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Chip Thomas Murals Dot the Navajo Nation Landscape

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A doctor in northern Arizona is celebrating his adopted community with larger-than-life murals of its native people

By Diandra Markgraf

Chip Thomas working at Grey Mountain. Photo by Dawn Kish.
Chip Thomas working at Grey Mountain. Photo by Dawn Kish.

On windswept days, Chip Thomas hoists himself onto a ladder that stretches into the azure sky. His shoes and hands are stained, gummy with paste, but the street artist known as Jetsonorama still smiles. Now 52, the doctor, photographer and muralist has worked on the Navajo Nation since 1987.

Thomas’ monumental black-and-white images blanket city walls and roadside stands from Telluride to Flagstaff and the Navajo Reservation. They amplify every crease in a traditional Diné woman’s face; every eyelash of a younger-generation couple, each image imprinted with a universal message of environmental stewardship.

Shot, enlarged and adhered with acrylic paste, Thomas’ work highlights a population often called America’s most overlooked. They remind tourists traversing the highways of the American Southwest that they are there, and that they have a voice, Thomas says. “There are eyes from all over the world who are seeing this work. But my primary conversation and dialogue with doing this work is people on the reservation,” Thomas says of the area that is home to 180,000 people.

Thomas, whose real name is James Edward Thomas Jr., explains that while growing up in North Carolina, he pored over magazines like Jet, Ebony and Life, admiring photo essayists’ storytelling. In 1987, to “pay back” his government-funded education, Thomas returned to the Southwest to both treat and photograph. But during a 2009 sabbatical in Brazil, Thomas found photographs could function as street art, and brought that idea home. He continued through co-founding the Painted Desert Project in 2012 and, to date, has invited 25 renowned artists from around the world to add color and discussion to a part of the country that rarely has access to contemporary art projects.

Chip Thomas with his mural at Cow Springs. Photo by Dawn Kish.
Chip Thomas with his mural at Cow Springs. Photo by Dawn Kish.

As a doctor, Thomas treats chronic symptoms relating to past and present residents’ work in the area’s coal mines. As an artist, he addresses the same, detailing systemic issues including poverty on and off the reservation. Aware of his location between Monument Valley and both rims of the Grand Canyon, Thomas notes his work’s ability to increase the visibility of roadside stands where indigenous craftspeople vend their pieces, a visibility that offers them a sense of pride in their heritage.

The final comment from each paste speaks of beauty and impermanence.

“It’s important people not necessarily embrace but at least acknowledge this thing has its own life and life span, and there’s a period in which it is beautiful,” Thomas says. “But then it starts to age, and we are frequently repulsed by that because it’s not as appealing and engaging — but that’s what happens with people, too. Everyone says this is a youth-oriented culture, and we don’t appreciate elders. There is that life lesson in this practice in doing an ephemeral art practice.”

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