Freaks and Other Artists

Bill Ross and Keith Banner celebrate possibility
By Saad Ghosn

Bill Ross and Keith Banner in front of text paintings by Dale Jackson. Photo by Saad Ghosn.

Influenced by Flannery O’Connor’s works, which always gave voice to those who were shunned, Keith Banner, a well-published Cincinnati writer, started in his mid-20s to write about freaks. They are, in his words, “forms of our essential displacement.”
“Putting the reader in the point of view and body of someone who is denigrated and marginalized is always a deliberate political move,” Banner says. “It is my way to make the reader identify and connect with the other, accept and humanize the other despite the difference, realize we’re all equal and beautiful, that the world is bigger than we are, and that we need to be at peace with each other.”
“Art saved and shaped my life,” says Bill Ross, a well-exhibited local artist. “It helped me find out who I was, also what was my mission. It let me explore social venues I would not have otherwise. It empowered me, and through collaborative work, allowed me to empower others.”
Ross and Banner met in the early 1980s, studying art at the Herron School of Art and Design, at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Ross graduated with a degree in painting, Banner shifting later to English and graduating in creative writing. They have been together since, partners in life and work. Together in 2003 they founded Visionaries and Voices, an art studio that provides artistic and cultural opportunities for artists with disabilities. In 2009 they founded Thunder-Sky Inc., an art gallery that showcases and supports unconventional artists from the region, aiming at keeping Raymond Thunder-Sky’s legacy alive.
Professionally, both Ross and Banner applied their art background to the field of social work. They worked in group homes, mostly with mentally handicapped individuals, providing them care and managing their needs. Artists at heart, they merged art with social work, combining and enhancing the powerful effects of both.
“We are culture workers and not only social workers,” they say. “We use our artistic skills to help individuals grow and develop.”
This is how Ross one day discovered Thunder-Sky and his wonderful creative world. At a meeting set up to discuss his health concerns, Thunder-Sky brought along a tool box that he opened with a smile; it contained hundreds of his amazing drawings, unseen until then. A disabled Native American and gifted artist, Thunder-Sky would always dress in a clown collar and construction hat and walk the streets of Cincinnati drawing demolition and construction sites.
Ross and Banner quickly organized a show of his drawings in 2000. This opened the gate to many other disabled artists, starting with Antonio Adams, now a well known and well represented Cincinnati artist. It also led to the progressive establishment of a venue for individuals with disability to explore and develop their artistic talent at the same time using their creative expression for their well-being. This venue, later known as Visionaries and Voices, gave artists ownership in an inclusive environment where they felt valued, a chance to create and show their work, an opportunity to collaborate and celebrate with other community members.
Five years later, to avoid potential conflict of interest with its source of funding, Banner and Ross left the then well established Visionaries and Voices and immersed their energy in the creation of a new gallery, Thunder-Sky Inc. The new gallery focuses on art, exhibitions and literary publications; it is meant as a collaborative, non-segregated space where both disabled and non-disabled artists work side by side, with no real difference, triggering each other’s vulnerability and letting go of their ego.
All along and despite their otherwise heavy engagements, Banner and Ross continued their own creative endeavors.
Ross painted non-stop. His paintings – surrealistic, fantastic, personal at the beginning – changed their focus few years ago; it became collaborative, with disabled artists creating composition and content and Ross adding pattern, colors and depth.
“Collaboration took me to places I was not able to go on my own,” he says. “It also helped build confidence in the disabled artists showing them someone else takes them seriously.”
Ross has since collaborated with six disabled artists, among them Kevin White, known for his elegant designs; Mike Weber, for his abstracted images; and Donald Henry, for his robot versions of himself and his friends.
Amazing Chaos is a collaborative piece Ross did with Becky Iker, who has Down syndrome. With minor editing, Ross shaped in color Iker’s pencil drawing, the final result reminiscent of a cave painting with its mystery and hidden subtleties.
While Ross was painting, Banner kept writing. He published several short stories and a novel, all with strong social messages. He is working on a new novel relating the death of a 7-year-old disabled girl killed by her stepbrother. Ignored, pushed away and debased while alive, her sudden disappearance makes everyone realize her inner beauty, her true innocence, how much she touched each of them. Meant as an empowerment of the weak and rejected, the work stresses the importance of every individual, even those initially perceived as useless and insignificant.
In The Wedding of Tom and Tom, from his book The Smallest People Alive, Banner tells the story of two disabled gentlemen living in a group home, in love with each other. Caregivers, braving the rules of the agency running the home, assist them to get married. The story reflects Banner’s rejection of rules, codes and regulations that negate the human essence and mar its potentials, imprison the individual, obstruct his good and poetic nature. It ends with a liberating act, the vision of hundreds of stigmatized individuals running over the officiator to get to their freedom place, a celebration of universal spirit asserting itself and coming to life.
Both Ross and Banner use their own art and various art involvements to equalize people and link them together.
“Society wants to frame us and categorize us,” they say. “One is retarded or not, intelligent or not. … One’s free potential as human being is often ignored. We want to make it hard to categorize and differentiate people; it is our political statement, and art helps us achieve it.”