Anne Kelly (08:34):
When we first started talking, I was saying there was a connection between profession as a physician and your in interest in being a public artist. And it seems like overall, just you as a person, you’re interested in uplifting people
Chip Thomas (08:47):
To try to tie it all together. And hopefully not sounding too cliche I say this a lot. And I it’s, I feel it’s true in my work in my day to day work as physician, when I’m encount encountering individuals and or families, I’m listening to stories, I’m getting histories from people and using that information to try to improve the quality of their life, such that I’m attempting to create an environment of wellness within the individual, plus a very deliberate act on my part. As I said, to reflect back to the community, the beauty that they’ve shared with me and in so doing, I’m attempting to create an environment of wellness within the community. So yeah, I, I do see the, uh, two practices as this being complimentary,
Anne Kelly (09:37):
As I understand it, you’ve started a project called the painted desert project where you’ve been inviting other artists from around the world, is that right to make murals
Chip Thomas (09:47):
Around the world and around the, uh, reservation thing that happened really is in 2009, I had just gone through a very difficult period, the death of my dad, the loss of the family home, which we’d been in for 50 years. And I got a divorce. This all happened between 2006, 2007, every five years, every five to six years since I’ve been working here on the Navajo nation, I try to get away for a little bit just to, um, go to a different part of the world. You know, I think in order to think outside the box, it helps to get out of the box. So in 2009, I went to Brazil for three months. And for the last part of that trip for the last three weeks, I fell in with a community of street artists. And that was amazing because since I became aware of street art and people painting on trains and Keith Haring, and I’d go to new city, you know, looking for painted trains, looking for painted walls.
Chip Thomas (10:40):
So when I was in Brazil in 2009, it was really like a mini residency where I had an opportunity to learn. There were street artists in Brazil from all over the world from, uh, Italy, from France, Germany, from Brazil, from the states here. I was bit of a stand up. I was 52 at the time cause we were all younger, younger people, but I think they appreciated my enthusiasm for this art form. And it’s an interesting thing as well, because a lot of times when I take these trips away from work sabbaticals, I’m hoping that I will get an epiphany. You know, I’m hoping I’ll figure I’ll get some sense of why I’m here on this earth, what my, uh, purpose is. But in 2009, I having come through this difficult time in my life, I just really wanted to chill. And it was awesome because Brazil gave me this amazing gift of this art form that I really love.
Chip Thomas (11:38):
So just before I left Brazil, an artist who is a part of this group of folks in El Salvador, Bahe in Brazil, you know, grabbed my arms and told me to keep this energy going. I’d been giving marching orders utter. I was on a mission. You know, the folks in Brazil showed me photos of the installation JR, Did in Rio of the women’s eyes, pasted on the outside of a Favela, looking down onto the wealthy beaches. Uh, that was the real game changer for me, seeing how a photograph could be blown up and applied to a large wall as a form of street art. So when I came back to the states in March of 2009, I Googled a recipe for making wheat paste and went to, uh Kinko’s at the time and asked them to blow up a photograph. And I started doing my project 2011, 2012.
Chip Thomas (12:33):
There was a project called the boneyard project at the air and space museum or the air museum outside of Tucson. There was a fundraiser. They invited street artists from all over the world to come and paint these old world war II bomber airplanes. So there was that street art project. There was one in New York called the underbelly project where Jordan Sealer and one other artist invited artists from all over the world, again, over the course of a year to paint work in an abandoned subway station in the city. So I was inspired by those art projects. There was living walls in Atlanta. There was open walls in Baltimore where street artists were, were coming together to make work. So I thought it would be cool to invite artists, you know, to come spend time with me here on the Navajo nation, meet some people and, um, have a cultural exchange with artists, the medium. And it’s awesome because as you know, over the years, it’s actually grown into a bit of a community service project where we’ve repaired. People’s roadside stands. We have built a boot stand for one of my neighbors here who, um, sells out of flea market every Saturday. Yeah. It’s been a nice coming together. Uh, people from all over the world and all over of the state of Arizona,
Anne Kelly (13:57):
I gotta say, that’s just kind of amazing and inspiring. I had a guest on a past episode Fernando, who is a street artist curator in Porto Portugal. So people, if you were to go there, he would prepare a wall for you. If it was possible,
Chip Thomas (14:15):
That’s a pretty sweet deal. I do a similar thing here. I, I would like to think I do, you know, working with wall owners, especially artists who come from out of country or even artists who come from different parts of the states, giving them a sense of how the cosmology, the world view on the Navajo nation differs from where these artists are coming from. So I recommend reading materials and films, they should check out, and then it’s important for them to interact with people once they, uh, get here. But I mean, I, I do think of myself as a street art curator as well. A nice thing about inviting artists from all over the world is when I travel to different places, I now have connections who can hopefully help me obtain walls. One of the other differences that I really appreciate too, between street art and the gallery scene, and, you know, I don’t come from an art background. So I really can’t speak authoritatively about the, uh, gallery scene, but there just seems to be more of a sense of co-operation and co collaboration within the, uh, street art community.
