Sunday, July 18, 2010

me and them

Flagstaff Photography Center asked me to do a presentation tomorrow night on my wheat pasting project on the reservation.  I put a power point presentation together about how I started doing the project.  I included images of work by JR and will comment in the presentation tomorrow on how I felt upon first seeing this work.  In truth, it's the same way I feel now in looking at JR's work once again - absolutely blown away.

He's got it all - technical prowess, imagination, the ability to produce gigantic installations and seemingly unlimited financial resources.  It's enough to make me ask "...why bother?"  

 And then there's Fauxreel in Canada blowing the shit up.

Again, the question "...why bother?" haunts me.  I thought about titling this rumination "me versus them."  But it really isn't me versus them.  It's me and them.  Because we're working in the same medium doesn't mean they've exhausted everything that can be said in it (though JR has come damn close).

While preparing the presentation for tomorrow I came across a poignant quote from comrade Keith Haring that resonates with me.  In fact, back in the 90s when I was doing what I called the Urban Guerrilla Art Assault in Flagstaff (posting photographs in public spaces), both Keith Haring and Diego Rivera were strong influences.  Haring wrote in his journal October 14, 1978:

"...The public has a right to art.  The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a 'self-proclaimed' artist to realise the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses."

Boom!  And that's where I come into the picture.  JR and Fauxreel aren't making art for people on the rez (although I extended the offer to you JR).  And besides, just as Eugene Smith and Eugene Richards shot black and white humanistic photo essays, each had a different message.  Eugene Richards didn't look at Smith's work and ask "...why bother?"  If he did, he figured out a reason to keep moving forward leaving his distinctive mark in the world of photography.

It's not a competition.  It's about personal growth and the journey with the art form as the medium.  My journey has been incredible so far.  So, to my peers - here's to moving forward together.

Me and them.


Blogger Mary Lucking said...

Why bother??
Because what you're doing is amazing. Yes, JR's stuff is great in all the ways you described, but what you are doing is as important (and beautiful) in different ways.

I love that you're making these pieces for your community, but you're also giving those of us who don't live on the rez a window into life up there.

Thank you. Keep it up.

July 20, 2010 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger chip thomas said...

hey mary! thanks for taking the time to read the blog and to share your kind and supportive thoughts. i've been processing why i do this a lot of late when i look at the work of folks like jr and fauxreel. it comes back to the keith haring quote for me and the support i get from members of the community. your message helps in this regard as well, so thank you!

July 21, 2010 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger Malinda said...

Hi, I looked at a few of your recent entries last week for the first time. A friend of mine had shared a link to your blog. I really like this entry. I am a grad student and often struggle with the "why bother" feeling in part because there is already so much writing in the world, and if everyone is writing and critiquing and publishing to make a name then who is reading? A somewhat different question, but also helped by the answer - it's the journey, the process, the personal and societal growth/understanding.

One of my friends commented about the motivation of street/graffiti artists being ego. Here is what I said in response:

i would like to read more of this blog and comment/ask questions. does he see part of the meaning of the artworks is the process and relationships/communication and the meanings that emerge through interactions with locals and tourists (including obtaining permission, but the second entry there is about this guy being mad that his property was painted w/o permission)? or is this about gifting images, and the only art is image, whether people like it or not? b/c a gift can be an imposition and in the context of a reservation community, i would think the act of defiance (not obtaining permission) has a different meaning than say on the streets of ny or london or on a west bank wall.

July 29, 2010 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger chip thomas said...

hey malinda,

thanks for taking the time to look the blog over, read a few posts and share your thoughts. that means a lot.
yes, the situation here is complicated. as you probably know, i've lived and worked here for the past 23 years. one of the things i've blogged about previously is the responsibility to cultural norms and to the people i photograph and whose images i paste. this dynamic becomes even more interesting given that i'm the physician for a lot of the people i photograph. i work hard to establish an ongoing friendship with people so there is no sense of exploitation on either their part or mine. remaining in the community as i present installations along roadsides holds me accountable in a way that many other street artists don't experience in that the community now knows i'm responsible for the installations. i no longer paste at night and try to conceal my identity. most urban street artists paste at night and make efforts to conceal themselves. i've a different relationship with the community.

