Global Track Interview: Jetsonorama Brings Color to the Navajo Nation With His "Painted Desert Project"

Working with a group of street artists from across the globe, Jetsonorama covers the desert in vibrant murals.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Global Track is our bi-weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.

Street artist Jetsonorama, aka Chip Thomas, has a deep passion for local communities. During the fist edition of the street art festival Open Walls Baltimore, he spent hours everyday photographing Tony, a local who cared for pigeons. After selecting the right image, Jetsonorama pasted Tony several stories tall for his mural, stopping occasionally to greet people who recognized the figure.

In the past, Jetsonorama was a member of Operation Crossroads Africa (which inspired the Peace Corps). He did medical work in Liberia and became the first person of African descent to bike from the northern to southernmost points on the African Continent. After that, he moved to the Navajo Nation as part of his medical service. Later in life, he discovered street art, and in 2012, he began the "Painted Desert Project," a project that invites international artists to a Navajo Reservation in Arizona to paint roadside vendors' stands. The murals have attracted tourists traveling to the Grand Canyon, boosting business for the roadside vendors.

Jetsonorama spoke with us about how his past played a role in the formation of the "Painted Desert Project," which is currently in its third year. 

Global Track Interview: Jetsonorama Brings Color to the Navajo Nation With His "Painted Desert Project"


The artists I invite to participate in the "Painted Desert Project" are soulful idealists changing the world.

How did you begin working on the Reservation?
I came to the Navajo Nation in July 1987 to fulfill a four-year obligation to the National Health Service Corps. The government paid for my medical school education for four years, so I had to work in a healthcare shortage area for four years as my payback. I fell in love with the Diné people and the land and chose to stay.

What sparked your interest in using street art to discuss First Nations’ politics?    
First and foremost, I’m a person of color who is old enough to remember the Civil Rights struggle. During this same period (the late '60s), I attended an alternative Quaker junior high school where a key part of our education included involvement in activities in the surrounding community.  Rather than stressing how people differ, the school focused on similarities people share. Coming to the Reservation, I could relate to the way people on the Reservation were being treated by the larger society.

Additionally, I’m a community responsive family practice physician who is concerned about the health of the individual as well as the wellbeing of the community. After wheatpasting photographs of people from the community for a couple years, it occurred to me that I have the skill set to amplify voices within my community. I identified grassroots organizations advocating for positive change and offered my skills.


How is the "Painted Desert Project" an outgrowth of these interests?
The "Painted Desert Project" was inspired by projects like "The Underbelly Project"in New York and Paris and "The Boneyard Project" in Tucson, Ariz.  I thought it’d be cool to try to get some of the best street artists in the world out to the Navajo Nation to paint murals on homemade roadside vendors' stands. I’d already learned from my wheatpasting project how much roadside vendors on the reservation appreciate having art on their stands because it stops more tourist traffic.

As beautiful as this land is, many people on the reservation are plagued with high unemployment rates (approximately 50 percent), high rates of alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and high rates of teen suicide. One of the ideas I wanted to explore with the art project was how it could be used to build community and influence a more positive sense of self.

I had some insight into the positive direction in which things might go when Gaia came as one of the first participants of the project in 2012. He painted murals on four sides of a roadside café called the Bluebird Diner. Although I’d seen the owner of the café as a patient, I’d never socialized with her in any capacity. Upon completing five days of work on her walls, we had a big dinner with all of the visiting artists, the restaurant owner, and her family at my house.



A similar, next level community building process is happening now with the return of Nick Mann, aka Doodles. Nick really represents the heart and soul of the "Painted Desert Project." He wasn’t included in the first group of artists I invited out in 2012, but he heard about the project from Overunder and called asking if I’d consider letting him participate. We talked at length, and he said some things I’ll never forget. Because of his experience with large mural festivals, he perceived the future of street art projects to be small and community-centric. He appreciated that I was pairing artists with people from the community for an immersive experience.

Nick went on to paint a beautiful series of panels on a food vendor’s stand at a weekly flea market near my house. After about 15 months, the food stand burned down. He and I were talking about a year ago, and I told him I thought it’d be super badass if he came back to rebuild the food stand and paint it again. Not only are he and Monica Canilao rocking an awesome new stand, but the vendor’s family members have been coming over to my house this week with their kids to assist in the construction of the stand. It’s a coming together with members of the community like I hadn’t anticipated. What’s more, Mrs. Woody, the food stand vendor, has brought us food as well.