Anne Kelly (15:26):
I would, I would love more people to feel more comfortable coming into museums, but there’s definitely this value in just you’re walking down the street and you see this thing and it just hits you. And even if you don’t think you’re into art, you see it and you feel it and you have this experience with it. Yeah. I just think that’s beautiful. Well,
Chip Thomas (15:44):
And there’s a lot to be said for experience, uh, finding something that you weren’t anticipating you, lot of times when people go to galleries, they’re going specifically for the purpose of seeing art. It’s another thing to be in your head in your space, walking down a street, or driving down a highway and to, you know, see something that momentarily transforms you or helps you transcend what you might be experiencing in that moment. So the unexpected element of surprise is a component of, of street art.
Anne Kelly (16:20):
I love that. And that you’ve brought that to the place that you have lived for 30 years. And I also love the story of how you, you ended up moving there originally, which I understand, it was, right out of school, you were invited to move there. Were they gonna reduce your student loans? Because it was an area that people weren’t necessarily moving to.
Chip Thomas (16:44):
Yeah. Yeah. You, you got the gist of it out of the, uh, great society of Kennedy and Johnson from the sixties. There came Vista volunteer and service to America for teachers, there was the peace Corps. So there was an emphasis on programs that attempted to engage people from different communities, different cultures at kind of a grassroots level. So for healthcare, for medicine and dentistry, the us government came up with a program health service score where the government would pay for the student’s education for a minimum of two years, maximum of four years, the number of years that you received support or scholarship, then you owed that amount of time working in a health shortage area. I had a four year obligation thought I would be here for two years and yeah, here we are. 34 years later, Eugene Richards, he’s a, uh, member of a Magnum photo agency.
Chip Thomas (17:44):
He was shooting for life magazine in the late eighties, early nineties. And he did some amazing work. One of the photo essays that he did was cocaine, true cocaine blue, where he looked at the impact of the cocaine epidemic specifically crack, I think in two communities in New York and one in Philadelphia, vice versa. He taught for a week out of the summer in ’92. And I had an opportunity to spend a week with him, which for me, was a dream come true because he’s a masterful storyteller visually. And he breaks a lot of rules, just a really compassionate person. And he took the time to look through my portfolio. At the of time, he gave me some useful feedback, but one of his observations was now, if I chose to stay in this community, he really felt that I would be able to tell some amazing stories. Neither one of us anticipated that I would go big in telling those stories. I mean, I think he was absolutely right because you know, the basis of the relationship and storytelling is really built around trust. And I I’ve, I’ve been here long enough to gain some element of trust.
Anne Kelly (18:55):
True. And all of the photo projects I’ve seen over the years that have that element, you can see that relationship between the photographer and the subject. Most of the people you’re photographing you, you know, them, you know, their entire families, you know, the history, you’re not just someone showing up with a camera. So yeah, you said, you thought you were gonna leave after what two, four years was the commitment and you just love it, right?
Chip Thomas (19:22):
Yeah. That’s a fair statement. I won’t lie this past year has been most challenging. You know, during the pandemic, the Navajo nation took a, took a pretty hard hit, but, uh, no, by and large, I mean, I, I definitely love this work and love this community.
Anne Kelly (19:41):
You’re also an activist. So some of the imagery you’ve depicted post pandemic has had to do with land disputes and uranium and mining and radiation. It’s not all positive things that they’re happening, but it’s calling attention to what is happening.
