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Cover Story: When Silence Becomes Singing

Antonio Adams draws language we can see

By Kathy Y. Wilson · April 19th, 2006 · Cover Story
  When silence becomes singing.
When silence becomes singing.

Deion is outside on the first authentic day of spring. Over-the-Rhine is on fire: a tangle of cars -- dubs spinnin', systems bangin' and black girls starin' -- clog every major ghetto artery the day before Good Friday.

"You here to see my mamma?" Deion asks, his right foot dangling off the black iron railing of the stoop in front of his apartment. "You know my mamma?"

He runs up the hallway steps, the legs of his tan Dickies jumpsuit bagging around his ankles. He lets the apartment door slam in the visitor's face while he goes inside to check with his mother.

"She said come in," he says, running back outside.

Fatigue and sadness rest somewhere in Diane Adams. And they're palpable in her face. Yet she laughs easily at herself and her kids.

During a break between double shifts as a waitress at Skyline Chili on Fourth and Sycamore streets, Diane sits in the Lange Street apartment she shares with her five children: Antonio, 24; DeSavoya, 17; Lydell, 15; and 12-year-old twins Deion and Fazion, who look nothing alike.

Her uniform is soiled. Her eyes are red. Her shoes are off.

The television is loud.

She says she makes it "just the best way I can. (I) go to work, pray that they at home doing what they're supposed to be doing -- not fighting. And if they call me, I deal with it the best way I can."

At cursory glance, she has the cultural DNA of a stock ghetto martyr: She is a single black mother raising five children in an Over-the-Rhine apartment on a waitress' pay.

Still, Diane, 40, has worked a miracle. She raised an artist.

A meow person
Antonio stands at the Metro stop, on his way to his busser job at Frisch's in Norwood. He's come back home to show off some of his work from the collection hiding in his bedroom.

"We don't go in his room intentionally," Diane says. "He'll know something was moved by a centimeter. He'll know if we touched his doorknob."

Antonio comes in holding "Junior Spice's of Lovely Ladies," an album of photographs he shot of Artworks Executive Director Tamara Harkavy and Program Director Colleen Stanton and their apprentices. Though six years beyond Artworks' age limit, Antonio has worked several stints in the arts program.

Mixed in are shots of the PNC Bank building, the Hamilton County Courthouse and a trip to Chicago along with photos of the sculpture he made with painter Brian Joiner of his friend, the late artist Raymond Thunder-Sky.

Antonio transformed many of the photo portraits into his signature paintings, brightly colored then traced over with a permanent marker. The technique hardens and exaggerates facial lines, making people appear cartoonish in an annoying, R. Crumb kind of way.

A series of the album cover-sized portraits hangs in the bathroom-cum-Antonio Adams Gallery at the Visionaries & Voices (V&V) studio-within-a-studio at Essex Studios in Walnut Hills.

Antonio leaves the living room again, returning with "Manson Odie," the infamous 2 1/2-foot tall wooden sculpture he made in 1988. He balances it on the couch and smiles.

"Manson Odie" is Antonio's first-ever sculpture, and it is exquisite.

Its body is a series of blocks glued together outward and upward, extending like wooden LEGOs. The face, in pen and marker, is intricate and delicate, drawn rounded on a flat surface as though seen through a fish-eye lens.

A week earlier at Essex, Antonio called the sculpture "a meow person."

"He's my imaginary friend," he says. "Just made up. Make him look handsome, make him look nice."

This is the way words come to Antonio. In bursts. Segmented. Clipped.

Verbs are estranged from subjects. "I" travels all over the sentence, if present at all.

In his monotone and with lack of emphasis or pause, Antonio sometimes sounds like English is his second language. Then when he talks about his art he's perfectly lucid, using words like "obsessed" and "romantic" -- words it's assumed he wouldn't know.

He slides his left hand in his pocket and rubs his chin with his right hand while pondering what's asked of him.

This might be an affectation. It might be ritual. It helps restore order.