Monica Canilao, Nick Mann, and Jetsonorama

Monica Canilao with Mrs. Woody’s son and his family working on one of the walls of the food stand

Nick Mann

I’d like to think that art has the ability to break walls down and bring people together.

What influences the artists that you invite to the project?
I’m a sucker for a strong social practice in one’s art. Diego Rivera is my role model in this regard. There was consistency between his politics and art without being overly dogmatic. Having said that, getting Monica Canilao here makes me happy for several reasons. I acknowledge that women have been underrepresented in the "Painted Desert Project," so it’s nice to have female energy here, but more importantly, Monica walks the talk. She has done community building and engaging projects with Swoon and is involved in an ongoing social practice project in Detroit.

Apart from that, I’m drawn to strong line work, especially if it’s rendered in black and white. This is what initially drew me to Swoon and Chris Stain, artists I invited in 2011 but who couldn’t make it out. But Alexis Diaz, aka 2501, came out here and killed it.

I’m also drawn to the magical realism found in work by people like Labrona (who will also be returning for a second time this summer), LNY, Troy Lovegates, and Jaz. I like the simplicity, soft pastels, and politics of people like Hyuro and Escif. In short, the artists I invite to participate in the "Painted Desert Project" are soulful idealists changing the world.


How have these ideas developed over time?
When I first started getting my work up in 2009, I was just concerned about getting up. I realized shortly after I started getting up that the roadside vendors were my allies in that they wanted art on their roadside vending stands. (I’m careful to say that they’re open to having art on their stands as a number of them have wanted advertising. A lot of the roadside stands sell similar jewelry. The art on the stand can be enough to distinguish one stand from another and encourage someone to stop.) It happens now that I’ve become acquainted with many roadside vendors and consider many as friends. Additionally, people from the community approach me about getting work up either on their vending stands or community windmills.

Nick Mann and Monica Canilao

After wheatpasting photographs of people from the community for a couple years, it occurred to me that I have the skill set to amplify voices within my community.

Currently Monica Canilao and Nick Mann are painting for the project. What ideas will they be exploring? How do these underscore the ideas behind the "Painted Desert Project"?  
Monica’s practice embraces recycling materials and, like a DJ, she’s about creating something new from the familiar, reflecting influences from her environment. Nick is exploring the spiritual relationship between animals, humans, and the land. I think this is their first time collaborating on a project. Theirs is the first construction project for the "Painted Desert Project," and again, it’s cool to see this happening with the involvement of Mrs. Woody’s family.

How have the participating artists changed the Reservation, and what influence has it had upon them? 
I live near the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon to the west and Monument Valley to the east. We get lots of national and international tourist traffic as well as local traffic. As a Couchsurfing host, I’ve heard people say that it can be challenging to drive across the Reservation and to feel comfortable seeing the poverty. I heard people say that my photos make people on the Reservation seem more accessible and make the Reservation feel like a friendlier place. I’d like to think that art has the ability to break walls down and bring people together.

In terms of the impact the project has on the artists, I think Alexis Diaz said it best. He didn’t know what to expect when he came last summer and really wanted to come to spend time with his buddy, Ever. He, like all the artists here, worked on structures at human scale, frequently not requiring a ladder and certainly not a lift. His experience here forced him to think in a smaller scale and differently because I asked that he not come with a stock image but to reflect upon what he was seeing and experiencing and create something new. When I spent a month with him in Australia in April, he shared that this experience helped him be more spontaneous in approaching projects. Incidentally, one of the two pieces he created here is his most liked image on Instagram.

Alexis Diaz

Who else will be participating this round?
Season three of the "Painted Desert Project" (which began with the arrival of Monica and Nick last week) includes Troy Lovegates, Labrona, LNY, Jaz, Hyuro, and sometime in 2015 I’ll get Nicolas Lampert of Justseeds out here. It’s a big year. I have two women artists coming whose work I love.


Monica Canilao and Jetsonorama, created for Nicholas Lampert of Justseeds

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