Chip Thomas (19:58):
So with regard to the uranium mining, so the Navajo nation is a fascinating place in that there’s five natural resources here that are four of them have been exploited for energy. And the fifth is water that’s found in, in aquifers, which may seem like and nice Moran in that we’re in the, a high elevation desert, but there’s, there’s actually an abundance of water in aquifers here, but there’s also coal oil, natural gas and uranium, which was discovered in the 1940s. I’m pretty sure, but it really wasn’t exploited fully until that we mind uranium largely from native land here in the Southwest and into the northern plains states to build up yeah, the nuclear arsenal during the cold war. So what most people in the country don’t realize is that the majority of the uranium for the cold war came from this region and the regulations from were mining, the uranium and the goal weren’t as rigid as they are now. So the miner’s weren’t really given any protection and as a consequence, many of those people now have respiratory illnesses and, or various cancers. So yeah, I see a subset, a cohort of patients who worked in the uranium mines, some mills here in the four corners area during, from basically from 1945 to 1984, there was a 40 year period.
Anne Kelly (21:37):
And you’ve created some pieces there that tell that
Chip Thomas (21:40):
Story. Yeah. Yeah. You might ask, well, why is it important to talk about this now? Well, the reason is there’s over 500 abandoned uranium mind sites that are contaminating water sources. They’re contaminating the, uh, land where crops are being grown. Animals are impacted and humans are also, so the Navajo nation has a department, environmental protection, the EPA and the national EPA have gotten together. And the national EPA made money available to the nation to clean up 1/10th of the abandoned mind sites here around the Navajo nation. But I was making art that talked about this, but hop something would be done to remediate the land. And, um, yeah, to clean up these mind sites, the issue is ongoing one of the problems now with consideration of nuclear energy, as an alternative to burning fossil fuels in light of the environment, changing the climate changing. And then
Anne Kelly (22:48):
There is always this conversation in art about it being archival that relates to different types of prints on paper. As I understand it, you’ve transitioned from wheat paste to, is it gel mediums or
Chip Thomas (23:05):
So having worked in my home dark room for 22 years and have having self taught the zone system of Ansel Adams, I really appreciate crisp prints. Even if they’re coming off a low end digital printer or a toner base printer wheat paste. What I was finding using wheat flour anyway, was that there was a yellow film that was being applied to the image so that the tonal quality wasn’t as strong, the, the images weren’t as contrasty as I would like them. I mean, just over the years and talking with other street art, artists who do pay stubs, I learned that they were using acrylic gel medium as is JR, but in truth, he uses a combination of acrylic gel, medium and wallpaper paste. But the nice thing about the acrylic gel medium is that it really pops the, uh, black and white tones.
Chip Thomas (24:03):
And yes, it gives the, um, prints, a bit of protection from the, from the weather and also from the sun. I also seal the pieces using a water based poly urethane sealant, but, you know, it’s funny because I having moved to street art, I really have embraced the, the ethos of letting go and the ephemerality of my work. I mean, it’s a reflection of the life experience itself, you know, to give it all you have and the opportunity that you have, and then just letting it go. So it’s been liberating, actually making the move from making gel and silver prints to working outside. However, I do miss working in the dark room. I, I will put that out there.
Anne Kelly (24:56):
There’s a, there’s a magic to the dark room, but I also talked to another artist recently who started working in NFT’s and he was talking about, he just wanted them on the blockchain for that same reason, the longevity of it.
Chip Thomas (25:11):
I mean, I have to say, I know very little about NFT’s, but as you were talking about archival work that came to mind,
Anne Kelly (25:18):
As I understood it, the transition from the, the, the gel medium part of that was that it would last a little longer than the wheat paste.
Chip Thomas (25:27):
Yeah, definitely. One of the reasons I switch to, uh, gel medium is because the pieces last two to three times longer, longer than using wheat paste or wallpaper glue, having set that though, it’s funny because it really depends on the size of the piece. The standard plotter can print anywhere from 36 to 44 inches wide. So what I found if I just put up a single panel, a single sheet of paper at maybe seven to eight feet tall using wheat paste, that actually might last a long time, when I say long time, I mean, 10 years, but the key step of the, I mean the paper starts breaking down. Hey, some of my original wheat past images from nine years ago are still running. They aren’t strong, they aren’t bold images. Um, it’s not like I put, they don’t look like I put them up yesterday, but they are still up and running
Anne Kelly (26:29):
Well. And how about the actual act of applying it?
