15 October 2023

The Painted Desert Project

Dr. Chip Thomas harnesses the power of
public art for the Navajo community


by Kate Mothes

For nearly a decade and a half, artist and physician Dr. Chip Thomas has spearheaded an expansive and responsive public art project for the people of Navajo Nation. During the pandemic, the project received nationwide attention for its messaging around health and safety measures like washing hands or mask-wearing. In a community disproportionately affected by obesity, diabetes, and suicide compared to national averages, emphasis on a clear connection to the community and incredible visuals engenders a sense of solidarity and care.

I first learned about Thomas’ ongoing initiative, The Painted Desert Project, as I was passing through northeastern Arizona. Along U.S. Highway 160, an abandoned fuel station sits at an intersection, its pumps gutted but its walls covered ground-to-rooftop with bold murals. This site is just one drop in a deep well of work made over the past fifteen years by Thomas, and numerous other artists from around the world.

Some of the attributions are difficult to distinguish, such as the artist who made a brilliant, colorful swirl of desert oranges and sky blues, which is what initially made me turn the car around and pull into the old station. Driving eastbound, I realized there was so much more to this site. Around the corner of the same building shines a bold black-and-white image of a young Navajo girl with a bunny on her shoulder, wearing a mask made from a Blue Bird flour sack. It’s clear that this site is re-interpreted often with new additions, but that particular photograph has been around for several years and is one of numerous that dot the landscape, covering a wide range of houses, tanks, and civic structures.

The Painted Desert Project evolved from a personal project, Thomas explains, which drew on years of his own photography:

In June of 2009, I started a self-funded, public art project on the Navajo Nation, Western Agency, I called “Big.” I went back through 22 years of negatives and started blowing photographs up larger than life and wheat pasting them onto roadside stands and abandoned buildings. I’m still amazed at the resonance this project has with people on the reservation and amongst travelers passing through. I’m thankful for having found this form of self expression as a means of relating to the community where I’ve lived and worked for almost half of my life.

Since then, Thomas has invited artists to collaborate on artworks across Navajo Nation, creating a stunning range of murals, participatory spaces, installations, and performances. Explore a wealth of murals and installations on Thomas’ website and Instagram, where he regularly documents events and new works.

Collaboration with Raul Zito

All artwork and photos © Chip Thomas, shared with permission. Header photo by Kate Mothes

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