with regard to violating people's private property and pasting images without permission, the response from the community has been mixed as well, though overwhelmingly positive and supportive. (i've also written about this several times on the blog.) more specifically, the guy who got upset with me about pasting onto a windmill didn't own the windmill (nor did he speak for the community in detering me). his home is closest to the community windmill and because i bombed an unused kiosk near his home (which he'd constructed), he stopped me from putting anything else up. (realize also that this was my third pasting ever and learned a lot about sensitivity to cultural norms from that experience. it was a week after this that a kiosk owner thanked me for bombing his kiosk which he decided to rebuild and start using again. he also asked me to paste the other side of his roadside stand.)

there are several other examples of roadside vendors seeking me out to paste images on their stands because they like them and realize tourists will stop there. in this sense i see the project as facilitating a degree of economic independence for people struggling to make ends meet. yes, i use this as a rationalization for not always asking permission. also, more often than not when people from the community stop as i'm doing an unsanctioned pasting, they're supportive of the work and thank me for the positive representations of the tribe.

so yeah, even though i try to remove my ego from the project and have it not be about me, the project has given me insight into my motivations for presenting art in this way. the project is very much about dialog with the community, tourists, readers of the blog and so on. the project is about the journey and, the project has reconnected me with the community, the land and other artists in a way no other experience in my life has. ideally, i'd like to use the project as a tool on the reservation for building/strengthening community. the roadside kiosk part of the project gets close to this goal. working with local students is another example of community building but still there's something missing. i think in order to fully realize this goal, i'd have to do it full time which i can't afford to do now.

i don't know that there is a perfect, guilt free, altruistic activity. i think i could get closer to something like that if i asked permission for each rez installation i do. but i don't. in the meantime, keith haring, diego rivera, eugene smith, roy decarava and a host of other humanists/artists continue to inspire me.

the dialog doesn't have to stop here. feel free to share any other thoughts you have. thanks again.


July 29, 2010 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Malinda said...

Hi Chip, thanks very much for your response. I did see somewhere, maybe your photography site, that you are a doctor but I thought I must be wrong! I'm going to start reading at the beginning of your blog.

August 2, 2010 at 7:56 AM  
Blogger chip thomas said...

thanks for taking the time to read the blog malinda. as i said before, feel free to continue the dialog at any point.

August 2, 2010 at 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Sandee said...

Hello Chip,

I happened to discover your blog while I was searching for videos of Flagstaff on youtube. We just passed through the region a couple of weeks ago and I was taken with the beauty of the countryside. I wanted to comment on your blog because I want to offer some words of encouragement. Your work is amazing, and just as you have been influenced by your predecessors, so too will you have an effect on those who witness not only the installation of your art, but the lasting effect in your community is something that is immeasurable, but it exists all the same. If there is something that I have learned as an Arts Advocate for over 10 years, you never know what kind of difference you will make in the lives of those around you, but just the fact that you did *something* will create a reality that didn't exist before. Look at how the tourists are now being attracted to the kiosks that display your artwork...that relationship exists now because of your contribution...such a positive result of your actions! I wish you continued success...All the Best, Sandee

August 15, 2010 at 12:55 PM  
Blogger chip thomas said...

thanks so much sandee. notes like this do as much for my psyche as people from the community stopping to give me support. thank you, thank you! all the best to you.

August 15, 2010 at 7:06 PM  
Anonymous Sandee said...

You're very welcome! I was wondering if you have considered applying for any grants to fund your work? "ideally, i'd like to use the project as a tool on the reservation for building/strengthening community. the roadside kiosk part of the project gets close to this goal. working with local students is another example of community building but still there's something missing." IMO, this would receive a lot of support from a wide variety of Art Councils, Arts Commissions, and philanthropists who help this sort of project continue to grow.

August 16, 2010 at 8:57 AM  
Blogger chip thomas said...

truth be told, between working 40 hours per week and just trying to get the installations up, i've not had time to pursue grant options (though the idea is appealing). if you've any leads, please pass them on. i anticipate being able to look into options like this during the winter months when the weather is less conducive for getting up. thanks!

August 16, 2010 at 11:31 AM  

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