Chip Thomas (26:32):
The only difference is when I’m working with gel medium, I wear vinyl gloves. And when I work in wheat paste, I just use my bare hands.
Anne Kelly (26:42):
Yeah. So it just, it just feels different.
Chip Thomas (26:44):
It feels smells and tastes differently. Yeah. Um, the beautiful thing about wheat paste is, you know, depending on where I was or where I was working to get a piece up, I would have anything from dogs to flies to horses come and, you know, stick their nose in the bucket of wheat paste. It’s an organic products, flour, water, and sugar who doesn’t love, love that.
Anne Kelly (27:12):
Say for example, printing in the dark room where you you’re handling the paper and there’s the smell and there’s that sensory aspect to it. And maybe it’s almost more different to the artist than it is the actual patron of, of the thing. You
Chip Thomas (27:28):
Know, there’s an expression in Thailand, same, same, but, but different
Anne Kelly (27:33):
One day the boss and I decided we didn’t wanna have this mobile wall in the middle of the gallery. And we pushed it outside over by the dumpster. And we arranged for my friend Debra
Chip Thomas (27:44):
By a dumpster and, and it wasn’t just any wall. It was a good size wall. It was like, what? Seven feet tall, maybe eight feet tall.
Anne Kelly (27:52):
Oh yeah. It was like an L it was like an L frame type of thing. Like it was amazing. Or, and Deborah, the next day it was like, I’ll pick it up. And so the next day I come into work, one of your wheat past pieces on it. And I was like, ah, I like the wall. Like I wanted to keep the wall at that point. And so I called texted Deborah and said, well, the wall’s still here, but it, it has, it’s a little different now, do you still want it? And she said, now, now I want it even more than ever. So we’re like, great. And so then I use technology, I get on Google and I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t even remember what I did. This was about 10 years ago. And I was like, who’s art is this? And then I found your blog. Oh, I think it was maybe the next day. I think I found your blog. And you had said, you assumed it got sent to the dump that you’d put the piece up and oh, it went to the dump. And then I got in touch and said, actually, it’s not at the dump. It’s now on canyon road. And for those who don’t know, that’s the historic arts district in Santa Fe. And so Deborah Kept it outside of her gallery until the historic society made her get rid of it. I
Chip Thomas (29:03):
wasn’t aware of that, that part of the story. Okay.
Anne Kelly (29:07):
It would still be there if it wasn’t for that
Chip Thomas (29:09):
Yeah. No, that’s, that’s an awesome story. Thank you for filling in the gaps, but yeah, I mean, so there, there I was in Santa Fe when I put some friends trying to find vacant walls and you all literally had a vacant wall, you were throwing away and it was such a perfect wall so yeah, I, I definitely hit it.
Anne Kelly (29:29):
I’m glad you found it. So, so there’s a few questions I like to ask all of the guests on the show. And one of my favorite is other artists that you might suggest other people look at.
Chip Thomas (29:43):
There’s a fascinating artist from Portugal, whose name is Vhils, V.H.I.L.S street artist who does pretty amazing work. He was chiseling faces out of plaster on the exterior of buildings, but he’s recently using like the micro dynamite caps to, um, create his thesis of work here in Arizona. There’s an amazing artists, L Mac spent a lot of time in Phoenix though. I think he’s living in LA now kind of a throwback, a woman who passed away, I think just before she turned 30, her name was Margaret Kill Galen. She’s the partner of Barry McGee. They’re both, um, artists who came out of San Francisco out of the mission school period in the mid nineties. I recommend them just in terms of the aesthetic and the politics. People don’t know the work of Dread Scott. I recommend him. African-American artists based out of Chicago. There’s a bunch of artists actually in Chicago.
Anne Kelly (30:50):
Music is another thing I’m interested in is, is music important to you?
