As seemed fitting for an exhibition featuring the many colorful handmade signs drawn and worn by Avtar Gill (aka the “Hat Man” of Cincinnati) at Thunder-Sky, Inc., those who came out to see a sliver of his visual legacy at the REJOICE: A Retrospective of Avtar Gill the Cincinnati Hat Man opening this past Friday represented a cross-section of the people whose lives the eccentric yet humble character touched.
For about a decade prior to his death in January 2013, Gill had become somewhat of a local fixture at nearly any and every downtown event. Council meetings at City Hall, Reds games and Fountain Square rallies all were likely occasions at which one could find the vocal supporter of all things Cincinnati, encouraging people to “REJOICE” in whatever issue was at hand.
A diminutive white-bearded man, Gill stood out in any crowd despite his humble stature. Always wearing his oversized, hand-drawn, (typically) all caps messages which he affixed to a baseball cap with usually no more than a few strategically placed rubber bands, he documented everyday history in mundane yet sometimes profound ways.
Gill’s hats often read as cultural barometers of what was going on in town or around the nation at the time. Many of the signs exhibited in REJOICE — arranged with Thunder-Sky by sometimes-political-activist, English teacher and Gill acquaintance Jason Haap — demonstrate Hat Man’s visual allusions to local and international events. Examples include “Today is Groundhog Day,” “Malala, My Person Of The Year 2012,” “Hell on earth 100+ F! WOW!!!” and “I [heart] Historic Anna Louise Inn.”
Because he was so ubiquitous, Gill was acquainted with such local leaders as Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, City Councilman Chris Seelbach, Mayor John Cranley and civil rights icon Marian Spencer — who all attended the exhibition opening.
Commissioner Portune said at the opening reception that REJOICE was like taking a trip down memory lane, seeing so many chapters in the history of the city of Cincinnati.
“It didn’t matter the issue,” Portune said. “Avtar celebrated you.” His celebration of all things demonstrated how daily events make an impact on the individual, and rejoicing in those seemingly innocuous moments was an integral part of his personal mission.
Gill supporter Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, had the foresight to set aside his signs when he was called to the elderly gentleman’s hotel room after Gill’s death to help gather his belongings early last year.
An enigma to even closer acquaintances, according to Spring’s statement that Streetvibes editor Justin Jeffre read on his behalf at the exhibition opening, Gill experienced homelessness off and on during the latter part of his life. When Haap learned of Spring’s collection of Gill’s hat signs, he suggested they approach Thunder-Sky about an exhibition.
Thunder-Sky, Inc., a nonprofit gallery that aims to keep the memory and vision of another eccentric Cincinnati artist, Raymond Thunder-Sky, alive, was a perfect fit for the display of the Cincinnati Hat Man’s signs. Both were unconventional thinkers who wore their artistic and performative instincts on their proverbial sleeves. Thunder-Sky, with his recognizable clown collar, construction hat and a toolbox containing art supplies; Gill with his oversized hat signs, Coke-bottle glasses and (toward the end of his life) penchant for draping children’s blankets around his person like a modern day apostle.
If you were unacquainted with either man,
a mere glance would make you want to know more, and there were always
speculations and theories about the personal histories of both.
Gill’s signs are placed around the gallery in rectangular suites
interspersed with imagery of him wearing his ubiquitous hats around
town, and shelves showcasing the signs attached to hats in much the same
way Gill would’ve done — with a rubber band. It is a simple display,
but full of thoughtful juxtapositions — demonstrating Gill’s
indiscriminate commitment to documenting history as it occurred.
Artist Antonio Adams has also contributed five drawings — one of which was made into a seven-color limited edition print by Aaron Kent of DIY Printing in Walnut Hills, all proceeds for which will go to the Coalition for the Homeless — in his iconic graphic historical vignette style, and they are a strong addition to the show.
Two hats on either side of the gallery — one supporting President Obama’s reelection, and the other promoting Paul Ryan as the GOP’s candidate for Vice President — showcase how Gill used the only platform available to him, his hat, to document the passing of time, regardless of the politics involved.
Non-partisan but socially conscious, Gill’s messages were always filled with joyous mandates — a lesson to celebrate the moments as they pass — and the exhibition of his signs are a testimony to how one person’s life, however humble, can be rich with meaning.
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