If you spot a white Buddha head sculpture emerging from the ground in Evanston this spring, you can thank local artist Indira Johnson.
Johnson is installing ten “emerging Buddhas” around the city as part of a public art project called Ten Thousand Ripples, taking place in Evanston and nine other Chicago-area communities in partnership with the Chicago arts organization Changing Worlds. Johnson solicits input from residents of each area on where to place the Buddhas, then encourages community groups to start discussions around a theme related to peace.
In Evanston, that theme is “bridging differences.”
Johnson, who lives and works in Evanston, has been using the image of a Buddha head that appears to be emerging from the ground as part of her artwork for a long time. For her, the image of the emerging Buddha symbolizes the fact that people are a work in progress, “emerging” themselves just like the Buddha.
“It’s not complete, because we aren’t either,” she says.
In a recent exhibition of emerging Buddha sculptures at the Chicago Cultural Center, Johnson noticed that the image drew a peaceful, reflective reaction from viewers.
“That was my idea for the impetus of what would happen if you saw one out of context,” she said. “Would it be a catalyst for change?”
That led to the idea of placing the sculptures not inside a gallery but at various locations around a community. To make the project truly engaging, Johnson combined it with community-wide conversation about where the Buddhas should be located discussion of a local issue related to peace. Already underway in five communities, Johnson’s Ten Thousand Ripples project will culminate in a final exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art this July.
“Each community has 10 [emerging Buddhas] and they’re choosing the issue and where they would like to see the sculptures,” she explains. Besides Evanston, other communities include the Chicago neighborhoods of Rogers Park, Uptown, Albany Park, Auburn-Gresham, North Lawndale, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Little Village and South Chicago. Johnson says she chose most of the neighborhoods because they provided an opportunity to partner with a local arts organization.
While she’s not working with one main host organization in Evanston, Johnson has partnered with a number of community groups, including Family Focus, Open Studio Project, the Evanston Art Center, Evanston Community Foundation and its Friends of the Arts Fund, the Evanston Ecology Center, the Evanston Public Library and Foundation 65. The idea is that each group will host its own programs and events, inspired by the Ten Thousand Ripples project.
In other communities, where the Buddha heads are already installed, that process has generated some interesting results. In Albany Park, for example, a dancer plans to choreograph and perform a dance at the site of one Buddha head in an empty lot, while the Shambhala Meditation Center in Rogers Park is organizing a “meditation run” that will visit each of the Buddha heads in that community.
Evanston community groups are already coming up with their own ideas. Johnson hopes to partner with local schools in particular, perhaps to hang paper cranes in a park where one Buddha head might be located.
“There’s a lot of excitement around this project,” says Melinda Segal, a local arts educator who is partnering with Johnson in Evanston. The former founder of the Kids Can Dance group, Segal hopes to organize students to create a dance around the theme of peace.
While Johnson settled on the idea of “bridging differences” last year, three recent shooting deaths in Evanston have changed the conversation, she says—but not entirely. She has always hoped the Buddha heads would spur conversations about peace on some level.
“My whole idea is that, for each of us, peace means different things,” Johnson says.
The concept of “peace” can seem like a big, scary idea, she says. Her goal is to get people to think about small ways they can bring about peace on a local level—a goal that now dovetails with Evanston’s community-wide discussion of nonviolence following the deaths of three young men to gunfire.
“Right now, Evanston feels like we are in a time of grief,” says Segal. “For me personally, that’s why this project is so exciting.”
Johnson is soliciting input from community members on the locations of the ten 3-foot tall fiberglass Buddha heads she plans to install in the city this March. Suggestions so far include Evanston Township High School, the lakefront, a vacant lot at Church Street and Darrow Avenue and several local parks. Residents can vote online and make their own suggestions on the city website through Feb. 15.
“The whole idea is the community has to be engaged in the process,” says Johnson.
Ultimately, she says, the sculpture is only one part of the project, one part of the work of art.
“All of what the community does is the other part. It’s a catalyst,” she says. “In some ways, I think of it as a call and response.”