His appearance is a mixed metaphor.

Although Antonio is 24, he looks older and more serious, like an accountant. Until you get closer.

He is dark-skinned and barrel-chested with a moon face, dark eyes and pink lips. His hairline is slightly receding into black, tightly curled hair and long, broad sideburns growing down his face to his jowls and disappearing at his chin line.

He is warm and handsome. He is neat. His shirts are always tucked in and almost always buttoned to the neck.

His hands, the tools of his vast imagination, are ruddy and thick-fingered.

In the span Antonio has been making art -- first drawings and then sculptures from discarded items around the family's apartment when they lived in Pendleton -- he's switched media and turned from sculpture to drawing to painting and now to commissioned paintings and sculptures.

But Antonio hasn't always talked about his art. Or talked at all. He made art his language and his voice.

"It is a language, and it touches on things oral or written language don't get to," says Bill Ross, a Hamilton County MRDD case manager and painter who co-founded V&V in August 2003 with Keith Banner, a writer. "When I first met Antonio, I wondered if he could speak. He was so shy."

Karen Kotzen, Antonio's case manager, introduced Ross and Banner to Antonio in 2000.

In six years, Ross, Banner and Kotzen watched Antonio grow from a depressed, insular young man to a flourishing and confident artist.

"Karen had told me he'd been really depressed because he didn't have a job or a way to help his mother and little brothers," Ross says. "Back then he was making little robots.

When I first went up to his room, it was like going into King Tut's tomb: They were all lined up. He had them all named. He had a book. He had such a Dadaist way of writing about them that was unbelievable. All these robots were based on a cat he'd seen around the building. I knew (art) would be something really important for him."

That has turned out to be an understatement.

Remember learning to speak? To read? Remember the possibilities of language?

Antonio makes up his own mixed language from the words tumbling through his head, the ones he reads and hears and the ones he looks up in the dictionary. And though they don't make sense to most, they're perfectly sensible in the context of the art he makes and in the art world he orbits because of the art he makes.

Badly drawn boy drawn from memory
"He's smart," Diane says of Antonio. She's sitting across the table at Skyline before her lunch shift. "But it's like a learning disability. If you're talking to him straight on, you either have to repeat it so he can catch on to it or he'll catch it the first time."

Diane calls Antonio's years at Hughes High School "the only time Tony was down." He drew pictures of himself dead and isolated because he didn't have friends.

"It kicked in around the 11th grade," she says. " 'Every-body is friends with everybody, but I'm not like everybody else.' "

Antonio's artistic abilities, like his learning disability, manifested under the threat and the stress of separation.

"I didn't even know he was into art," Diane says. "I did a little bit because my parents passed when he was 7 and the next year my friend's father passed. He went home and drew the whole cemetery with the casket, the seats and all the tombstones with all the names on it. That's when we knew he could draw from memory."

This is where mother and son converge and deviate.

Neither mother nor son has access to traditional training and education. Diane has, through a community of friends, artists and art administrators, nurtured and encouraged Antonio's art talents.

She's thrown Antonio a life preserver knowing he might be otherwise relegated to low-wage jobs and left speechless without a literal and a figurative voice. By doing so, she's shown him independence.

Diane is the opposite of stage mother.

"I don't always go to all his art shows because I want that to be his world and his space," she says. "I want all the attention to be on him. He deserves it."

For his part, Antonio honors his mother with reverence and self-respect. He is known around town as a gracious and polite man, a testament to Diane.

"He is tight with his mom," says Ross. "He has such an old-fashioned sense of responsibility. He is the man of the house."

That might be a lifetime arrangement.

"He wants to be independent," she says, "but I'm still worried about him. He's still on that other age level. He can't manage money. So we made his bedroom like a little apartment. He has his own refrigerator."

Diane estimates Antonio's intellectual age to be that of a 16-year-old.

"But then to me he's like an old man," she says. "He listens to old Prince, old Time. He says he likes the music from the time he was born."

