As the definition of art has evolved since the 1960s to include a broad range of practices, including conceptual ideas, performance and social phenomena, the definition of public art has become more elastic in tandem. Once understood as permanent, public art is increasingly ephemeral. Previously determined for civic spaces, today public art often straddles public and private spaces -- further public art is increasingly self-funded, thus circumnavigating a sticky web of traditional bureaucratic permissions. With these changes, artists no longer need to win grants or competitions to work in the public sphere: they can simply take to the streets with their ideas. In this sense, the definition of street art has also expanded beyond the image of spray-painted urban graffiti to include a diverse range of practices.
Since 2009, self-taught photographer Chip Thomas has wheat-pasted more than two hundred portraits, publicly and often without permission. By day Thomas is a family physician based in the Arizona area of the Navajo Nation, the country's largest Native American-governed territory. His body of work features images of Navajo people, often his patients from the reservation, and reflects the cultural shifts in Native American traditional and contemporary lifestyles. He openly borrows from the techniques of French street artist JR, the recent winner of the TED Prize, whose work Thomas first experienced while on sabbatical in Brazil three years ago.
Thomas's "day" job as a physician and the parallel pursuit of his artwork are interwoven. A beneficiary of the National Health Service Corps, Thomas's medical school was paid for by the government in exchange for a commitment to work in underserved communities. He arrived on the reservation in 1987 and has never left. "Life on the reservation," says Thomas, an African American who attended an alternative Quaker junior high school, "has been consistent with my politics."
April 2011 saw the debut of Thomas's to dogpatch with love, a three-story collage on the 40 x 30 foot exterior façade of Ampersand International Arts, a privately-run alternative arts space in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. As one of the few areas to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, Dogpatch features historically significant architecture dating from 1860. Invited by gallery owner Bruno Mauro to use his building as a blank canvas, Thomas mined the long, diverse history of this unique "mixed-use" neighborhood and engaged local residents in the production and installation of his work. Patricia Parker, a local resident of more than fifty years and one of the subjects in Thomas's mural, attended nearby I. M. Scott School, San Francisco's oldest surviving public school built in 1895. Parker's likeness is featured with that of young Imogene Duomani, another neighbor. The mural wraps around the building and features an image of a dog adjacent to the Ampersand entrance, an icon for the neighborhood moniker.
The mural was constructed by tiling inexpensive laser ink-jet prints, each section measuring 3 x 10 feet, with forty gallons of homemade wheat paste. While it lasted it was a striking representation of the neighborhood, surprising and engaging viewers with its scale and creating a sense of local pride through the images of recognizable local figures. An unseasonably strong summer rainstorm at the end of June hastened its material demise. Today the building is nearly washed clean.
For Thomas, who spent three days installing the mural with assistance from local artist Colleen Flaherty, the fugitive nature of a wheat-paste intervention is part of the work. In 1991, as a young doctor on the reservation, he attended a traditional Navajo Sand Painting Ceremony, a healing ritual presided over by a Medicine Man. This custom implements the labor-intensive construction of a symbolic image through the exacting placement of sand; its ceremonial destruction is believed to restore balance in the universe. This notion of 'harmony through destruction' was initially lost on Thomas, but the ritual resonates with him today as he creates images that will be erased by nature, in itself a form of balance, and continue to impact the local community in their absence.
Chip Thomas's to dogpatch with love (2011) was on view on the exterior of Ampersand International Arts, at 1001 Tennessee Street in San Francisco from April 8 until roughly the end of June.