They appear when you least expect it: 300-pound sculpted heads of the Buddha, emerging from sidewalks, under the L tracks, and amid parks and gardens in some of Chicago's most densely populated and violence-plagued neighborhoods.
The public art project, titled "Ten Thousand Ripples," is meant to be a "catalyst" for encouraging conversations about peace in areas of Chicago that need it the most, says Indira Johnson, the Chicago-area artist who designed the heads. They number around 38 now, she says, but that number will grow to 100 by late spring.
Tucking the Buddha heads into pockets of city neighborhoods that would not ordinarily inspire transformative thought among citizens is part of the project's goal to beautify the city, Ms. Johnson says. But it's also to jolt people into changing the way they think about their environment.
"The [Buddha] image is beautiful, and serene, and looks lovely in a garden," she says. But it serves a different purpose "when you have it in a marginalized space that isn't so lovely."
Johnson is not a Buddhist, nor is the project meant to generate religious converts. She chose it because it is an unconventional image that speaks of peace more provocatively than, say, a dove, "which wouldn't surprise you or stop you in your tracks," she says.
The heads of the Buddha, which are not complete but appear to be rising from the ground, were inspired by an indoor art exhibition she installed at the Chicago Cultural Center a few years earlier that prompted visitors to take seats on the floor and engage in quiet reflection.
"It felt very calm and peaceful," she says. "I thought, 'What would happen if we worked with these [Buddha] pieces in different neighborhoods, in marginalized spaces?' "
Placed outside in areas such as South Chicago, Back of the Yards, and Albany Park, which experienced violence that put Chicago in the national headlines last year, the heads appear to be "growing out of the earth," Johnson says. "Just like all of us ... growing in our self-realization and our spirituality."
"Ten Thousand Ripples" launched last October, but planning started months earlier.
Johnson approached neighborhood community organizations and activists and suggested using the Buddha heads as a way to help generate discussions about peace. Communities were offered 10 heads each, five of which they can keep permanently; the remaining five will be part of a culminating event at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago on July 17.
"I wanted it to be their project," Johnson says. "They had to choose where to put them and when. We didn't expect the community to protect the pieces like they have. People have adopted them in a way [that shows] they think of them as their own."
In Albany Park, a neighborhood on the northwest side that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the city, the project folded nicely into a community violence-prevention effort that provided leadership training for youths, says Radhika Sharma Gordon, a coordinator with the Albany Park Safety Net Works, a coalition of social service organizations.
The heads showed up all over the neighborhood – on the grounds of a local university, in a planter outside a diner, at a Roman Catholic church, and at a public elementary school, which used the sculpture as the centerpiece of a weekly "peace art" project that emphasized conflict resolution.
"We felt a commitment to peace because we have been impacted by violence in the community and gang-related shootings," Ms. Sharma Gordon says. "Every day, the kids in school are experiencing low-level and sometimes more menacing forms of physical intimidation and sexual harassment by their peers.
"So we wanted this public call for peace [to be] something that would stimulate a discussion for communal harmony and provoke a reaction to get people talking about peace."
The actual production of the heads – portable versions weigh 15 pounds, while the largest are 300 pounds – is funded by start-up money from local foundations. Local communities help fund their installation. Originally ceramic, the heads are now made of fiberglass, filled with sand, and bolted to a cement base (the change was made after a few were stolen from their sites).
Vandalism and theft aside, some communities are discovering responses to the Buddha heads that are playful and even controversial.
Chris Skrable, who works with Partners for Rogers Park, a community activist group, notes that Johnson had said that "the goal of putting art in public is to provide reaction. And vandalism is, in itself, a response."
In Rogers Park, one of Chicago's largest and most diverse neighborhoods on the far north side, one of the Buddha heads received an extreme make-over in the first 24 hours after it was installed on a street corner next to an L stop. Someone decorated its eyes, cheeks, and lips with makeup. Twenty-four hours after that, someone else removed the makeup and restored it to pure white.
A second Buddha head was positioned on a patch of sand dunes on a nearby beach so that it faced people as they rollerbladed, walked, or jogged past. Soon afterward, the head mysteriously migrated to the water's edge and was turned eastward to face the water.
In the time since Mr. Skrable and his team returned it to the dunes, the head has been rotated five times, each time positioned so that its gaze is pointed to face different directions of the park.
"I love the fact that the people in the community have taken the image as their own and feel the level of freedom to interact with it," he says.
Johnson, who lives in Evanston, a northern suburb of Chicago, says that communities that embrace the heads are encouraged to use them in their own ways. In the Uptown neighborhood, for example, the sculpture will become the cornerstone of a local World Peace Day, featuring activities and workshops.
"Peace is such a large topic. If we can have conversations about it with each other, that's how peace starts. But how do you sustain it?" Johnson asks. "The artwork is a call and response."
One way that will happen is in Rogers Park, where Skrable says community groups, such as elementary school children and local religious congregations, will soon be invited to create their own public art relating to peace. The vision is to create a neighborhood walk where, in one stroll, visitors can pass by a spectrum of images that express a single theme.
"Public art is a pretty integral piece of our economic-development model for the neighborhood," Skrable says. "The peace project would be part of what we're about as a neighborhood."
Now almost halfway through the project, Johnson says its roots stretch back to her childhood growing up in a suburb of Mumbai. Her father wrote books that espoused the nonviolent teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, while her mother started a community-development organization known for its work in preventing the spread of leprosy.
Their efforts attracted the attention of Mother Teresa, who worked closely with them as she opened her own clinic tasked with stopping the spread of the disease.
"She was a very simple woman," Johnson says of Mother Teresa. "Maybe her greatness came from that simplicity and focus on what she wanted to accomplish."
Johnson eventually moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute, driven by a desire to engage the community to take action through public art. Even the title, "Ten Thousand Ripples," expresses that mission.
"I liked the metaphor of ripples," she says. "It was based on the idea that your actions go on and live past you."
• To learn more about the Buddha project, visit www.tenthousandripples.com.
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