly toward a bunch of conspicuously unbelievable yet completely realized revelations that shed light on nothing but what movies can be when they are ridiculously well-constructed.

Ben Affleck's Nick is in a shitty marriage to Rosamund Pike's Amy, and the movie begins with her supposed abduction.  I think the conceit the movie is based on (from a bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn who also did the screenplay) is that you don't know who is telling the truth.  But that conceit within a minute or two of the movie is completely vanquished:  the conceit in fact is deliriously deceitful.  It's obvious from the get-go Nick is victim and Amy is victimizer, and that Gone Girl is a charged-up reboot of the old-school femme-fatale plots of  potboiler books and movies like James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and/or Double Indemnity.  While Nick is not really innocent (he has an affair with his young creative-writing student for Pete's sake), he is framed in the movie as a goofy but sweet, five-o'clock-shadowed loser, playing board-games with his twin sister while downing late-morning bourbon in a bar his wife purchased for him.  In the first five minutes of Gone Girl his put-upon stature is cemented:  he arrives home to make sure his pet cat is okay only to find evidence of a break-in and the disappearance of his beautiful blonde wife, an effete, over-schooled knock-out who had to move back to Missouri with him because Nick's mom was dying.

From that initial scene of surprise to a rush to judgment to Nick having to find a defense attorney, the movie's elegant race between back-story (Nick and Amy's first kiss in a "sugar storm" outside a bakery at night, Nick and Amy getting married, Nick and Amy's first fight over money, and so on) and the churn of present-day abduction-story to-dos (Nick and Amy's uptight parents holding a press conference and vigil, suspicious police detectives pursuing the truth and so on) culminate halfway through the movie to a point-of-view switch.  We find out -- guess what? -- Amy has not been abducted or killed or anything like that.  She's just plain pissed and by pissed I mean she's created and executed a whole abduction narrative so detailed and fierce it's obvious this bitch is crazy.  She makes up diary entries to incriminate Nick, draws her own blood to splatter in the kitchen, befriends an idiotic pregnant lady next door so she can steal her pee for a fake pregnancy test.  And on and on and on.  Amy obviously is a femme-fatale Fincher and Pike have assembled as a collage of Madonna in all the videos Fincher made with her, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and a plethora of other blonde-haired, steel-eyed super-sexy ladies who do really terrible things and look fantastic doing it.  Pike's performance is gorgeous and stony and joyous to watch.  She's a robot Medusa, and her voice-over sections as she lets us in on  all her secrets are venom and music combined.

Fincher is the superstar here though.  This is one of those movies you watch knowing how meanspirited and pissy it is and yet the style overcomes the substance, and you are in the presence of true movieness.  And by "movieness," I mean this is a movie that is not about real life in any way shape or form:  this is a work of art referencing (i.e. stealing from) other movies (including Fincher's own back catalog classics like Zodiac, Panic Room and Seven) and spectacularly using those references in pursuit of pure, stupid, cinematic ecstasy.  Fincher, like Hitchcock, understands that movies are not pieces of real life.  They are pieces of cake, and this movie is a morally rotten yet deliciously decorated wedding-cake.  You enjoy every slice not as a reflection of reality, but as an orgasmic joke on it.  Movies like this make going to the movies an experience beyond verisimilitude or an exercise in getting blown away by computer-generated images of oceans toppling over skyscrapers.  Style is Fincher's goddess here; he worships it with every shot, and you follow him wanting to be awestruck by his audacity and dedication to doing what he needs to do.  By the end of Gone Girl, you understand nothing about male-female relationships or 21st Century America or any of that.  You're just grateful Fincher made a movie that makes you feel somehow enchanted, even overcome by, what movies can be and do, no matter what they are about.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Comedy Is Not Pretty

