On Monday night, 100 students gathered in Seattle Pacific University’s Demaray Hall to hear the work and life story of Chip Thomas, a physician, photographer and artist.
As an artist, Thomas brings his photographs into a “living gallery” by pasting them onto abandoned buildings around Navajo County, Ariz.
Raised in northern Carolina, Thomas attended the Arthur Morgan School and was introduced to the meaning of art and a dark room. He later attended medical school in Tennessee, working in the local hospital of the Navajo nation years later.
“If you were to ask me where I’d be in 10 years, I’d be here. I just didn’t know then how I’d actually get there,” Thomas said.
“Music and visual art have always been the key motivation in his work and a way to “relax and get in a creative space,” he said.
Thomas would take trips to New York City to see the art and people.
“Something about this movement spoke to me,” he said.
In 1992, Thomas had the opportunity to work with Eugene Richards, a Life magazine photographer in Santa Fe, Calif.
In 2004, Thomas had the chance to go to Brazil. Everywhere he went “creativity and art was there.”
Public art lined the buildings and streets of Brazil, inspiring Thomas to bring this energy home with him.
However, life has not always been smooth sailing.
One of Thomas’ most challenging years was in 2006 when his wife came to him admitting she was either lesbian or bisexual, but not heterosexual. Prior to his wife’s announcement, he received a call that his father was dying. Three weeks later he passed away in the home Thomas had grown up in. Thomas was sure he would inherit the house in his father’s will. Unbeknownst to him, his father had done a reverse mortgage, leaving him with nothing.
Thomas began seeing a therapist and realized he was to do something completely different with his life.
He found himself in Brazil in 2009 for three months studying Portuguese.
Thomas noticed how the art around the city made him feel, often seeing the same street style in every place he went. During months of travel and sightseeing, he was influenced to create public art of his own.
He had to figure out the boundaries of where his art would be allowed while living on the reservation. After putting up a few pieces here and there on abandoned shacks around the area, he would find the art either peeling or scrapped off.
On the reservation, one out of four Native Americans have diabetes. A billboard outside the reservation held the logo, “Welcome to Pepsi County.”
Thomas and a college friend decided to sneak out and change the message to read, “Welcome to Diabetes County.”
After numerous unsuccessful outcomes of public art, his work was finally noticed.
Tourists and locals would stop and admire his art, wondering where it came from and what it meant.
The goal was “to uplift people, to surprise, to let them know someone cares,” Thomas said.
In 2012, Thomas began the organization Painted Desert, which invites well-known artists from all over the world to come together and showcase their talent around Navajo County. From bringing care as a physician and making living art, this experience has only “deepened his relationship with community,” Thomas said.
After 27 years in the Navajo County as a physician and artist, only one lesson remains the same for Thomas: “letting go.”
He has learned how important it is to do something so selflessly with heart and soul. Bringing his artwork to life brings a sense of “recreation of balance and energy.”
SPU hosted a workshop with Thomas Nov. 4.