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This street artist portrays Navajo life with large scale murals

Chip Thomas, a physician and street artist who has lived on the Navajo Nation for three decades, shares the stories of his indigenous neighbors with large scale murals in cities from Oakland, California, to Phoenix, Arizona. His work under the name Jetsonorama has drawn attention to the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo people. This story was produced by KQED Arts in San Francisco.

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  • CHIP THOMAS:

    There's a part of what I do that's being an intentional provocateur. Putting work out that people might not expect to see, in a particular space, especially at that size.

    This piece speaks to a land dispute on the Navajo Nation, and in this area, the Peabody Coal Company, and the Hopi tribe were forcibly removing Navajo people from this area.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    This photograph was taken in 1983; the guy who took it was a dear friend of mine. I just really wanted to do this for him, but also get this message out, because it unfortunately remains necessary.

  • MAN ON STREET:

    I have a one year old, so that's what caught my eye, really.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Yeah, good.

  • MAN ON STREET:

    Throwing that little baby up, that's beautiful.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Yeah, that's the beauty of this photograph. It's multi-layered, it's complex, a lot like life.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    My name is Chip Thomas, my street art name Jetsonorama. And I live on the Navajo, or Diné Nation, about 35 miles south of the border with Utah, in incredibly beautiful canyon country.

  • MILTON TSO:

    For a long time, it was a mystery. Who's this guy putting all this stuff up?

  • MILTON TSO, CAMERON CHAPTER PRESIDENT, NAVAJO NATION:

    He puts his artwork on abandoned homes, abandoned buildings. He brings life back to it.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    The Diné should be the materially wealthiest group of people living in the United States. But with an unemployment rate over 50%, they are amongst the poorest materially. And within that environment, I want to create work that reminds people of the beauty they shared with me, you know, over the past 30 years.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Hey Sharice.

  • SHARICE:

    Hi.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    My day job, I work as a physician in a primary care clinic. Amelia, you're doing so good. She looks great.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    The way I started working here and living here is the National Health Service Corps, program to encourage people going into healthcare fields to work in a health shortage area. I finished my four year obligation in 1991 and just fell in love with work, the people, the land.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Exploring the local Four Corner's region, I would talk with people and ask if they were comfortable with me, bringing my camera, and taking photos. I started having some shows in galleries. But I wanted to go bigger. Create work where the people in the work got to see themselves represented.

  • CYNDY BEGAYE, CHIP’S CO-WORKER:

    His murals reflect back our everyday life. And to know that he gets it, he understands it.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Thank you for stopping by. A lot of the work that appears off of the reservation is an opportunity to challenge people to see and think a little bit differently about an issue.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    I was invited to take part in the show to bring awareness to the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands.The majority of the uranium that went into nuclear bombs, that ore came from this land.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    As early as the '50s, scientists, public health workers, knew of the dangers of radiation exposure. Finally, in 1967, on the front page of The Washington Post, there was an article, talking about the dangers of working with uranium. But even still, very little was being done, on the reservation, to tell workers about these dangers and to protect them.

  • KLEE BENGALY:

    We're continuing to endure the toxic legacy of nuclear colonialism here. And we aren't just victims, we are resisting.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    I realized one thing I could bring to the show that was different was my work in the clinic with uranium miners. Thank you guys for coming in. How are you doing today?

  • PATIENT:

    It hurts …

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Those patients come visit with me every six months to get examined, to be re-certified for those benefits.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    So I wanted to bring to the show some of those narratives. Then Cyndy, with whom I've worked for 16 years, she reminded me that her father was a uranium miner.

  • CYNDY BEGAYE, DAUGHTER OF URANIUM MINER:

    He worked close to 20 years in the mines, not knowing the effects, years on down the road that this would have on them and us. He had good intentions to provide for his family. But the cancer that he was diagnosed with was directly related to working in the mines.

    Cyndy's father, Kee Roy John, died in 2001 after the cancer in his lungs spread to his brain.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    To hear Cyndy talk about her dad, it um, yeah, just really touched me, you know. That history and the personal impact it had on this family of someone I know closely. So yeah that was the imagery I started working with.

  • CYNDY BEGAYE:

    When I first saw Chip's piece, it brought tears to my eyes, really. To know that it's posted where it's at in Phoenix, and then also just north of Flagstaff as well is it's a humbling experience. And when I got there to the exhibition itself, it was breathtaking. For me, it's important to keep the memory alive, for my children, my future grandchildren. I want them to know how my father helped us to become who we are today.

  • CHIP THOMAS:

    Living here, seeing how many people realize they've not been treated fairly, but they still live in a way that honors creation, the earth. That example keeps me grounded. And I feel really fortunate to have found this means of expression through art.

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