Multi-artist installation opens Saturday
at Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center

By cvlopez |


CHIP Thomas, the Valley’s artist, is sitting in an exhibit room preparing a piece to mount, while his colleagues and fellow artists chat away and tend to their own exhibits in three other rooms of the Officers Quarters at the historic town fort.

The collection of artistic talent all in one exhibit building is in itself mind-blowing – not just for little old Fort Garland but for the San Luis Valley, anywhere in Colorado, or frankly anywhere, period.

“To have this quality of talent partnering with us is amazing,” said Eric Carpio, director of History Colorado’s Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center.

On Saturday their collection of work comes into public view through the opening of the long-anticipated “buffalo soldiers: reVision” where Thomas serves as the lead artist and collector of talent in his latest endeavor focused on the meaningful history of the San Luis Valley. The installation examines the complex legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in the American West.

THOMAS, who works under the artistic name jetsonorama, blew minds in 2021 with his presentation of “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado” that captured and showcased the names of indigenous slaves and their owners in a dramatic presentation at the Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center.

Now jetsonorama brings a modern-day presentation of the Civil War-era Buffalo Soldiers. There are stories like Cathay Williams, formerly enslaved, who after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was motivated to join the U.S. military. Her challenge, however, was that women were not allowed to serve, so she used the pseudonym William Cathay to enlist.

“What’s interesting about her is she’s a Colorado story,” said Carpio, explaining that while Williams wasn’t stationed at Fort Garland during the Buffalo Soldier era, “she ended up settling in Pueblo and then Trinidad.”

The Baltimore-based muralist Gaia takes on Cathay Williams as his contribution to buffalo soldiers: reVision, presenting her as William Cathay and on an opposite wall creating a striking modern-day portrait of Cathay, herself. “I’ve created two portraits of Cathay Williams, one’s a traditional sense, the other one’s a contemporary sense,” Gaia said.

Chip Thomas, above, and Rosie Carter, below, work on the installation, which will be on view for at least two summers. 
| Emily Cook photos

“To have this quality of talent partnering with us is amazing.”

– Eric Carpio, director of History Colorado’s Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center

THERE are no known photographs of Cathay Williams, leaving the artist to his imagination and research. He collaborated with a model in Baltimore off which to base the paintings, and consulted with historians and experts on the Buffalo Soldiers’ dress and details, including a consultant in Trinidad who is leading an effort to build a monument to Cathay Williams.

“They’re two different visions of nationalism. We have a figure that I thought really resonated with the legend and mythology of Cathay Williams that’s living that could serve as the model and the basis to build the story and the new narrative from,” Gaia said.

“I was able to actually create something that positioned Cathay back in the infantry regiment with all the right accoutrements, if you will. That was quite easy,” the artist said. “Developing this concept and sort of trying to reframe the notion of protection in a feminine lens, to have a masculine, feminine dichotomy between the two portraits was really the idea that came late and close to the deadline.”

Throughout the week the collection of artist talent has been toiling in the Officers Quarters building where the exhibit will reside for at least the next two summer seasons. They include Esther Belin (Diné), an award winning poet and author of From the Belly of My Beauty, who writes a tribute to Cathay Williams among other contributions to the fuller presentation of buffalo soldiers: reVision.

“Everyone I approached was totally down to do this,” said Thomas of the artists he’s brought into the show.

“The credit,” Thomas said, “really goes to Eric (Carpio) for believing in the possibility and for feeding the dream and supporting the dream.”

Gaia, Eric Carpio, Tom Judd, Rosie Carter, Esther Belin and Chip Thomas at the Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center.

Here’s a bit more on each of the artists who contributed to buffalo soldiers: reVision.

Chip Thomas, lead artist: “The question I’m asked most frequently is how a black doctor in his 50s working on the Navajo reservation started doing street art on said reservation. In retrospect, it was only natural for this evolution to occur.” His art is responsible for the increased awareness around indigenous slavery in southern Colorado and now this modern-day review of the famed Buffalo Soldiers.

Esther Belin: An award winning poet and author of From the Belly of My Beauty. “My expression is a liberation functioning as a contrived reality boxed into Indian,” she says. Her work appears in various forms in buffalo soldiers: reVision, including through an ode to Cathay Williams.

Mahogany L. Browne: Executive director of JustMedia, described as a media literacy initiative designed to support the groundwork of criminal justice leaders and community members. A poet, writer and curator, she’s worked with Chip Thomas on other projects as well.

Rosie Carter: Her studio is in Yellow Jacket in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado. A visual artist and printmaker, her contribution to buffalo soldiers: reVision spans a wall as you walk into the first rooms of the exhibit. She works with screen printing and mixed media, and letterpress as the Mancos Common Press where she’s the Shop Manager. This is her first collaboration with jetsonorama.

Gaia: Famed street artist from Maryland whose work on Cathay Williams will have you talking. His street art has been documented and featured in several books on urban art, including Beyond the Street: The 100 Leading Figures in Urban Art. He is a 2011 graduate of the Maryland Institute of College of Art.

Andre Leon Gray: A self-trained multidisciplinary artist from Raleigh, North Carolina, who’s also collaborated with Chip Thomas, aka jetsonorama, on other works of art. In a composition titled “Warrior” he says “A warrior has got to be able to go against what seems to be popular. A warrior has got to up the ante, push the envelope. But in order to do that we got to be clear about who we are and what it is that we want.”

Theodore Harris: Philadelphia-based artist who co-founded the acclaimed Anti-Graffiti Network/Philadelphia Mural Arts Program where he teaches. He’s held residencies at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; 40th Street ARI, Philadelphia; Hammonds House Museum, Atlanta; and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut.

Tom Judd: His work shows up in a variety of media, including painting, collage, photography and installation work. He is based in his native Salt Lake City, and exhibited his first artwork at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1979 at the age of 25. His work shows up in major collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of Art and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

TOP PHOTO: Gaia and Esther Belin discuss the project with Chip Thomas. | clopez photo

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