James “Chip” Thomas calls himself a health physician/revolutionary but he is also a photographer, urban artist, blogger
His ‘about me’ on Google Plus is a quote from Ernesto Che Guevara, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” His Twitter account reads “on the navajo nation pursuing art + medicine while looking for love in all the wrong places…” He graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1983 and is currently an Indian Health Services Doctor in the Navajo Nation where he also practices street art and photography
. Chip was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions I had for him, he even added a little flavor to it by using different colors. His interview was truly inspirational.
If you could tell me just a little bit about yourself first
i was born in raleigh, nc in 1957 as an only child. my dad was a doctor; my mom was a public school teacher. one of the strongest influences on my life was 3 years at an alternative, quaker boarding school in the mountains of north carolina. there were only 24 kids in the entire school which was composed of kids from all over the u.s. with one girl from france, one girl who had been raised in africa and a kid from alaska. it was a very arts, community based experience. there was a commune close by of people who had moved into the neighborhood from detroit. they’d attended woodstock and were our heroes. we had bee hives and extracted our own honey, we did rappelling, climbing, bareback horseback riding, had an organic garden , went camping regularly, learned how to hug and other vital life skills. some of my best friends today are kids who were at that school. i was there from 1969 – 1972.
When did you start your street art? Why?
well, when i was doing my family practice residency in 1985 i started doing art on the street. most of what i did was billboard correction and text based stuff. one of the pieces i did said “thank you dr. king. i am a dreamer too.” it was during the time of apartheid, i did a stencil that said “smash apartheid” that i sprayed several places. when i came to the navajo nation in 1987, i did a billboard correction with a friend to draw attention to the high incidence of diabetes here.
the sign used to read “…welcome to pepsi country.” this was done in 1989 or so.
in the mid 90s in flagstaff i did a project i called “urban guerrilla art assault” or ugaa. i’ve had a black and white darkroom since coming to the reservation in 1987. i started placing rejected photos from my darkroom in public places where people had bills posted for “roommate wanted,” or “lost dog,” or “bicycle for sale,” etc. however, it wasn’t until i want to brazil in 2009 that i got inspired to attempt the project i’m doing currently. i guess my point is that i’ve always been attracted to street art and graffiti, it wasn’t until 2009 that i pursued it seriously. it seemed like a natural progression in that it combines my passion for photography with street art.
What are your inspirations?
my inspirations are people like diego rivera and the other mexican muralists, keith haring, roy decarava – these are artists whose political leanings were to the left of center and who believed in making art available to those who wouldn’t otherwise get to see art of that caliber. with the exception of keith haring they believed in celebrating the every person in their work. in this regard, che guevara is an inspiration in that he once wrote that a true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. however, my greatest inspiration is the tight rope walker philippe petit. if you’ve not seen “man on wire,” check it out. it’s the epitome of passion and fully engagement with life.
What are you trying to accomplish?
i’d like to find a way to use this art project to bring people together, to build community. at the very least, i’d like to people to get a moment of happiness in seeing my art in unexpected places.
How do you pick locations/subjects?
well, because i live and work on the reservation, i try to find sites close to the road where they can be seen by passing motorists. because my audience is passing by at 70 miles an hour, i need to find structures as large as possible to place my photos.
Why did you decide to start a blog/twitter account? What have been the benefits of these?
i wanted to maintain a record of my experiences with wheat pasting. i didn’t know when i started where this new adventure would take me. however, it was an incredible rush the first time i saw one of my pieces on a street art blog. i was first on vandalog shortly after i started wheat pasting in 2009. i was identified as “artist unknown.” however, it led to me meeting other artists with whom i had an opportunity to collaborate on pieces. having my work online also allowed me to connect with artists in other parts of the world. it was especially satisfying to connect with a group of street artists in brazil since it was there that i got the buzz to start the project i’m doing now.
a street artist in sao paulo, brazil named raul zito and i did an exchange where he sent me one of his files and i sent to him one of mine. he wheat pasted mine there and i still have his to wheat paste here. it’s that type of exchange that having a presence on the web facilitated.
Who are some of your favorite people to follow on Twitter?
grist, 12ozprophet, artfagcity, laughingsquid, marcdschiller,
Do you follow other street/urban art?
Who are some of your favorite artists/ of any kind?
i mentioned several of my favorite artists above.
What is your favorite piece of work that you have done?
there’s a couple i really like – i like the image of stephanie (my assistant), laughing at the sky on the abandoned house. i like the pieces that i did on the outhouse and the pump house and “the people speak” mural in flagstaff.
I saw that you are also a photographer what is some good advice for aspiring photojournalists?
yeah, take the time to study the work of the masters and identify with the help of a teacher or friend well versed in photography what makes each photo work.