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Photograph by Aaron Lavinsky

Painting the Painted Desert

From the swirly-whirly Wave to the sandstone splendor of Antelope Canyon in the Navajo Nation, the timeless natural beauty of Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert is enough to make even the oldest of folks feel really, really young.

And while the chance to experience the elegance of sacred Navajo land is worth a detour from the nearby Grand Canyon, there’s another incentive to visit: street art.

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The Painted Desert project is Chip Thomas's “love letter to the Navajo Nation.” (Photograph by Aaron Lavinsky)

Much of the art — murals and giant photographs on buildings, roadside stands, and water tanks — originates from a middle-aged doctor named Chip Thomas.

Thomas moved to the Navajo Nation 25 years ago to repay a National Health Service Corps scholarship by volunteering his skills in a community with limited healthcare. After making good on his four-year obligation (and spending the better part of a year biking 12,000 miles across Africa), Chip returned to the reservation, and has worked as a family-care physician there ever since.

But when the working day is done, Dr. Thomas shrugs off the lab coat to become Jetsonorama – a street artist who pastes his blown-up black-and-white photos depicting Navajo people and their traditions on any structure visible from the road, a public art project he describes as a “love letter to the Navajo Nation.”

“I’m just trying to reflect the positivity I have been allowed to experience from the people for the past 25 years,” Chip says. “It’s like I’m holding a mirror up and saying, ‘Thank you for letting me experience all this.’ And to the youth I’m saying, ‘Learn from this!’”

Chip invites street artists from around the world to put up their art on the reservation and plots each installation on a Google map. He calls this collaboration, which he started this spring, the Painted Desert Project.

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One of Overunder's contributions to the Painted Desert project. (Photograph by Aaron Lavinsky)

“I like the idea of [the project] being kind of a mash up where you get these artists out of context and have them create this work in their style, in this space, and really respond to the challenge of the vastness of the land here,” Chip says.

So far, artists Tom Greyeyes, Xiana Clitso, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, Overunder, Doodles, Labrona, Gaia, Roa, and JB Snyder have traveled to the reservation from near and far (the farthest being Roa from Ghent, Belgium). This month, Italians Pixel Pancho and 2501 will spend a week painting there.

While the art photographs well, it’s better in person. If you can take a trip through the region, don’t just drive by. Stop and take a closer look. Talk to people if they are around. There is a lot to learn from Navajo culture, and, judging from my experience, the Diné (Navajo people) are happy to talk about it.

“I’ve heard people say…that seeing my pictures just made the reservation seem like a more approachable, more personable place,” Chip says. “That’s a cool thing that the art can be used to foster communication and get people exchanging in a way that stereotypes are challenged and broken down.”

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Blanche Haskey. (Photograph by Aaron Lavinsky)

In late September, I was lucky enough to watch Chip paste a triptych on the side of a vacant stand in Bitter Springs while three Navajo women looked on from their neighboring jewelry stand. At one point, the women turned their chairs toward the Echo Cliffs behind their shop and stared intently. I thought I was missing something, but they said they were “just looking at the rocks.”

“Do you ever get tired of the view?” I asked.

“No, never,” said Blanche Haskey, who earned her wrinkles herding sheep, raising children, and selling jewelry. “And when we leave, we miss it.”

After 79 years of almost uninterrupted living on the reservation, this woman still finds wonder in watching the summer light tell the story of the ancient rocks she’s known since birth.

And at that moment, I understand why Chip expresses his love for the Navajo Nation so that everyone can see.

He’s creating beauty about beauty.

Follow Kayla’s story on Twitter @KaylaFrost.