High atop a scissor lift in Oakland, wheat-pasting a 25-foot wide upside-down American flag, Chip Thomas takes pride in his role as a provocateur. But put the 61-year-old photographer and street artist back on Native American land, where wounds both mortal and spiritual remain, and he earnestly resumes his other position: a healer.
By day, Thomas is a primary care physician at the Inscription House Health Clinic, located in the western part of the Navajo Nation, where he lives. In his free time, Thomas installs massive photo murals on and off the reservation, depicting his Navajo neighbors — from sheepherders to grandmothers.
“Especially on the reservation, the work is a conversation,” says Thomas. “I’m trying to help create an environment of wellness within the community.”
When Thomas moved to the Navajo Nation in 1987, he didn’t expect he’d be calling it home 30 years later. But he fell in love with the Four Corners region and its people, and began capturing those feelings in his photographs of everyday Navajo life. He also learned about the history of mineral extraction on the lands, from coal to uranium mining, and its staggering, fatal effect on Navajo workers — many of whom Thomas has cared for in the clinic.
Much later, while traveling in Brazil, Thomas saw photographs transformed into large-scale street art in the favelas of Rio. He realized his photographs could not only document the landscape, but become a part of the landscape as well.