Street artist Jetsonorama tries a new kind of healing in Navajoland

This story originally appeared in the March 23, 2012 print edition of High Country News:

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.

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 2.25.54 PMSixteen 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. More…