Manny is not an artist.
I’m sitting and staring at pictures of his work, the first of which I saw on Reddit. It depicts a strange looking medical scene arranged on the side of a rural road. There’s a black wall with the words ‘The Ether Bunny’ painted on it as well as an anesthesiologist and patient lying on a hospital bed with a tank marked ‘ether’. Both anesthesiologist and patient are skeletons, with the doctors in question wearing fluffy bunny ears.
The image can initially strike you as creepy, as the strange, macabre work of a madman, something doodled on a piece of notebook paper by a serial killer in training. Titled simply ‘a guy in my town makes these skeleton displays’, the image underneath the post seems to elicits a wave of strong emotion—chiefly, fear and horror—from whoever encounters it:
“Can you imagine breaking down in the middle of the night, leaving your car to walk and find help, and running into this?”
“I’ve seen plenty of this guy’s work around town and call me a killjoy but I really wish he would stop. While I respect his right to create art I feel this sort of thing should be in a place where only adults who choose to see it can see it. My daughter closes her eyes whenever we drive by the “spooky skeleton guys”—I’m just grateful she isn’t at an age where I would have to answer questions about this topic behind the display.” (shittymorph)
“Has anyone checked to make sure they aren’t real skeletons and the guy isn’t a super delightful serial killer?” (Charlitos_Way)
Perplexed by this question, I sought out to learn a little bit more about the artist. It turns out that ‘the Ether Bunny’ was created by someone known as ‘ItSkeletal’. It isn’t the only piece in his repertoire, either: there are dozens of other scenes strung together in this playful skeletal fashion, each as phantasmagorical as the last. There are skeletons waiting at a bus stop, skeletons hunting for Easter eggs, skeletons swinging merrily on a swing set, even.
I wanted to get inside his brain, to understand the motivation behind creating such unusual art. Lo and behold, with a little sleuthing I was able to find him.
His name is Manny Julio, and he adamantly insists that he is not referred to as “an artist”.
“I am not an artist, writer, poet or photographer.”
Based in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, Manny has been dreaming of skeletal art to put on display for the world to drive past since 2013, the year he would undergo an open heart surgery that would change his life.
“The past 40 years I've been a drywall contractor, alphadrywall.com,” he continues. “In 2013 I underwent open heart surgery and my belief is the drugs that were administered at the time opened up a more creative side.”
Manny soon started seeing strange new visions inside his mind’s eye.
“The summer of 2015 as I was driving down the road I had a vision of a 50's/early 60's living room. A little boy sitting 2 inches in front of the tv, the mother handing her husband his slippers as he enjoys his drink while smoking his pipe. Thing is, in my vision they were all skeletons. It was a throwback to my youth.”
I’m not sure how ‘skeletons’ connects with ‘youth’, but okay. We progress.
Why don’t you consider yourself an artist?
Probably because I feel like there is another person inside of of me who is more creative than I. Maybe he can be called an artist.
Can you tell me about the accident in a little more detail? What drugs were administered and how did you first notice they affected you creatively?
In 2013 my doctor told me I needed a mitral valve repair therefore open heart surgery. Not sure of the drugs, all I know is your entire body is shut down and you are put on life support. For days after the operation I would see the most vivid and unusual images when my eyes were closed. To this day I wish I were able to document them. It seems that's when my creative side opened up.
When did your first piece go up?
I needed to make this but assumed if I put this in my yard in July my neighbors would think I was insane. I waited until Halloween, everyone loved it.
Many asked, what's next? Next? There was no next! It was mean to be just a one time thing.
And yet, it wasn’t.
Most viewers love the displays. I've had people stop and thank me. Many say they drive out of their way to see them. One person told me when they drive by it makes them laugh all the way home.
Some of the scenes you depict are vaguely comical while others seem political. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I've always been fascinated by Dali, Maurizio Cattelan and David Lynch. I don't sit down and try to think of what I'll do. They just seem to pop into my head at any given time. Some of my displays are a little political, okay not a little. So needless to say I've pissed off a few.
What emotions do you hope to elicit from your viewers?
Surprise, joy, disgust, any emotion is good, any response is welcome.
I had a display of a high voltage sign which depicted a man getting zapped by electric cables. Next to the sign I positioned a skeleton I painted black like he was charred from the electricity in the same pose as the sign.
One day an elderly woman stopped by to tell me how much she loves the displays. She then said she was discussing this particular display with her 12 year old granddaughter and they came to the conclusion it represented the black man, constantly being put down and oppressed by the white man. Just a little bit off the mark.
How often do you change up the displays?
I do tend to get bored quickly, so the displays usually change every 1-2 weeks. My hope was that people would enjoy them as much as I do.
So where did ‘the Ether Bunny’ come from?
One of my Facebook friends is a young woman studying to become an anesthesiologist. In one of her posts she referred to herself as The Ether Bunny. I couldn't stop laughing when I heard that. It needed to happen.
Have you ever had any negative encounters with people that don’t appreciate your work?
The local law enforcement drives by all the time, I think they like it. In the 2 1/2 years of my displays, not one has been vandalized or messed with. It seems to appeal with kids of all ages.
What about regular folk?
There are those who look at "my boys" and think these shouldn't be around for small children to see. In the end, they're just pieces of plastic. Some things are just funnier with skeletons. This little project of mine was never meant to happen. I'll continue as long as I get positive feedback and it doesn't become a job. I'm still having fun and the ideas keep coming.
The images don’t stop and end at skeletons, either. Manny also writes short stories that are, in part, inspired by his ethereal visions.
Tell me about your short stories.
One day while driving home from a weekend in NYC, a picture of an old man, sitting on some steps, holding his head in his hands and crying popped into my head. While driving 70 mph, listening to music and weaving in and out of traffic, this story wrote itself. Soon as I got home I wrote it down.
I couldn't wait to read it.
“I can tell a story, but as you will see, I am not a writer,” he says.
It was titled “New Eden”. I read it with bated breath, interested to see how the vision would translate on paper. It was a short Black Mirror sketch in feel: isolating, unnerving, morbid with just a hint of whimsy in his signature “skeletalicious” style. The final words could be something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel:
“No need for Sadness! Let us help you wipe the sorrow away!”
What do you have to say to the folks that think "these shouldn't be around for small children to see"?
Keep your young children away from the evening news. Now that shit keeps me awake at night.