Portrait of the artist as a young man
"Sometimes I just do that to get my '80s style on," Antonio says at Essex when asked about his music fixation. "It's like just being myself who really I am and something original came up from my ideas."

Along with V&V Assistant Studio Director Victor Strunk, Antonio painted a mural at Shake It Records in Northside comprising 80 Pop stars from the 1980s.

His favorites are Prince, Morris Day and the Time. I break out into Day's Purple Rain schtick, dancing "The Bird."

"Jerome? Where my mirror at?" I say and pretend, pimp style, to slick my hair back with a comb.

Antonio starts singing indecipherable lyrics in a falsetto voice à la Prince, holding an invisible mic up to his mouth. I squawk, flapping my arms to the sides, and do the dance's little galloping hop steps.

We go on like this until we collapse in giggles. He smiles when I casually touch his arm.

"Yeah," he says. "Mmm-hmm."

Antonio gets back to explaining his pieces at Essex.

In "New AA (the Ladies-Man Artist)," Antonio sports a striped fedora, a white and pink scarf, striped vest and heart-shaped glasses. A toothpick dangles from his mouth. He has long, curly hair and has painted himself very dark. He looks like a bastardization of Rick James, Ike Turner and Bootsy Collins.

"While I was dreaming about myself after I had a good time, I fell asleep and I was like an '80s-style ladies' man, like a new artist," he says of the 2005 portrait. "Just me being myself as kingdom artist's master of hard working. I was drawing myself while looking in the mirror."

In "self-portrait," he's wearing a vest emblazoned with AA -- his initials recur throughout his work -- and he's holding a walking stick and standing in front of a car driven by a flashy man.

"That's that crazy guy obsessed with cell phones," he says. "I never have one."

He says the message is: "Don't be a ignorant lazy bummer."

Antonio is driven by rules, order and good behavior, themes that figure prominently and blatantly in his artwork and in his standing as the preeminent artist in the V&V stable. He devised a list of rules he expects others to follow in the program and in life.


No Cussing

No Somking

No Offense

No Stealing

No Drinking

Don't be Jealous

Don't be Shy

Don't be a Fraud

Don't force People to do so

Don't be a Lair

Don't give People o rough time

Don't be Rude & Disrespectful

Freaks, regular people and Pop star glasses
The other noticeable way Antonio makes the world make sense is by recasting real people as "characters."

For instance, Amanda Butner used to wait tables at Frisch's. Antonio drew portraits of her recast as an '80s video vixen. She looks like Madonna during her "Like a Virgin" phase.

"So I decided to draw her looking different like something romantic or sassy from my imagination," he says.

In another piece, Artworks' Harkavy is "Tiffany" and Stanton is "Christina."

"It's just a character made up of names," he says.

V&V Studio Director Amos Hopkins says Antonio has peculiar powers of vision.

"The thing I like about Antonio is that you and me will see someone and we'll agree on what they look like, but Antonio's got these invisible '80s Pop star glasses. When Antonio looks at you, you got a pointy collar, a mullet and some real funky threads," Hopkins says, referring to Antonio's rendering of him.

Within the population of "characters," Antonio invents language to describe membership of his characters. These are broken down into categories like "project worker" and "art jeaner."

The latter being "a real artist who has skills and a disability," Antonio says. "I was making words up, telling it how it is."

"Antonio will study the dictionary for hours," Hopkins says. "The thing that's so beautiful and poetic is he'll change the words to fit his meaning but he still can tell you what they mean."

A "freak" occupies the highest rung of evolution.

Who's a "regular person?"

"That means is a friendly friends or relative who be nice to after people or who has personality to do certain things," Antonio says.

Translation: A person with superior character who makes himself "regular" by being nice to people mistreated by others; a regular person also uses his talents to help other talented people receive recognition.

Ross and Banner are regular people. The two had already arranged a show of Thunder-Sky's work at BASE Gallery when they met Antonio in 2000, just in time to include him in a new show.

