As water shortages are making headlines in the Southwest, two artists are collaborating to explore connections among water scarcity, climate change, and nuclear colonization. Chip Thomas and Ken Ogawa created two outdoor visual art and sound installations along Highway 89 just north of Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping to raise awareness about ecological devastation and injustice in the Colorado Plateau.

“Uranium mining has impacted generations of Indigenous people in this area,” said Thomas. “We hope people traveling the highway will stop to see the work, so they’ll learn more about water issues and that legacy.” 

Chip Thomas, “Water” (2022), installation at Gray Mountain, Arizona, with accompanying sound loop by Ken Ogawa. Image depicts Ben Delmar washing up before supper at the winter hogan on Cumming’s Mesa, May 1995. (photo by Chip Thomas)

Ogawa and Thomas spoke with Hyperallergic in mid-October, before a site visit to experience the work firsthand. Both installations feature photographs of people harmed by uranium mining, which Thomas has transformed into large-scale wheat paste panels, along with audio loops created by Ogawa to amplify related themes. This collaboration marks the first time Thomas’s work has incorporated an audio component. 

“Uranium” (2022) is located behind a building that once served as the Wauneta Trading Post, inside an old roofless ice house Thomas painted black and embellished both inside and out with numerous yellowcake-colored symbols for nuclear fusion that “speak to uranium contamination issues on the Navajo Nation.” Inside, he covered one wall with the image of a uranium miner named Kee John, who died of a uranium-related cancer. In one corner, he’s posted information about nuclear contamination, plus a US map showing uranium ore production by state that reveals its prevalence in this particular region.

Chip Thomas, “Uranium” (2022), installation at the old Waunta Trading Post with accompanying sound loops by Ken Ogawa. Image depicts Kee John mining uranium ore in the early 1960s before his untimely death from a uranium related cancer in 2000 (photo by Chip Thomas)

A small speaker installed in the opposite corner, which is similar in form to the air raid sirens of the 1950s, emits two of Ogawa’s sound loops channeling Geiger counter clicks, films about uranium mining and civil defense, and bells from his Japanese grandmother’s home altar. Ogawa included the phrase “What’s your job?” to prompt self-reflection among viewers about their own culpability and responsibilities moving forward. “I think there will be a very emotional response to it,” he said. 

“Water” (2022) wraps around two walls of a defunct gas station adjacent to the rundown remains of a former motel sitting along the highway at Gray Mountain. One panel features an old man named Ben Delmar washing his face before dinner. The other sets a young girl named Jett Gracie Clara Yazzie next to Navajo words related to water and rain. Here, a small speaker amplifies Ogawa’s sound installation culled from video taken while hiking with Thomas nearly 30 years ago and from recent rainstorms. 

Chip Thomas, image of Jett Gracie Clara Yazzie on “Water” (2022), installation at Gray Mountain, Arizona, with text painted by Daniel Josley and definitions from Rena Yazzie

Although this is their first sight and sound collaboration, Thomas and Ogawa have a long friendship rooted in their experiences working as physicians on the Navajo Nation, where Thomas still practices medicine today. Funded by Culturunners, the pair plans to create a total of five installations, each relating to a different element from traditional Chinese medicine. 

Together, these first installations referencing water and metal are titled “Combining Elements 1.” Thomas said they hope to complete “Combining Elements 2,” with installations related to wood, fire, and earth, in the summer of 2023. “It’s a way to look at the universe, but you can can also apply it in a philosophical sense,” explained Ogawa. Throughout the process, they’ll be talking with grassroots activists and researchers who work with water-related issues. For an upcoming installation centered on wood, for example, they’ve spoken with an expert on the ways bark beetles damage trees that are already stressed by drought.  

Chip Thomas during installation of “Water” (2022)

In addition, the artists are documenting the project on Thomas’s blog, where the initial post for this project lays out an array of historical and contemporary conditions driving this body of work. Thomas posted QR sites at both installations so people can use their cell phones to easily access details about the artwork and its wider context, as well as resources that can help them become better informed or more involved. Most notably, Thomas describes a massive uranium spill that devastated the Navajo Nation in 1979, the same year as the famed Three Mile Island incident, and cites a report indicating that white households are 19 times more likely than Native households to have piped water services.  

Their creative collaboration is quite impactful, despite Thomas’s observation that neither he nor Ogawa have formal art training. Thomas notes that he’s been making work in public spaces since 2009. “My journey in social practice art evolved from my love of street art and using it as a tool to create community,” he said. He’s best known to many for the Painted Desert Project he launched in 2012, which has brought numerous artists to the Navajo Nation to paint murals that have helped draw attention to places where Indigenous artists sell their goods. 

Chip Thomas and Ken Ogawa at the installation site of “Uranium” (2022) (photo by Chip Thomas)

In 2019, Thomas created a uranium-related installation on a building once used by a company that transferred coal slurry from Black Mesa to Nevada. In 2017, his work was featured in the Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land exhibition at Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff. 

As the dominant narrative elevates concerns about drought impacts on vacations, golf courses, or lush suburban yards, both artists are training their attention on the past and present implications of water inequities and uranium mining. “I hope,” Ogawa said, “that the pieces get people to think more seriously about their responses to what’s happening here.”

Lynn Trimble is an award-winning writer based in Arizona who specializes in arts reporting and arts criticism for regional and national publications.