Chip Thomas (30:56):
Yeah, music is my life. I’m from North Carolina originally. And North Carolina is the home of some amazing jazz artists like Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw in terms of contemporary artists, I I’ve been listening to a lot of soul British jazz green tea peng is someone I’ve recently fallen in love with she’s a young British artist, uh Sons of Kemet, also out of London. I’m a huge fan of Doug Carn is a jazz musician out of California from the seventies, eighties, nineties. There’s one artist. I just have to mention who is from Brazil. His name is Milton Nascimento, Milton, Milton Nascimento, and I started listening to Milton when I was in high school, back in the seventies. And, um, I continued to listen to him and it’s a fascinating thing because even though I don’t speak Portuguese though, I was studying it back in 2009 Milton’s lyricism and his angelic voice have just gotten me through some really difficult times, shout out to Milton and all the artists of the Tropicalia movement.
Anne Kelly (32:09):
Do you collect anything?
Chip Thomas (32:10):
Yeah, about the time I started doing street art, I was following various street art blogs. I realized that various street artists also have a studio practice and have print available. So a lot of the art have been collecting is by street artists. But that isn’t always true. There’s a piece here by Judith Supine, S.U.P.I.N.E There’s a piece by Doze Green. I definitely recommend checking do out. Brian Barneclo, Stink Fish. Definitely check out Stink Fish.
Anne Kelly (32:44):
Where, where, where is he? Columbia. I love his name.
Chip Thomas (32:46):
Yeah, I’m I’m collecting work by all these people. I just mentioned Gaia, who’s a street artists who also has the studio practice in terms of people who I follow there’s Nani Chicon who actually a muralist out of Albuquerque Lynette Haozous comes from a famous art family, who I think is, I think her family is based in New Mexico, but they may be out of Arizona. She’s part Apache. There’s a woman based in Brooklyn. Who’s first name is Tayyana. I think her last name is Fazlalizadeh, there’s a woman in jesses who is Latina? Her name is Jess Sabogal. Um, I’m not saying her last name correctly, and she’s definitely worth checking out on the ground,
Anne Kelly (33:31):
But I’m, I’m always curious if there’s any movie’s just over time or television shows that have just really inspired you.
Chip Thomas (33:38):
You knows someone who is self-taught in art. One of the series that I find really informative and accessible for non-artist is the PBS series Art 21 art in the 21st century. They started, I think in 2000, I think they just released season eight. I, in fact, I was just doing a search to see if season nine is available and I haven’t found it, but Art 21 is something I recommend. I, I get HBO. So I follow a lot of the shows on HBO, the wire, for example, with something I really enjoyed, I liked west world. I never saw episode of game of Thrones on HBO.
Anne Kelly (34:25):
So it used to be, there was five channels and you just watched what there was. And now there’s just so many different things to tap into.
Chip Thomas (34:34):
Anne Kelly (34:36):
I found it interesting to see what people tap into but I love traveling a favorite place to travel.
Chip Thomas (34:42):
First place that comes to mind is Brazil. Brazil is one of those places that just instills me with a feeling of creativity. It’s a difficult place, and that there’s a large black population there. And they make up the majority of the poor people in the country yet within the country. They’re seems to be a really strong sense of, well, I wish I could say solidarity and unity because you know, in truth, any country is divided, but Brazil is known for its music. You know, it’s known for its speeches. Uh, it’s known for their soccer playing. I just like to go there and get inspired by the music, by the art on the street and just having enlightening conversations with people.
Anne Kelly (35:26):
I, I think that’s what it’s all about. Appreciate you for taking the time to talk tonight. I know you’ve been, you’ve been busy. You’ve been traveling. Is there anything we haven’t talked about shoutouts.
Chip Thomas (35:39):
I really want to give you a shoutout for your persistence pursuing this interview. There have been a number of, of obstacles, but you did this at a time of the month when my bandwidth is relatively strong. So thank you for that. Thank you for your interest and what I’m trying to do over here.
Anne Kelly (35:58):
Super excited to talk to you and it’s been fun.
Chip Thomas (36:01):
Yeah. Likewise, thank you all the best to you.
Anne Kelly (36:05):
Thank you for watching Art in theRaw conversations with creative people. I hope you enjoyed meeting Chip Thomas and you’re feeling inspired. If so, consider tell like-minded friends and I’ll look forward to seeing you next week. Have a good night.
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