Driving on Highway 89 across the Navajo Nation, you're likely to see the giant art installations of Chip Thomas painted on abandoned water tanks and trading posts. Thomas, a physician, has lived and worked on the Reservation for more than 30 years. Under his street artist name, Jetsonorama, he creates large scale murals that tell stories of Indigenous people. In KNAU's latest Canyon Commentary, writer Scott Thybony shares the experience of introducing his son to Thomas' work on a recent road trip; in particular, to a m ural called 'The Green Room.'
With a storm moving in we need to leave right away. My son is visiting from San Francisco, and I want to show him our local version of street art. Erik and I head north on Highway 89 as the wind shreds the clouds above and sends tumbleweeds flying across the road. We pull into an abandoned trading post and duck through a hole in the fence.
An immense black-and-white photograph of sheep covers the walls of a roofless shed in front of us. Seen through the empty doorway the interior glows green. We enter it and step into a photograph of a cornfield washed with an acid green tint. Among the cornstalks, a pair of hands holds up a sheet to conceal the person behind it. A note posted inside calls the installation “a place of mediation + contemplation.” And the green color, it explains, references the grim legacy of uranium mining in the region. The artist, going by the name of jetsonorama, has turned a derelict building into the Green Room.
His friends know him as Chip Thomas, a doctor who practices medicine at Inscription House, a small community south of Navajo Mountain. Ten years ago, after spending time with a group of street artists in Brazil, he began placing black-and-white images along reservation roadsides. His pastings reflect back to the Navajo people the beauty they have shared with him over the years.
Chip left his home in North Carolina in 1987 to live among them. Having received financial support for medical school, he agreed to practice in an underserved community in return. The African-American doctor headed west and entered a world wildly different than the one he had known, a high desert full of great beauty and hardship. When his four-year commitment ended he stayed, and over the years he has become part of the community his images honor.
His initial foray into public art began by posting black-and-white prints in coffee houses, store windows, and laundromats in Flagstaff. They often had an element of surprise to them. One photo, I remember, showed a couple at their wedding waltzing on a cliff edge above Monument Valley, and in another an old Navajo sheep herder sat next to a pot-bellied stove sipping coffee from a Tweety Bird cup. He now creates art installations.
To begin a project, jetsonorama locates the right setting, maybe the ruins of a trading post or an empty bead stand. Then he chooses a photograph to fit. After having it blown up larger than life, he uses a special compound and long-handle roller to paste the image to the wall, leaving it for those passing by to make of it what they will. The photos reflect familiar aspects of life on the rez such as a herd of sheep, a pair of hands making frybread, or the open face of a child. Exposed to the elements, they weather away over time much like the ephemeral nature of a Navajo sand painting scattered at the end of a ceremony. Driving past the Red Lake Trading Post, I’ve watched the two-story photo of a Code Talker, draped in a Navajo blanket, slowly disappear over time the way a corn plant turns pale and brittle.
The big city has drawn my son in a different direction from the one my life has taken me. But here behind an old trading post, in the high desert grasslands, with a storm moving in, they converge for a moment.