If you've ever visited the Navajo reservation, then chances are, you've seen the work of Chip Thomas, a.k.a. Jetsonorama. His enlarged black-and-white photographic portraits are pasted on structures along the roadside. An artist, activist, and physician, Thomas has been living and working on the Navajo Nation since 1987.
From December 4 through 28, Chartreuse Gallery on Grand Avenue will host Thomas' 25-year retrospective, which will include photographs from the Navajo Nation, the African continent, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. On the eve of the opening of Thomas' show, New Times caught up with the artist via e-mail while he visited Paris to attend the World Climate Summit.
First thing's first. Where does the name Jetsonorama come from?
Ha! My real name is James Edward Thomas, Jr. My initials are J.E.T. As a kid of the '60s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Jetsons. When I went to get a Gmail account, I wanted to use the name Jetson, but Mr. Google said, "Sorry. That name is taken. Try one of these 3 names," one of which was Jetsonorama. Being a child of the atomic age where everything ended in "-orama," I went with it. It also makes me think of one of my favorite art movements which occurred during that time — mid-century modernism. So, I have Google to thank for my street art name.
Your photographs reveal a level of intimacy and trust on the part of your subjects. How have your relationships with various communities grown through photographing their residents?
It gets back to the adage of walking a mile in someone else's moccasins. I see myself first and foremost as a documentary photographer whose mission is to bear witness to someone else's reality. The best storytellers in this realm are photographers who invest the time to get to know the people they're working with. In time, over years, hopefully trust is gained.
However, in so doing, I'm not necessarily objective — part of my personal mission as a person of color is to challenge negative stereotypes of people of color found in media. For example, a common dominant cultural misconception is that the majority of indigenous folks are alcoholics. So, if I have a photo of someone on the rez who is inebriated, that image probably won't appear as a stand-alone image. It might appear in a photo essay, but I don't want it to be used to perpetuate a misconception or negative stereotype.
You've been living in Northern Arizona since 1987. What have you found to be special about the Navajo reservation and community? How have things changed since you first arrived nearly three decades ago?
The Colorado Plateau is a special place. Besides being physically beautiful with canyons, mesas, buttes, and mountains, it's a land rich in mineral resources with people living traditional, agrarian lifestyles. There's a brutal honesty to their lives that's devoid of pretense. It's also one of the few places in the United States where one can find tangible history. For example, there's an Anasazi ruin four miles from my house that is just under 1000 years old. Arrow heads, pottery shards, and occasionally intact pots litter the landscape. Being in this land and working with the Navajo people has taught me many lessons, the most important ones being humility and forgiveness.
I've noticed in the community where I am over the years that fewer young people speak the language, and there are fewer medicine people who perform the traditional ceremonies. It's revealing that the Navajo nation voted over the past year to not make the Navajo language a mandatory requirement to be president. I think the only thing I agree with Senator John McCain on is how this new ruling regarding the language requirement is ironic in light of the iconic role the language played in WWII. There's also more casinos on the reservation now. Cultures evolve; some disappear.
One of your works in the show is being used to promote the World Climate Summit in Paris. Can you tell us more about this piece, the meaning behind it, and how it came to represent the conference?
My image of a Navajo woman with writing on her face starting with "I am the change" resulted from a project I did in Flagstaff in 2011. It addressed the issue of the ski resort, Snowbowl, using reclaimed waste water to make snow on what 13 different regional tribes consider a sacred site. I interviewed several friends and activists from the local community, asked them their thoughts on the issue, and whatever they said was written on their faces. I then blew the faces up to 12 feet and made a mural in downtown Flagstaff on a legal wall. Stephanie Jackson, the woman in the photograph used in Paris, was a graduate student in Climate Change Solutions at NAU at the time. Rather than focus on the Snowbowl issue, she thought to globally address several climate change issues.
A year ago, I was invited to join Justseeds, a cooperative of 30 activist artists scattered between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. They're known for generating work with social and environmental justice themes. One of the members, Nicolas Lampert, is connected to activists in 350.org, a climate change organization that's involved in organizing the art and activism part of the World Climate Summit happening in Paris. It was through this connection that my piece was introduced and chosen.
How do your artworks in "5 Earths" relate to global climate change?
In truth, the majority of work in "5 Earths" doesn't speak directly to climate change, other than the fact that we're all being impacted by climate change. However, there's a small body of work in the show that speaks to some hard climate change truths, such as: "The United States releases more carbon dioxide than any other country, though it is home to just 5 percent of the world's population. If everyone in the world lived the way people do in the U.S., it would take five earths to provide enough resources for everyone." That information comes from the National Wildlife Federation and is where the title of the show comes from.
Your photographs have a monumental scale. Outside, they are meant to be seen from a distance, but how does the experience change in a gallery setting?
It's a very difference experience to view big pieces in an enclosed setting. My usual audience is vehicles passing by at 70 miles per hour. They don't notice imperfections in the work, whereas in a gallery setting the average viewer is looking for perfection in execution — not necessarily the feeling engendered by the work.
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One of the things I hear from nonnative people about the work along the roadside is that it helps give a sense of place to the reservation. They have a better sense of who is there. Also, just having the work there reflects the community's degree of tolerance for new things (such as street art). Many tourists pass through without stopping to engage the local population. However, I hear from roadside vendors that more tourists are stopping at the stands with interesting art on them, and connections are starting to happen unlike before there was art up.
I stopped having gallery shows in 2009 to focus on getting work up outdoors, where I feel it has more integrity, in that the people who are being photographed actually see the work. I hear from them if they like it or not. In general, the people I photograph never see themselves in gallery settings, which feels more exploitative to me. I have the example of Diego Rivera to thank for this in the way he celebrated the "every person" by using them as subjects in his work and then placing his murals in public spaces.
You've photographed people in Brazil, Africa, and Cuba. Are there other places or communities you'd like to learn about and photograph?
Hell, yeah. One of the things I've learned in doing my art project is how vital it is for my spirit to identify grassroots organizations advocating for positive change in their communities and to partner with them to create art that raises awareness about their campaigns. So it's really not so much about traveling to exotic places to put art up that celebrates me, but recognizing organizations doing good work in those places and amplifying those voices. In this way I see myself as a big, black megaphone trying to do work where I drop the mic, not the ball. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that one.)
"5 Earths” opens at Chartreuse Gallery on First Friday, December 4, from 6 to 10 p.m., with an artist reception on December 18. Chartreuse is located at Bragg’s Pie Factory, 1301 NW Grand Avenue. For more, visit chartreuseart.com and jetsonorama.net.