Street artist Jetsonorama tries a new kind of healing in Navajoland
In 1991, a young doctor delivered a baby Navajo girl in his backseat. A man had pounded on his door earlier that evening, his girlfriend in labor and his truck too slow for the 50-mile trip to the Tuba City, Ariz., hospital. The doctor loaded the woman into his own car, thinking they could make it. The baby, whom we'll call Emily, had other ideas.
Sixteen years later, Emily was in treatment for meth abuse. In 2009, the doctor visited the girl in jail, where she was serving time for drunk driving. Her drinking had worsened after her mother's death, she told him. But she looked hopeful: In nine days she'd be out. Then, she promised, she'd stay clean.
The doctor was at a turning point of his own. He told the girl that he had started moonlighting as a street artist under the pseudonym Jetsonorama, which he prefers we use in print. It was a different sort of healing project.
"(Emily's) story is very typical here on the Rez," Jetsonorama says now from his home in Inscription House, in northeastern Arizona, where he's the only permanent physician at the Indian Health Service's clinic. "The recidivism rate is quite high, the teen pregnancy rate is quite high. There's an epidemic of methamphetamine use. In some ways, there's not a lot of hope. I'm trying to present especially positive images of the Navajo on the reservation -- to inject an element of beauty, an element of surprise and an element, hopefully, of pride."
He draws photos from his portfolio, enlarges them in two-by-two-foot sections at a print shop, cuts them out on his kitchen floor, and uses wheatpaste -- a mixture of Bluebird flour (favored by Navajo grandmas), sugar and water -- to attach them, piece by piece, to ruined buildings, roadside jewelry kiosks, market walls, water tanks. Any surface will do, as long as it's big enough for his subjects to stand out against the vast stretch of desert between Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, where tourists race through at 70 miles per hour. The images are monolithic, visually arresting and biodegradable -- echoes of human life on the landscape, almost as fleeting in the wind and weather as the moments captured in the photos themselves.
A black man originally from Raleigh, N.C., Jetsonorama sports a trim, frosty beard and often a jaunty fedora and sunglasses, looking unassailably hip for his 55 years. He traces his artistic inclinations back to a seventh-grade stint at a progressive, hippie-run Quaker school. Later, during his family practice residency, he dabbled in graffiti and hip-hop.
Jetsonorama settled permanently on the Rez in 1987. There, a neighbor helped him assemble a darkroom, and he began documenting Navajo life. In the early '90s, he took to posting small prints around Flagstaff. That idea evolved into the wheatpasting project after a 2009 sabbatical to Brazil, where he spent time with a community of street artists and dug more deeply into that world -- finding particular inspiration in the pasting work of the renowned street artist JR. The doctor's own handle is a mashup of his initials, the name of a family dog, an email address, and the 1960s-era space-age cartoon.
The response to Jetsonorama's "hits" -- both sanctioned and unsanctioned -- over the last two and a half years has been largely positive. The pieces spark a sort of spontaneous community-building: Passersby stop to investigate, trade stories about the people pictured, share thoughts about the images with others later. Last fall, Jetsonorama decided to push these off-the-cuff conversations to a new level with more provocative pieces, such as an image of a baby underneath a large chunk of coal -- a metaphorical black cloud referencing the tribe's complex relationship with the fuel.
The work can be tricky. Last year, he learned to be more careful after some tribal members read a lurking coyote in one of his pieces as a skinwalker -- a Navajo witch. He tries to be respectful, saving his edgier and more magical-realist proclivities for his urban pieces. "Who am I as an outsider to use images from the culture and give them back to the people?" he observes. "But I think it's important that I'm here. I'm trying to facilitate understanding and growth and exchange."
"He's earned that right, especially in his capacity as a medical doctor," says longtime friend Shonto Begay, a Navajo artist. "What he's done with the people -- it's really special. He's like a latter-day medicine man."
It's fitting that Jetsonorama calls many of his pastings "Love Letters to the Navajo Nation," for they seem to celebrate the grace, strength, and myriad ephemeral beauties that arise even in the most difficult places. Just six hours after Emily's birth back in 1991, Jetsonorama attended a healing ceremony for another patient -- a toddler who had suffered febrile seizures. A healer and his daughter spent all night composing a meticulous, multicolored sand painting, then sang a prayer and placed the child at its center to swirl her hands and feet as she wished. "The painting ... was being erased as (she) began her journey to wholeness," Jetsonorama later recounted on his blog. Wheatpasting is like that, too, the images fading once their purpose is served. "The healing," he wrote, "is in the letting go."