Best of America

Dr. Chip Thomas’ Incredible Attempt to Heal Through Art

Installing massive outdoor murals under the name "Jetsonorama," Dr. Chip Thomas is a full-time physician aiming to heal Arizona's Najavo reservation off the clock, too.

"As soon as I saw this place I fell in love with it."

Ramona Rosales

Dr. Thomas moved to the reservation in 1987 to be a full-time family practice physician with the Indian Health Service. Above all, he enjoyed doing house calls—"just seeing how people lived." He began photographing patients and neighbors, unaware of how big his art was about to become.

"I wanted to reflect back to the community the beauty they shared with me."

Ramona Rosales

So in 2009, Dr. Thomas started enlarging his photographs into two-by-two-foot tiles, cutting them out on his kitchen floor, and installing them, strip by strip, onto the sides of buildings, water towers, and fences around the reservation.

"Guys seem to get the analogy of wallpapering outdoors, and women seem to get the analogy of decoupage."

Ramona Rosales

Often working alone and under adverse conditions like 50-mile-per-hour winds or hundred-degree afternoons, Thomas installs about four new pieces a month, almost always on roadside canvases.

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"People have said that they've driven through the rez, and they just don't have a sense of the people there."

Ramona Rosales

"By putting imagery on the roadside stands," Thomas says, "I've heard vendors say more tourists stop and engage them. I've heard people say they come away feeling that the reservation is a friendlier, more accessible place."

"It's really cool to see it as a bridge between cultures."

Ramona Rosales

"I've heard stories of someone stopping to check out the art, meeting a local person and then being invited into that person's home for a meal."

"I also wanted to share with the youth..."

Ramona Rosales

"...who I feel are losing a lot of the core values of the culture: values of the elders, even their style of dress, their manner of being."

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"I use the glue that Shepard Fairey uses,"

Ramona Rosales

"which is called acrylic matte medium. I used to love dipping my bare hands into a bucket of warm, steaming wheat paste, but sometimes those installations would already start peeling after a day."

"I really see integration between my work as a physician and my work as an artist."

Ramona Rosales

"Whether it's in the clinic or in the field, my work really is about attempting to create beauty, attempting to create wellness. "

"And it's healing for me also."

Ramona Rosales

"There was an installation I did of a friend named Stephanie, a photograph of her looking up at the sky, laughing. I was having a really difficult time at work, and I just needed to put that energy out into the universe, to just remind myself that there is hope, and there is something... greater."


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