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig do something in The Skeleton Twins, their new movie, that a lot of other comedic actors can't do:  they take what they do best and merge it with a sensibility that helps them transcend their shtick.  Call it the The Robin Williams Syndrome, I guess, but when many great comedians try to make dramatic turns they often bring along their old stand-up/sketchy baggage with them, and the dramas they are in "make room" for this, or try to erase it all together.  Think of Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, or Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, or Robin Williams in most anything, and you get the idea:  their "funny" personas take over the atmosphere and what results is a movie about them trying to alter who they are, without maintaining a sense of what the actual movie is trying to get at.
Hader and Wiig maintain their off-kilter freakish comedic selves in The Skeleton Twins, but they use their Saturday Night Live skills to hone in on how actual off-kilter, freakish human beings interact, damage and sometimes save one another.  It's a movie that starts with two suicide attempts, and ends with one, and yet there is a light touch to Craig Johnson's direction and writing so that the drama, even though it's pretty melodramatic, becomes integral to the comedic undertones, to Hader's and Wiig's skills at being weirdos trying to figure out how not to drown in their own weirdness.  They play a brother and sister who haven't spoken to each other in over ten years, and are reunited after Hader's character winds up in the hospital after slicing his wrists.  Through the course of the movie, they become entangled yet again in each other's lives and revert back to their old selves.  Somewhere in there are other fantastic performances by Luke Wilson, as Wiig's goofy sweet husband, Joanna Gleason as their pseudo-loving, New Age mother, and Ty Burrell as Hader's weak-kneed ex-lover (who seduced him in high school while he was his English teacher).  
The Skeleton Twins moves forward effortlessly, and its pleasures come from both moments and the momentum it takes to make those moments feel actual and earned.  But the main scene I recall, the one that truly gets at how Hader and Wiig escape themselves and become actual people, is halfway in, when Wiig, a dental hygienist, cleans her brother's teeth.  She gives him some laughing gas to get over initial fears, and the scene unfurls from that, with Wiig cleaning Hader's teeth and then both of them getting in on the gas, until finally they wind up in the records room of the dental office, sliding down to the floor and remembering who they used to be and how easy was to be that.  There's some ad libbing, some face-making, some shtick, and yet it all feels completely necessary, even organic.  You feel like you're eavesdropping instead of watching a movie, and that intimacy makes the whole film snap to suddenly.  Wiig and Hader become true brother and sister right before your eyes, and the ache of their love and torture becomes not just stylized "hurt," but something you can connect with, even compare to real life.
That's not comedy or tragedy or drama -- it's art.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"What I Love Is Near at Hand"

Bill and I started a ritual a couple weeks back.  We go for a Friday after-work walk at Spring Grove Cemetery.  It's a truly beautiful place in the middle of neighborhoods and nothingness, and as you walk through its hilly, calm, planetary atmosphere you start to feel connected to a way of understanding things that's transformative without movement or strife or even thought.  All those gravestones, all that sunlight splashing off of leaves.  And the smell as you go from bright sunlit oxygen into a small ravine shadowed with old trees, musty, cool and secret, the sunshine falling through in short silvery intervals onto gravel and dirt.  It's a smell you remember but can't name (lost rivers, empty buckets, old water-hoses), like a drug you took as a teenager that was so pleasant you can never have that same experience ever again.  Lost time or maybe a dream of lost time is what it is, nostalgia stirred and then left still.

We don't talk that much as we walk. 

The place is expansive, falling off into hills, statues, little mock-cathedrals and marble vaults.  You don't want to talk.  Just walk.  Engraved names and dates, weather-beaten angel faces turning into morphined skulls.  It's not spooky though, just pleasantly exactly what it is.  It's the recent gorgeous weather too:  too clear to get into your head, the sky so fluorescent blue and cellophane yellow you can't really appreciate it without wincing.  Just walking, past all those graves, all those people's lives.  It doesn't feel creepy because it meanders close to what poetry is supposed to make you feel when it's done right.  The whole atmosphere slows down to elements you can worship, or at least ponder without having to understand.  You're there in the moment and everything is sparkling and kind of monumental but nothing is scary or complicated or rushed.  Just walking, like that, through the end of the afternoon.   The prehistoric boniness of the trees, the thickets surrounding the cut grass, the swampy waters stirred by fountains, rock-bridges and patches of dead weeds... 

I kept thinking about Theodore Roethke.  He truly is the one poet I think about the most.  His poems have a beveled but somehow amateurish sense of architecture that makes you feel like you're experiencing Shakespeare and Henry Darger simultaneously, that mix of "high" and "low," or whatever, pouring forth, sculpted and shorn into a constant death and rebirth.  His poems have their own equinox, their own cemeteries.  These are lines from The Far Field:

The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, --
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Earlier this week, I was at a conference organized around the idea that people with disabilities can have better lives if they get jobs with real wages.  This seems like a truly simple and true assertion, but also like anything that seems simple and true the idea is fraught with complications because, well, it's people.  You just can't make assertions like that without considering history, perceptions, experiences...  And you can't really assert anything for sure when talking about "people with disabilities" anyway.  That's a category, not actual people, when you get down to it.  Actual "people with disabilities" are individuals with all kinds of different needs, talents, interests, brilliances, predilections, shortcomings, etc.  In short it's hard to make something concrete out of something so abstract.