"At the time Keith and I were working on a show called Fruitcake," Ross says. "Antonio had five or six of his pieces in that."

Ross and Banner then curated Art Thing in March 2001 featuring Thunder-Sky, Antonio, Paul Rowland and Richard Brown, a quartet Antonio calls "The Fab Four."

(Thunder-Sky is John Lennon, the dead icon; Antonio is Paul McCartney, the likeable survivor; Rowland is George Harrison, the deep thinker; and Brown is Ringo Starr, affable in the background.)

"That's when he felt like they were like The Beatles," Ross says, "that they were doing something magical. And they were."

When talk in Essex turns to the five-year anniversary of the April 2001 riots, Antonio chimes in.

"That's why I stay safe in the house, doing some artwork," he says. "Stephen Roach, he shot Timmy Thomas. That's back in 2001. It was chaotic and crazy. I was just looking outside and it was wild and unsafe, man."

BASE survived the melée.

"Everything around the gallery was destroyed," Ross says. "But Antonio's robots right inside the door were fine. It was like Passover."

Room with a view
Along with more than 40 artists, Antonio then showed in When Silence Becomes Singing in April 2002 at the Middletown Arts Center. He traveled later that year to Pittsburgh to the Outsider Art Fair and then to Anaheim, Calif., with Thunder-Sky to a conference on disabilities where the two presented pieces from Art Thing.

"It was changing self-perceptions as well as the perceptions of the community," Ross says.

Not so fast.

Ross and Banner proposed to set up a studio at BASE Gallery like the one V&V now has at Essex.

"They didn't want to be known as a disabled art studio," Ross says. "By then, Keith and I had given up our own art to do this. We had a heated debate with people at BASE about whether they should have more shows with people with disabilities, and Antonio was in the room.

"He was quiet the whole time. I said, 'Antonio, what'd you think?' He said, 'Only negative people lose their hearts.' "

The separation from BASE was the impetus for V&V.

In July 2003, Ross and Banner found the Essex space by accident, taking the former garage and now north-facing space for its exceptional natural light. They moved into it the next month and christened their two-man stable of artists with disabilities -- Antonio and Thunder-Sky -- as Visionaries & Voices.

"(Antonio) opened this place up," Banner says. "Basically, the reason we're here is for him. Without him, there'd be no art studio for people with disabilities in Cincinnati, which every city should have."

Today, Banner, Ross and the staff foster a steady flux of artists referred from United Cerebral Palsy, among other agencies. They work alongside volunteer high school students, fledgling self-taught artists and paid staff to create large-scale paintings, intricate drawings, installations and sculptures that the group sells during special exhibits and fund-raisers and during Essex's first-of-the-month studio-wide Art Walk.

V&V receives support from Impact 100 and grants from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the Butler Foundation and a contract with MRDD farmed out through United Cerebral Palsy.

V&V artists make 70 percent from sales. Pieces are reasonably priced, ranging from $20 or $40 to several hundred.

Antonio now is concentrating on commissioned sculptures and portraits. He's done a large sculpture based on a Matisse for the Cincinnati Art Museum, a privately commissioned Batman sculpture and a small butterfly sculpture for the Krohn Conservatory.

"Jenny and Ken," a recently commissioned wedding portrait, hangs in the V&V office waiting for the couple to pick up.

"I really think (commissions) are his future," Banner says. "We're gonna build a business for him and his family."

Art as commerce peacefully coexists with art as language, as expression and as survival.

"We'll turn the tables," Ross says. "It'll be their place to invite other people in."

Antonio has already crystallized Ross' sentiments into a large, detailed drawing called "Art Thing Place." It's a specifically planned community for a specific population of "freaks" like Antonio.

There is a mall, a hotel, a country buffet, a large house, a party house and a church -- all located on Orgllycreeks Street. Antonio also drew himself an impressive house.

Based on this drawing, Antonio is convinced he can support himself and an entire like-minded community on his concept of art as language.

His is a language few understand until they see it. Until then, Antonio draws a room of his own. ©



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