Buddha heads designed to get people thinking

Half-submerged Buddha head sculptures started popping up in five Chicago neighborhoods in the fall, and in 2013, the next phrase of the public art installation is set to turn even more communities on its head.

Ten Thousand Ripples—a collaborative citywide project presented by Changing Worlds, an educational arts nonprofit organization—is intended to spark a public dialogue about peace and nonviolence and to create innovative solutions to address contemporary social issues.

"The image of the Buddha growing out of the earth represents for me the spiritual growth that we all struggle to achieve as we travel life's path," explains artist Indira Freitas Johnson in her artist statement on the project's website. She was compelled to design the Ten Thousand Ripples exhibit based on the overwhelming response to similar Buddha sculptures she displayed at the Chicago Culture Center in 2008.

"Ms. Johnson found that people were sitting in the space with these sculptures, inhabiting that space, and actually reflecting and mediating, and this inspired her to consider what it would be like if these sculptures were moved out into the communities," said Mark Rodriguez, executive director of Changing Worlds.

A total of 50 sculptures were installed in Albany Park, Pilsen, Rogers Park, South Chicago and Uptown. An additional 50 sculptures will take root this spring in Auburn Gresham, Back of the Yards, Evanston, Little Village, North Lawndale—for a total of 100 fiberglass and resin Buddha heads in the Chicago area. (Specific sites for the heads were selected by stakeholders in each community.)

"What's compelling is that the Buddha sculptures are seen out-of-context," Rodriguez said. "Chicagoans will encounter the sculptures in unexpected places—many in high-crime or high-violence areas—then pause, we hope, for self-reflection and to engage their communities in dialog about violence prevention."

Ten Thousand Ripples represents a first for public art in Chicago.

"In the past, this type of exhibit has been centralized in Millennium Park or along Michigan Avenue," Rodriguez said. "This is the first one that is taking place in the neighborhoods. We kind of had to forage into uncharted territory as far as the permit process—but eventually we found our way."

The Buddha heads are just the beginning, according to Rodriguez, as each community brings its own distinctive approach to the project in an effort to underscore unity and neighborhood pride— including art classes, such as a peace symbol workshop, block parties, beautification initiatives, bike tours, and even some student-led theater projects.

Some community leaders are also contemplating adding to the Buddha head installations by displaying symbols representing the culture of each neighborhood. In south Chicago, community leaders are exploring the possibility of adding a silhouette of Martin Luther King Jr., and in Pilsen, stakeholders are considering displaying Corazon hearts or Day of the Dead skulls to represent the Latino culture in the area.

Each of the 10 communities involved in the project will get to keep five of their allotted Buddha heads, while the other five will be included as part of a larger exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art in August.

Rodriguez points to the project's moniker—Ten Thousand Ripples—as representative of what he hopes is the rippling effect of the Buddha heads and their ability to continually inspire neighborhoods to meet the challenges of urban living head-on, peacefully and with dignity.

Tony Peregrin is a RedEye special contributor.

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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