Chip Thomas


Written by Olivia Patt
23 Sunday 23rd October 2011

Chip Thomas is a physician on a native American reservation. He thought it would be cool if portrait paste-up street artist JR came to do some work at the Navajo Nation in Arizona where he lives. When he didn’t hear back, he decided to start making wheat pastes himself.

What made you decide to begin pasting the pictures around the reservation?

I spent January to March of 2009 in Brazil. Like the Terry Gilliam film Brazil the country represents an idyllic fantasy land for me. I'm aware of the wealth disparity, damming of the Amazon river and other social ills that plague the country, but still - I love it. The first time I visited I remember being blown away by everything from the creativity in the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, wave design patterns in the sidewalks to murals on the streets of Rio, especially around Lapa. That was in 2004. When I returned in 2009 I spent time in Rio, Salvador and Recife. During my last three weeks in Salvador I stayed in a flat above a street artist whose work I'd been seeing since I arrived in Brazil two months earlier. I spent time with him and the people visiting his studio. From that I got to go out with them as they did work around the city. Their love for what they were doing was infectious. About this same time they turned me onto Os Gemeos, Blu, JR and others.

When I returned home to the Navajo nation in northern Arizona, I wrote to JR asking if he'd be interested in doing a project similar to what he'd done in Rio and Kibera. While waiting for him to respond, I started wondering how he'd approach a project on the reservation. After three weeks of hearing nothing from him, I decided to start doing it myself.

How have the residents reacted to it?

It's been interesting. By and large the response from people on the reservation has been positive. Because I live and work in the community where I put the pictures up, I have to engage people at several levels as I pursue the project. I get their permission initially to take the photos and then I have to get their permission to use the photos in the wheat pasting project. As I'm putting the photos up, people from the community will stop by and ask why I'm doing it and what the photos mean. This is a community that's impoverished and doesn't have a tradition of street art. Yet people frequently will say they've seen the work around for the past two years and wondered who was putting it up. They frequently want to know if I charge anything to put the photos up and if I'll put something up for them either in or around their houses (I don't charge anything to put the photos up). I hear things from local people that the images make them feel proud and I've heard it said that the elders like seeing photos of sheep. I try to use imagery that's culturally sensitive and from the community.  This has been a little limiting for me in that people are suspicious of imagery from outside the culture and certain images commonly found within the culture, such as owls, snakes and coyotes, have negative connotations.

Whenever people on the reservation stop by to check out an installation, I introduce myself saying that I work on the rez, have been here for 24 years and then they relax a bit. The group of people who have been the most supportive to the project are the people who have roadside stands where they sell jewellery to tourists. They get more tourist traffic with pictures up. But yeah, 90% of what I hear is supportive and positive.

Do you have a photo that you are particularly proud of?

Yeah, several. It's funny, I've not gone through images of installations in a while and I found many more that I like than I remembered initially. I really like the image of grandma Mary Reese wrapped around an outhouse I did a few months ago as well as the project I just did to help local tribes protect sacred lands called "the people speak." My best installations are the ones that use the wall space well and play with the architecture of the building by going over windows and doors such that the doors are functional still.

What inspires your work?

I alluded to this a bit earlier but I find it interesting to place photographs of people from this community back into the community and to have a relationship with them as their physician. It's also fascinating to me to do this in an impoverished community where neither local residents nor tourists expect to see such work. So, the element of surprise is operative here.  Also the project seeks to build community and to instil a sense of pride in the unique cultural values of the Navajo people. I'm in dialog with the local community through this project. Inspired by the work of Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists, I like the idea of celebrating the every person, especially during a time of economic hardship.

I'm also in dialog with other people around the world doing street art. I follow the movement closely via various blogs and have long been a student/fan of the genre. In the 80s I used to travel to New York specifically to check the work of people like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf and to see the subway trains.

I like seeing what people are doing with the art form in other parts of the world and then incorporate some of those ideas on the reservation. Again, I think it's the last place people would expect to see some of the stuff I'm doing. I get a lot of inspiration from people like Magrela Mag, Sinha Sinha, Zito, Os Gemeos in Sao Paulo, Stinkfish from Guatemala, and my man Gaia, Over Under and Swoon here in the States. No doubt people south of the equator see the world differently. In Europe, I love seeing the work of Blu, Sten + Lex, JR, Word to Mother, the Bankster and C215.

