By Joy Martin
Dinosaur footprints, wild horses and resourceful puppies animate the mysterious desert covering Arizona's northeast corner. Named "El Desierto Pintado" by Coronado in 1540, this arc of desert is part of the Navajo Nation's slice of American pie. It's also become one of the hottest places to find cool street art, thanks to a man named Chip Thomas.
Both mind-numbing and ponderous in its vastness, the Navajo Nation is entirely its own thing, a space that you can't speed through fast enough but could equally spend a lifetime discovering. When Thomas showed up here in 1987, he had no idea he'd stick around for 31 years. Why would an African-American doctor with a penchant for hip-hop on vinyl set down roots in one of America's poorest, richest regions? That answer is as complex as Thomas himself and the land he's come to call home.
The story begins in 1969, the summer of love. Thomas was a gangly preteen when his parents dropped him off at a Quaker-run summer camp in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, the tallest hills east of the Mississippi. As it usually goes at summer camp, Thomas had the time of his life.
"The Quakers are all about consistency in one's life between spiritual practice, work and politics," says Thomas. "They attempt to identify and acknowledge the light that's in each of us. They're conscientious objectors in times of war and take a vow of simplicity, choosing to live simply so others may simply live. They're all about building community."
His father, a devoted yoga practitioner, was impressed by the welcoming warmth extended to his son. With North Carolina public schools recently desegregated in 1968 and the country tangled in antiwar protests and the Civil Rights movement, he was keen to find a safe place for Thomas to attend school.
A junior high boarding school affiliated with the summer camp was an option, which meant Thomas wouldn't have to bus across town for the all-white school. Rather, he'd be in a healthy setting nestled in the pines encouraged by attentive teachers and plenty of opportunities for creative expression.
The school of 24 students was downright cosmopolitan for Appalachia. Thomas was one of three African-Americans, a shock for an only-child who grew up in an all-black neighborhood. The alternative learning environment fit Thomas perfectly, even exposing him to the art of photography, a hobby that would eventually change the landscape of a place he'd yet to lay eyes on.
He went on to attend an Episcopalian high school, then Wake Forest University, and, following in his father's footsteps, Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1979. After medical school, he spent 18-months in West Virginia for his residency before transferring to inner-city Toledo, Ohio.
His reprieve during those long semesters was New York City, where he found a vivacious group of emcees and artists dabbling in a new creative form called street art. Through these electrifying souls, Thomas became enamored with the Zulu Nation, and, since he couldn't join the South African tribe, soaked in the revolution dripping through the streets of New York.
"There was no YouTube in the ’80s, so it was hard to learn more info about this scene," he says. "I would go to New York City just hoping to see break dancing."
The US government paid for Thomas' med school expenses through the National Health Service Corps program. In return, Thomas would practice medicine in an underserved community for at least four years. At that time, a friend from med school was working on the Navajo reservation and suggested Thomas would enjoy the bizarre beauty of the American Southwest.
So the 31-year-old left the urban sprawl and drove west into the bare arms of pastel ridgelines, baby rocks and arroyos. He moved to Inscription House, a town of just over a thousand people that sits between Page and Kayenta, on the largest Indian reservation in the United States. With 180,000 people spread out over 27,500 square miles, it's an alien world to outsiders.
According to their creation story, the Navajo, or Diné ("people" in the Navajo language), believe they must remain on land that sits between four mountains: the San Francisco Peaks to the west, Mount Taylor to the south, Blanca Peak to the east and Mount Hesperus to the north. In the Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868, the U.S. government granted this territory the Diné's sovereign domain.
The treaty is 150 years old this year and still doesn't include mineral rights to natural resources found on the Navajo Nation. With an abundance of coal, oil, natural gas, uranium and water aquifers, the Navajo people should be amongst the richest in America. Instead, 43 percent live below the poverty level, and Thomas says 20 percent of his patients do not have running water or electricity.
On top of not profiting from these resources, the Navajo suffer from toxic waste exposure emanating from over 500 abandoned uranium sites. The toxins seep into the groundwater, affecting livestock and other animals roaming the region, and attributing to the prevalence of liver, lung, bone and breast cancers found in Thomas' patients.
Health problems rove from these environmental cancers to the full spectrum of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, no thanks to a lack of access to fresh produce and organic products in this food desert. Thomas points out that the former-agrarian Diné are now the country's greatest consumers of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As well, some of the highest teen pregnancy and teen suicide rates in the country are found on the rez, while domestic violence, recidivism, alcoholism and drug addiction, including a methamphetamine epidemic, run rampant. All to say, Thomas has his plate full as the only permanent physician at the Indian Health Service's clinic.
By 1992, he'd paid off his debt to the government, took a sabbatical to bike from the northernmost point in Africa to the southern tip and then returned to the desert. This time, he balanced work with time spent in his darkroom, developing film from African adventures and of everyday life on the rez. He wasn't sure how, but Thomas had strong premonitions that his photography would grow "bigger" than mere hobby.
Fast forward to 2009. Thomas was on sabbatical in Brazil, hanging out with a colorful group of people not unlike the NYC break dancers and artists of the ’80s. There, on the streets of Rio, Thomas saw something that would change his life forever: a black-and-white photograph blown up to fit the side of a concrete building by none other than world-renowned street artist, JR.