But maybe you have to.

The conference gathered together all kinds of folks, from people with disabilities (all kinds of disabilities, developmental, physical, and so on) to their families, from social workers to business people.  There was an energy in the air; maybe I'm making that up, but still...  It felt electric somehow, and serious, and everyone was paying attention to what's currently going on.  Supported Employment for people with disabilities is not a new idea of course, but this time we don't have the luxury of maintaining the status quo while pontificating and talking about "change."  We have to make it happen.  Medicaid rules are changing, and Medicaid funds the majority of supports for people with disabilities.  The changes are about prioritizing toward helping people have as much independence and equality as possible.  The rules changes come from all kinds of places within the federal government, not just Medicaid (Department of Justice and Department of Labor are in on it too, which makes sense, because the issue isn't really about social programs as much as civil rights and labor rights:  95% of people who don't make minimum wage on their jobs are actually people who go to sheltered workshops), so it's really hard to ignore. 

This time it's top down in ways it's never been.  And on the ground are large programs/buildings/workshops that have been doing  business for decades in ways that the Feds are now calling unfair and possibly illegal. 

What does this mean?

It means maybe we who have jobs supporting people with disabilities, especially those with developmental disabilities, have been looking at the situation through the wrong set of eyes.  We often see issues for the people we support as programmatic.  How can we alter programs to help people?  But actually we should be looking at not the programs, but the results (the "outcomes" in government-speak) of those programs.  And the results just aren't that great; in fact they have kept a lot of people in situations they could possibly break away from, if only the programs they are in were in question.  In other words, the question should be, "What is happening in this person's life?  Is he/she getting what he/she needs to be successful?"  As opposed to the question we usually ask, "What program does he/she need to be referred to?"

Ronald Reagan (I know a lot of people will probably not like me quoting the Gipper, but what the hell?) once said, "The best social program is a real job."  And even though it's hyper-complicated to make results/outcomes happen, that's basically what we are talking about here:  how do we help people make a living wage?  How do we help people secure success (without the program getting in the way)?  How do we support people to be the best people they can be?
For better or for worse, this process of being the best you can be often has its foundation in what people do for a living.  And if you take that possibility out of the picture, you often are grasping at straws.  I've met a majority of my friends through work.  A majority of my identity as a person is informed solely by my job.  I've spent 36 of my 49 years working in restaurants, libraries, group-homes, etc. Yup.  I started at 13, riding my jankety moped to the Irish Point Restaurant in Pendleton, Indiana so I could be a car-hop and grill-cook.  After that I moved on to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rax Roast Beef, Ponderosa Steakhouse, and so on.  I developed a work ethic through the process.  I think I may have learned more real lessons at all those jobs than anything I ever learned in school and college because it's all about putting yourself in the middle of things, being "in" the moment, and understanding you are a part of the world that is needed, that you have responsibilities and you are counted on.

By blocking entrance into this sense of responsibility, through programs, through good intentions, we who are trying to help people with disabilities are just plain hindering them.  We've been doing this for, well, since we figured out we needed to be helping.  We've constructed large programs and facilities that are about "training" people, but the training has gone on for decades without any results.  We're good at wanting to help.  Not so good at actually doing it.

So now there's a shift.  And I'm hoping it's for real.  I have a feeling it is.  Because at the end of the day the reason I chose this line of work is to not be a part of a program, but a part of a movement.  That sounds lofty as all get out, reminiscent of hippie BS, but it's true.  I don't have a lot of school spirit, never have, what pushes me forward is making stuff happen:  results.  I think that's true of a lot of social-worker-types, and we just get so caught up in the programs we make, funding them, going through certifications and audits for them, that we forget sometimes what they are there for. 

Anyway, that conference earlier this week truly made me feel like we're on our way toward something, as opposed to on our way to protecting what's already been done.  There may be people with disabilities who can't have real jobs, or maybe who don't want to have them, and that's okay.  What is exciting is that from now on, I think, I hope, the assumption is people can work and have lives and pay taxes and have beers with their buddies after work.  They can be"equal" in one of the truest ways to be equal:  as necessary contributors in getting things done.

