Doctor Unmasked As Artist Provokes, Inspires On The Navajo Nation
If you travel across the rural Navajo Nation, you may find yourself rubbernecking out the window at giant street art. Murals created from photographic images of Navajo people appear on water towers, roadside stands, even abandoned houses.
Until recently, the artist wanted to remain anonymous.
Chip Thomas’s most recent work was installed on the back of a tattoo parlor in downtown Flagstaff, a border town to the Navajo Nation. So that’s where we met for the interview.
But we had to deal with a few interruptions in the alley — delivery trucks, a dog washing and avid fans.
A young woman fawned over Thomas and asked if he’ll put up a new piece soon.
Thomas is a bit like a rock star these days. The attention is new. Initially he wanted to be anonymous. He even went by a pseudonym Jetsonorama, because he didn’t always have the wall owner’s consent.
"The thing that’s beautiful about street art, it’s democratic in that way. And if people don’t like something, boom it’s gone," Thomas said.
It’s called getting “buffed” among street artists. And sometimes people have a stronger reaction.
Like against a piece he did for a grassroots group opposed to a development on the rim of the Grand Canyon, a place considered sacred by many tribes. For the piece Thomas used an image of a Navajo woman with the words: “Protect and preserve the holy spaces” written across her face.
But in a community where the unemployment rate approaches 60 percent, many prefer jobs to holy spaces.
"Two people from the community came to get in my face and tell me how much they did not appreciate me doing the first pasting," Thomas said. "And everything had been painted over. And I was psychologically devastated. The buffing hurt. But the words of condemnation hurt even more."
Thomas is still an outsider. He's African-American but has lived among the Navajo for 28 years. Thomas came to the reservation after graduating from medical school, when he learned the federal government would pay for your education if you served four years in the National Health Service Corps, which is today known as the Indian Health Service.
The 50-something doctor practices medicine in a tiny community between Grand Canyon and Monument Valley and now has a son who is half Navajo.
"I really hadn’t planned to stay that long," Thomas said. "But it’s an amazing thing being an intergenerational family practice physician. Women who I took care of in their pregnancies when I first came, I’m taking care of their daughters and their pregnancies now."
Thomas photographs many of his patients, and then puts his giant pieces together like a puzzle. He uses a printer that architects use to make blueprints. He brushes wheat paste with a push broom onto a wall, then uses his hands to press and smooth the image in place.
One patient’s forearm that’s tattooed with the words “Native Pride” now spans 30 feet across a downtown Flagstaff building.
When he first started large-scale public art six years ago, he pasted an image of a Navajo Code Talker on a roadside stand. His piece turned the humble roadside stand into a money-making tourist attraction. So he decided to do more and invite other artists to do similar pieces drawing tourists to other roadside stands.
"This project really is about, about trust, integrity, community and ultimately love," Thomas said.
His work is meant to inspire and to provoke, much like his heroes Diego Rivera and Keith Haring. His many years on the reservation have compelled the doctor to become not just an artist, but an activist with a message about social justice.
"I’m actually more than happy to be that big black megaphone amplifying those voices," Thomas said.
Amplifying both in public, as a now well-known artist, but also, sometimes when necessary, at night, anonymously, with a headlamp and some wheat paste.