The Earth is turning away from the sun once again as we earthbound creatures pull on our hats and jackets to meet the new chill in the air. Overhead, the sandhill cranes, Western meadowlarks and American wigeons are arriving, while the chipping sparrows, blue-winged teals and Brewer's blackbirds are just beginning their long journeys southward to Mexico, South America and beyond. At the South Valley's Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the composition of the changing Earth is explored in the meditated movements of dancers and mural work wheat-pasted over the crumbling remains of a dairy barn. Together, the movement and the imagery articulates a different journey. Golden Migration is a collaborative work by dancer and choreographer Lisa Nevada and public artist and photographer Chip Thomas, aka jetsonorama. Thomas, who hails from North Carolina, has been living and working as a physician on the Navajo Nation since 1987. Through documentary photography translated to large-scale murals on underutilized structures, Thomas creates what he calls “a love letter to the Navajo Nation.” In addition to collaborating with Nevada on work at Valle de Oro, Thomas will also be creating a mural on the facade of 516 Arts. Both pieces are part of 516's DECADE programming, celebrating the beloved Downtown institution's 10 year anniversary. In anticipation of his upcoming work in Albuquerque, Thomas took some time out to illuminate his body of work.
Alibi: How is healing—in your work as a physician, for example—and your art related?
Thomas: There are definite parallels between my work as a physician and my work as a public artist. When I was in my middle school years in North Carolina I had a unique opportunity to attend a Quaker school where one of the things that was emphasized was consistency and continuity between one's work [and] spiritual life. I'm realizing this balance through my public art project.
As a physician I work to help patients achieve wellness. I think of it as facilitating an environment of wellness within the individual; whereas my art, in reflecting back to the community some of the beauty they've shared with me, helps create a psychological environment of wellness. I see the two practices as being complimentary and though it sounds trite, I feel there's integration between the left and right hemispheres of my brain.
Do the landscapes of the Navajo Nation provide the ideal backdrop? Do they present any unique challenges?
I'm originally from North Carolina. My most vivid memories of seeing the horizon there were on trips to the ocean. Here, I see the horizon daily in 360 degrees and in this enormity of space, [I] appreciate my place as but a grain of sand in the universe. The Southwest seems to demand work that is big and bold in order to be noticed, certainly, but also as part of a dialogue with the landscape. More specifically, I enjoy placing work on roadside stands, especially those that have fallen into disuse. I've had examples of the art reactivating these spaces. The other thing that can't be overlooked here is the quality of light as it changes over the course of a day and from season to season. I love appreciating subtle differences over time.
What do you hope audiences gain from seeing your work—both audiences that live on the reservation, and those passing through?
I see my primary audience for this work as being people on the reservation. I'm aware that motorists from all over the world pass though this area as they venture to the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly; however, I'm hopeful people on the rez feel good about the work, themselves and their traditions in seeing [it]. Having said that, I've heard from non-Indigenous [motorists] passing through the area that the images help the rez seem more accessible. They get an idea of who is out here as they catch glimpses into the richness of the culture.
What are your favorite places in the Navajo Nation—not just for presenting your work—but just to be and see and experience?
I think my favorite spot to go sit and reflect on the meaning of life is up Highway 64 between the community of Cameron and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon along the Little Colorado River Gorge. As one climbs up to the South Rim you get an expansive view of the Painted Desert and lands beyond while looking at a deep, dark cleavage in the Earth. I find the Little Colorado River Gorge to be more immediate, personal and accessible than the Grand Canyon. Having said that however, I still ride my mountain bike regularly … there's a series of canyons a mile from my house where there are ruins and arches. This canyon system extends 40 miles north to Lake Powell and the Escalante region in Utah. I ride my bike speeding past chasing dogs asking myself how I'll ever leave this place and its beauty. [It's put] an intoxicating spell on me for 29 years and counting. I've yet to come up with an exit strategy.
Thomas, who hails from North Carolina, has been living and working as a physician on the Navajo Nation since 1987. Through documentary photography translated to large-scale murals on underutilized structures, Thomas creates what he calls “a love letter to the Navajo Nation.”
How has your identity or personal history impacted the way you create and/or what you address in your work?
In 1995 I was interviewed by the Utne Reader about my photography, my work on the rez and an amazing 12,000 [mile] bicycle expedition from the top of Africa to the bottom. In that interview I acknowledged how, as a person of color, I choose to have an inherent bias in my work in that I feel a need to counter the negative narrative that dominates much of the media. The struggle continues. As Bob Marley sang, "Who feels it, knows it."
Social and environmental justice issues are present in your work—what feels pressing now?
I went to Paris last December, three weeks after the bombings, to attend the World Climate Summit. In the early ‘70s when I attended the Quaker school in the mountains of North Carolina, we were learning then about the greenhouse effect … burning a hole in the ozone layer. That sensitivity to the planet and our impact on its resources for ourselves and future generations remains a pressing theme.
One good thing about Arizona is it affords me multiple opportunities to be socially and politically engaged. The issues I've been most passionate about include climate change, climate justice, police violence—especially against people of color— … criminal justice reform and gun violence. I've done some work addressing SB1070 (racial profiling of brown people), in Arizona. I'm a proponent of healthcare reform and universal access to care, but haven't generated any work around this yet.
How was creating Golden Migration different from previous work?
Well, I've done some interesting collaborations over the past couple years … however, I've never collaborated with dancers before. I think what's interesting about the images I chose to present as public art [is the] focus on individuals within the company as opposed to group shots. While I appreciate form and pattern, I'm more intrigued with getting close to individuals and finding gestures or movements that speak to the universality of the human experience. In that sense this project really isn't different from what I normally do.
How do you expect the dance component to deepen, change or express the idea differently?
It's the difference between 2-D and 3-D. My work sets a theme, raises a question, the dancers answer the question and in so doing, dramatize the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.
Visit 516 Arts (516 Central SW) to scope out mural work by Thomas; get an extra dose by making a reservation to see Lisa Nevada and Thomas' collaborative work, Golden Migration, in the form of a free dance tour at Valle de Oro on Saturday, Oct. 22, and Sunday, Oct. 23. The work will be performed at 3 and 5pm each day.