Which brings me to Raymond Thunder-Sky. 

That's one of his drawings up there.   (Many more can be seen at   Having a real job was Raymond's obsession, and he had a few (and also worked for a long time in sheltered workshops), did well at everything he tried, but the job that he truly craved, being a part of a construction crew, eluded him because he couldn't get a driver's license (that's one of the major prerequisites to being on a crew).  So he created a job for himself:  he began drawing sites, setting up shop on the periphery of demolition and construction sites with a toolbox filled with markers and paper. He became a ghost-worker in many ways, sublimating his desire for an actual gig with what he could actually do.  I'm thinking, in the climate of today, he may have been able, somewhere along the line, to get a license with some help.  With some persistence from both himself and his supporters he may have been able to at least try to have that career.  Maybe he would be both a participant in the real world, and an artist commenting and documenting his participation in it.

Anyway you look at it, this is an ongoing saga...  I hope, I truly hope, this time there are actual results.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

"As If the Top of My Head Were Taken off"

Kelly Reichardt doesn't make movies.  She makes trances that have characters, plots, settings, and images that somehow culminate into glum, deeply felt, genius poetry.  Night Moves is her newest one, and it has such grace and marble-hard technique you see it in your dreams halfway through seeing it on Pay Per View.  The story is simple:  three loser eco-terrorists blow up a dam in Oregon. That sounds cliché, and yet the movie doesn't have a cliché-bone in its body.  The actors play each part of the triangle with a serious nonchalance, and that triangulation never yields what other movies might make it yield -- no sexual jealousy, no dissolved allegiances, just a sort of raw utilitarian anxious group-think, and also a group-fear that none of them know exactly what or why they are doing what they are doing, outside of following a story they have told themselves since they started being "activists."  I kept thinking of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:  the politics aren't the point.  It's the stringy worn-out philosophy that motivates these guys, and that line of thinking is slowly losing its appeal, even while the action, the devastation, heats up. 

Jesse Eisenberg is the central Raskolnikov figure here.  He skulks through the movie with a tentative hatred for the world matched (in his eyes) with a hidden love for its goodness.  In a scene that kicks off the dam-explosion plot, he is driving with Fanning (who plays his sidekick with a sweetly sardonic and yet somehow completely open innocence) to their destination (PeteSarsgaard's grizzled Iraq war vet) when they spot a dead deer at the side of the road.  Eisenberg pulls over and kneels beside the deer, and pronounces that she's still warm, and pregnant.  He says he can feel the baby inside the deer.  It's wet dusk woods here, and the deer is slumped face down.  Eisenberg, at that moment, has the expression of someone trying to figure out how to solve a problem there's no solution to.   That dead pregnant deer is an easy symbol, of course, but you don't know really for what, and it's never given an answer in the rest of the movie.  But still when he pushes the dead deer down the side of a hill, and you hear it slowly slide down the gravel, and then that nothing outside sound of rain dripping off leaves happens, you understand how empty and meaningless this character's life must be, and why he's doing what's he doing, even though he obviously really doesn't.  That is Reichardt's gift as a filmmaker right there:  that slowing down of experience to an essence that doesn't match up to drama, except to create an environment of longing, dread, and exposure.

Reichardt also made Wendy and Lucy a few years back, a beautiful sleek tone-poem with Michelle Williams as a homeless woman who gives up her dog because she can't afford to keep it.  Again a simple concept given a complicated sense of importance.  I sobbed at the end not because of the dog or even because of Williams' performance (although it was genius) -- I cried really hard because Reichardt was able to manufacture a massive echo out of an easy sell:  the emotions felt completely real, not maudlin or even earned, but somehow organic, branded into the very air and light and spaces she filmed.

That same sense of completion haunts Night Moves, that inevitable click that indicates a movie isn't about anything except itself, snapped shut with a purposefulness close to an Emily Dickinson poem.  Dickinson made verse from lonely domestic nothingness, created punctuation and capitalization willy-nilly, and yet her skillful alignment of words and image and thought are the closest comparison I can make to Reichardt's tenacious sense of style and economy.  Dickinson once wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."  That same statement can apply to movies like this:  something physical spins out of the metaphysical, as style merges with substance, and you have a symmetry of meaning and not-meaning that somehow trumps reality and becomes more real.