What makes a good photo for you?

I come from the tradition of documentary/humanist photography. In the 24 years I've lived on the Navajo nation, I'd had a black and white darkroom and had an opportunity to spend week long photo workshops with both Eugene Richards and James Nachtwey. I love photographing people as they do their thing. It's been an especially rewarding experience to get to spend time with people on the reservation in their homes, as they herd sheep, attend ceremonies, give birth to their children or whatever and to be present as unobtrusively as possible with a camera. I don't do portraiture or landscape photography, yet in photographing people outdoors in northern Arizona, it's hard not to do landscape photography. For me, the images that are the most compelling are those that reveal an individual's truth while reminding us of our shared humanity. I like using photography as a tool to bring people closer together.  

Can you tell us about living on the Navajo reservation?

When I first came to the reservation I assumed there would be feeling of solidarity amongst peoples of colour. I wasn't aware of how focused people were on meeting the demands of daily living. Of the 170,000 people inhabiting an area of 27,000 square miles, maybe only half of the population had electricity and/or running water then. 10-15% still don't have electricity or running water now. So people didn't immediately identify with me. I'm an African-American man from the southern part of the U.S. Because the Navajo people are accustomed to having outsiders come, stay for short periods of time and leave, there is an expression that people don't take you into their confidence unless you've been here for two years. And even then, you're judged by your actions, not your words. My only child is my 14 year-old son who is half-Navajo. I think that through my work in the clinic and in the community, people have come to trust and accept me and for that, I give thanks. For 17 of my years here I had long dreadlocks. The reservation has always felt welcoming to me in ways I don't always feel when I'm off the reservation.

The elders here still speak only Navajo. Ceremonies are conducted that last anywhere from an evening to nine nights in length. It's ironic that the reservation is rich in coal, natural gas and uranium. The Navajo people should be among the most materially wealthy people living in the U.S. yet because of the way the contracts were written for these natural resources, they are among the poorest with an unemployment rate approximating 40%. Much of the wealth of the Navajo nation has found its way to England through the Peabody Coal Company.

Still, it's a beautiful thing to be with people who value family, laughter and tradition. Though materially poor, they're spiritually rich.

You mention that you are "indebted to the Navajo nation for the life lessons they have taught you" - can you tell us what you have learnt from living on the reservation?

In short, I've learned humility, forgiveness and the gift of creating beauty, if only transiently, for the purpose of healing. As a family physician who attempts to be community responsive, I've made mistakes over the time I've been here and remain accepted by the community. I've been forgiven and in so doing I learn from my mistakes. This keeps me humble.

In 1991 I had an opportunity to witness a traditional ceremony which involved a medicine man performing a sand painting. He and his assistant worked on a 5 x 7 foot painting in a one room, traditional dwelling with an earthen floor for most of the night. When I arrived at 7 am they were just finishing the piece. I was struck by the intricate detail and the many colours of sand used to depict beings holy to traditional Navajo people. The patient was a two year-old girl who had had a febrile seizure. We'd worked her up at the clinic and determined the seizures were due to a rapid rise in her body temperature. The family wanted more done and arranged this ceremony.

The medicine man sang a prayer then had the two year-old girl strip down to her diaper. She was then placed in the middle of this elaborate painting. Being in the middle of brightly coloured sand, she began playing with it destroying the painting. The medicine man continued singing. After ten minutes, he removed the girl from the painting and began collecting the sand into different coloured piles. The ceremony was over. Having little experience with the healing practice found in Buddhism and indigenous cultures of the Americas to create elaborate sand painting for the purpose of healing through destroying them, I was baffled by this.

I also had little experience with conceptual art at this time either. However, this is the energy that's come to inform my wheat pasting project - to project beauty and hopefully a healing energy through an ephemeral act of art. Meanwhile, the patient from 1991 is now a healthy 22 year-old female whom I hear about from time to time. She remains seizure free.

See more of Chip's work at

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