JR's larger-than-life, properly scaled images were the "missing link" for how Thomas would make his photography "bigger." He left the steamy Amazonian climate and, once again, returned to the desert. Suddenly, run-down buildings didn't look hopeless but whispered promise to the photographer. He invited JR to do a project on the res, but Thomas got impatient waiting for the young artist.
"I had ample time to think, gee, where would JR put his pieces? How would he approach the community and engage them? I waited three weeks and then decided, fuck it. I'm going for it."
He enlarged a photo he'd taken of Navajo Code Talkers into two-by-two sections at a print shop and then cut them out on his kitchen floor. He boiled up a biodegradable wheat-paste mixture using water, sugar and Bluebird flour (favored by Navajo grandmas, says Thomas).
"It's Marxist glue, an egalitarian kind of material that pretty much anyone can make, if you can afford a bag of flour and sugar," says Thomas.
One evening, Thomas drove out under the cover of darkness to a shabby jewelry stand on the side of the highway. Using a push broom, he pasted the photo strips onto the wall, smoothing the image in place with his hands. Only the moon and stars saw the first installment of what would become the Painted Desert Project.
A few days later, Thomas passed by the jewelry stand, where the owners were fixing up the structure. He casually inquired, and the owners said that drivers were stopping to take photos of a mural someone put up. Thomas smiled, claiming he was the muralist. They asked him if he'd do one on the other wall so drivers coming from the opposite direction would also see.
It hit Thomas that visual storytelling was meeting a community need. Practically, the art had potential to boost tourism on the reservation and help supplement incomes for families with roadside stands. For Thomas, the murals would reflect back to the community the beauty they'd shown him over the years.
"There's not a tradition or history of muralism here," says Thomas. "It's not a luxury people have. (Street art) serves as an equalizer. It's a flip of the power dynamic having my work in the community, interacting with people from my passion rather than my work. It takes me out of my position of authority and puts me on defense. It's contributing to environmental wellness, just as I'm attempting to do in my medical practice."
He's not fluent in the Diné language so can only assume the natives call him "Tall Skinny Old Black Man Wallpapering Outdoors." But, like most street artists, Thomas started going by his own pseudonym: Jetsonorama, which is a nod to his first dog, Jetson, named after his favorite cartoon show. As well, J-E-T are the initials for James Edward Thomas, his full name, while -orama was a Google suggestion.
In 2012, Jetsonorama started inviting street artists from around the globe to join him in his self-funded project. To prep them for the experience, he sends information about and by the Navajo, including their story of creation. Designed like an artist-in-residence program, the project encourages artists to come with a clean slate and let the environment and people speak to what they'll create.
Upon arrival, artists connect with a community on the rez, where they'll stay for 10 days to a few weeks, mixing and mingling with the locals on horseback rides, at sweat lodges, in meetings with tribal elders and over fry bread. This relationship-building helps remove any perception of cultural imperialism and also illuminates cultural taboos or superstitions that the artists might not consider.
Then community members join the artists in placing murals on water tanks, trading posts, abandoned buildings or any sort of dilapidated edifice between Gray Mountain and Bitter Springs on Highway 89 or Red Lake and Kayenta on Highway 160. Subject matter features aspects of Navajo life, mystical images and social issues that plague the tribe. Atomic sheep and radioactive dogs are two common characters, for example.
While the Navajo generally appreciate the murals, there is the occasional backlash. Jetsonorama once put up an image to confront the development of the Scottsdale-owned Confluence Resort. Locals were outraged that he would speak against a job opportunity in a community where nearly half of the people are unemployed. Jetsonorama was devastated he'd offended his neighbors and painted over the project immediately.
This impermanence is part of the project's democratic nature. Unlike sculptures or monstrous architectural works, murals can easily be "buffed," as it's called in the street-art industry. Most of the time, Jetsonorama lets the elements peel away images, and other times, the Bloods and Crips take care of it for him.
While the gang members might not be open to his tutelage, Jetsonorama does work hard to engage the community in the dialogue about public art. Considering the Navajo Nation is a young community, with one-third of the people under the age of 18, he hopes the youth will keep showing an interest in the rebellious art form.
With the Painted Desert abloom with public art and a much-needed hopeful energy, it's easy to forget that 60-year-old Jetsonorama has a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job donning a doctor's coat. Time to mentor budding artists, much less write grants or raise funds, washes away faster than a flash flood.
"The important thing to remember is that it's not a sprint; it's a marathon," says Thomas. "We are moving the never-ending fight for social and environmental justice forward. In that fight, you've got to take care of yourself. Martin Luther King said, 'Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'"
The Painted Desert Project, it seems, has turned a seemingly stark landscape into the ultimate canvas, an outdoors gallery bringing the faces behind the mesas to the edge of the highway so that anyone can get a glimpse into life on the rez. This includes the 3 million visitors zooming through the desert each year.
Interested in collaborating with Jetsonorama? For more information, or a couch to surf next time you're headed to the Grand Canyon, find Thomas at Jetsonorama.net. He'll be waiting with hip-hop on vinyl and too many stories for one magazine article.