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Interview with Chip Thomas

Chip Thomas has lived on the Navajo Nations Reservation for over 25 years working as a family-care physician. Chip is also an artist and activist who, under the street artist name Jetsonorama, pastes his blown-up black-and-white photos depicting Navajo community members on structures visible from the road in a public art project he has described as a “love letter to the Navajo Nation”. He is also creator of The Painted Desert Project, a project which invites street artists from around the world to put up their art on the reservation, creating connection and sharing visual language. 

Chip Thomas. August 2013. Photo by Tom Fowlks  

Chip Thomas. August 2013. Photo by Tom Fowlks

" The question I’m asked most frequently is how a black doctor in his 50s working on the Navajo reservation started doing street art.  In retrospect, it was only natural for this evolution to occur. I started working in a small community between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley called Inscription House in 1987.  I’d always been drawn to photography and built a darkroom shortly after my arrival on the Navajo Nation.  My passion photographically is shooting black and white in a documentary style inspired by people like Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards, Joseph Koudelka and others.  By going out and spending time with people in their homes and family camps, I have come to know them as friends.  In return these home visits enhance my doctor/patient relationships helping me be a more empathetic health care practitioner.I’ve always been drawn to street art, graffiti and old school hip-hop. I was attracted to the energy of the culture in the 80s and though I was miles away from the epicenter, I thought of myself as a charter member of the Zulu Nation. I would travel to New York City to see graffiti on trains, on buildings and in galleries. I did some tagging in the 80s before coming to the Navajo Nation and participated with a major billboard “correction” on the reservation shortly after my arrival attempting to make a connection between diet + health in a community where the incidence of diabetes is approximately 1/4. My early interventions on the street were largely text based writing saying things like “Thank you Dr. King.  I too am a dreamer” or “Smash Apartheid.” In 2009 I took a 3-month sabbatical to Brasil which coincided with a difficult period in my life.  Though I wasn’t looking for an epiphany, I was fortunate to stumble upon a passionate group of artists working in the public sphere on the street who befriended me.  It was during this time that I appreciated how photography could be a street art form.  Inspired by Diego Rivera and Keith Haring, I’d become disinterested in showing my photographs in galleries isolated from the people I was photographing and wanted to pursue a more immediate relationship with my community hopefully reflecting back to them the beauty they’ve shared with me.  I started pasting in 2009 using the medium to amplify voices advocating for change within the community and celebrating the culture.  The highlight of my work thus far was being invited to join the activist printmaking collective Justseeds this fall.      In beauty it is finished." -Chip Thomas

Installation done June 2014 in Hotchkiss, CO (population 923) Photo by Nelly Higginbotham  

Installation done June 2014 in Hotchkiss, CO (population 923)
Photo by Nelly Higginbotham