Raymond Thunder-Sky: The Cincinnati Construction Clown

Raymond Thunder-Sky, a figure who roamed the streets of Cincinnati for decades, left an indelible mark on the city’s cultural landscape. Known as the “Cincinnati Construction Clown,” Thunder-Sky was a unique blend of artist, performer, and urban legend. His life and work embodied a fascinating intersection of personal history, cultural identity, and artistic expression.

Born in California in 1950, Raymond was the son of Richard Brightfire Thunder-Sky, a man with a compelling and somewhat mysterious past. Richard was described as the last full-blooded chief of the Mohawk tribe, though some questioned the authenticity of this claim. He had a background in Hollywood, appearing in nine Western films, where he may have adopted a more “Indian-sounding” name for his career. (They were said to be St. Regis Mohawks but were never enrolled with the tribe). Raymond’s mother, Irene Szalatzky, brought her own lineage from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, adding another layer of noble heritage to his story.

The Thunder-Sky family moved to Cincinnati in 1961, settling on the Northside. It was here that Raymond’s artistic journey began to take shape. Influenced by his father’s work as an ironworker and his own childhood fascination with the circus, Raymond developed a distinctive style and persona. Clad in a clown costume and hard hat, he carried a toolbox not filled with construction tools but with colored pencils, crayons, and paper. His unconventional attire and presence at construction and demolition sites earned him the “Cincinnati Construction Clown.”

Raymond’s artwork primarily focused on urban landscapes, specifically construction and demolition scenes. His drawings often depicted imaginative futures for the sites he observed, with titles like “New Clown Costume Factory” and “Future Mohawk Freeway.” These works were more than simple illustrations; they were Raymond’s way of reimagining and transforming the cityscape, blending his artistic vision with his personal narrative.

Despite his eccentric appearance and silent demeanor, Raymond’s work spoke volumes. He was a self-taught artist whose creations were filled with vibrant colors, detailed structures, and whimsical elements. His drawings, often done with professional-grade markers, captured urban development’s chaos and order. They were a form of social commentary, reflecting his views on progress, change, and the clash between the old and the new.

Raymond’s life and work were steeped in mystery and speculation. He was a man of few words, preferring to communicate through his art (there is a video on Youtube of him being interviewed on Channel 9 WCPO Cincinnati where he primarily repeats “hey”). His background and the stories surrounding his family only added to the enigmatic aura that surrounded him. The mystery fueled these larger-than-life stories that blended factual and fictional elements , captivating the imagination of a community as they spread via word-of-mouth, local lore, each retelling adding more layers to their mystique.

In 1999, Bill Ross, a social worker with the Hamilton County Board of Developmental Disabilities, discovered Raymond’s artistic talent. Ross and Keith Banner organized a small exhibition of Raymond’s work in 2000, which garnered significant attention and acclaim. This event marked the beginning of Raymond’s posthumous recognition as an important figure in the local art community.

Raymond passed away in 2004, leaving behind over 2,300 drawings, a treasure trove of clown costumes, hard hats, and toolboxes. His legacy lives on through various tributes, including murals and sculptures scattered throughout Cincinnati. One notable tribute is the “Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower,” an outdoor sculpture over in Covington by renowned sculptor Tom Tsuchiya (who has also created life-size bronze tributes to four Cincinnati Reds greats outside of the Great American Ball Park, as the bass reliefs of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown). My favorite tribute to Raymond’s life and artistic contributions was a collaboration between ArtWorks, a non-profit that brings together students and professional artists to create murals across Cincinnati, and the great Visionaries & Voices (V&V), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and promoting artists with disabilities, founded by Ross and Keith Banner. V&V is one of the great places to see art in this country, and a giant painting of Raymond spans the entirety of their 26 feet in height and 100 feet in the long side wall. Conceived by Antonio Adams who worked with a team of young artists who spent six weeks crafting the mural. On the wall, Raymond towers above us, where he declares that “3841 Spring Grove Ave (the address of V&V) is being torn down to make way for the Raymond Thunder-Sky Construction Clown Amusement Park.”

Raymond Thunder-Sky transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary through his art, blending reality with imagination and creating a vibrant, anarchic diary of existence. His story is one of resilience, creativity, and the power of self-expression. He transcended the limitations of his circumstances, using his art to carve out a space for himself in the city’s cultural memory. His life and work remind us of the importance of embracing our individuality and the transformative power of art. Raymond may have been an “unconventional” figure, but his legacy as the Cincinnati Construction Clown is a powerful testament to the enduring impact of his vision and creativity.