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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.

Ramona Rosales

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

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.

Ramona Rosales

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

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.

Ramona Rosales

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

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.

Ramona Rosales

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

“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.”

Ramona Rosales

“It’s really cool to see it as a bridge between cultures.”

“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.”

Ramona Rosales

“I also wanted to share with the youth…”

“…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.”

Ramona Rosales

“I use the glue that Shepard Fairey uses,”

“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.”

Ramona Rosales

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

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

Ramona Rosales

“And it’s healing for me also.”

“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.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest