Art as life: Gradually fading away

(Courtesy photo - James Thomas)

The debate over the Arizona Snow Bowl and the use of wastewater to make artificial snow have Flagstaff resident John Running, Northern Arizona University photography professor Sam Minkler and NAU climate science and solutions graduate student Stephanie Jackson talking.

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times


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(Courtesy photo - James Thomas)

TOP: A mural of 15-year-old Craigen Jordan Jr., from Inscription House, Ariz., embellishes the announcer's stand at Austin Mix's roping arena, located just outside of Tuba City.

BOTTOM: Klee Benally, an opponent of the use of wastewater to make snow for the Arizona Snow Bowl, and his wife Princess are depicted on a Flagstaff street.

The images of John Running, Sam Minkler, Stephanie Jackson and Klee Benally and his wife Princess were pasted on the side of a building on 111 E. Aspen Ave. in Flagstaff.

Minkler's and Jackson's images were installed on structures at Austin Mix's roping arena just outside of Tuba City. In one image, Craigen Jordan Jr., a 15-year-old roper from Inscription House, adorned the announcer's stand.

But as long as James "Chip" Thomas has consent, he pastes his work anywhere there's a bare wall in the Western Navajo Agency.

It's been 24 years since the Raleigh, N.C., native, who calls himself Jetsonorama, moved to the Navajo Reservation.

His photographic storytelling style is spread over buildings, shacks, rodeo stands, tanks, trading posts, and other structures.

When he arrived to the reservation in 1987, he altered a sign that said "Welcome to Pepsi Country" to "Welcome to Diabetes Country" to draw attention to the diabetes epidemic.

It all started during the early '80s in West Virginia when he was working on billboards and graffiti along streets.

Influenced by the early hip-hop culture, he took frequent trips to observe street art New York City.

"I feel that I'm just coming into my own as an artist," Thomas said in an interview. "I've been in the habit of photographing and having shows. I've had one or two shows a year."

"But I wasn't really satisfied as an artist by taking photographs in a documentary style and putting them on gallery walls," he added.

Thomas began a project called "Urban Guerrilla Art Assault" in Flagstaff during the mid-90s. The project included his skewed and defective photographs.

Thomas said he posted his "reject" photos that had been cast aside in his darkroom on public places.

"If someone had a sign up for 'Lost Dog' or 'Roommate Wanted,' I'd just put a photograph up in that space," he said. "Sometimes I would give it a title, and other times I wouldn't."

While traveling through Brazil in 2004, Thomas noticed the intense dynamism of street art. In fact, he traveled there again in 2009 and connected with people who expressed their creativity on walls.

Thomas is a photographer and a muralist.

"I'm starting to do something beyond straight photography at this point," he said. "There's several things I really like about it, I get to share my work that isn't on the gallery wall with people."

Thomas's ongoing project is called "Big" - the enlargement of his black and white photographs. Using Adobe Photoshop, he produces tiles of photos to be printed at FedEx Kinko's in Flagstaff.

"Kinko's has a laser printer that prints up to three feet wide," he said. "So the bigger the picture is, the more three-feet strips I have."

In order to prepare the strips for mounting, he cuts along the edges of each strip for a seamless border. Using a homemade wheat paste made of Blue Bird flour, sugar and water, he glues the strips onto a wall.

"It's like making a puzzle," Thomas said. "When I put it (strips) on the wall, it's like putting the puzzle back together.

"I'm pleased to say that I have a large collection of Blue Bird flour sacks," he added. "My biggest one is a 50-pound sack. I have several of the 25-pound sacks and several of the little 12-pound sacks."

The paper easily erodes outdoors.

"It's OK that it fades away over time," Thomas said. "That same energy influences what I'm attempting to do with my project."

He explained that over time, life itself fades away.

"I really feel that this wheat-pasting project has deepened my relationship with the community and that I have an opportunity to talk with people," Thomas said. "It really is a project about love. I just want to put a positive vibe out in the community and I hope that comes through as I'm doing it - as people see the images."


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