Revisiting the Buddha: Checking in with Indira Johnson

photo 2A year after we awarded the 2012 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment to Chicago artist Indira Johnson, we thought we’d bring you an update on her work. We honored Indira for her use of public art to address issues of urban violence. The project began about 5 years ago, when she became preoccupied by a radical thought.  “How would it change an urban space,” she wondered, “if a Buddha head was in an empty lot, under an El track or on a street corner? What conversations might begin to take place that had not seemed possible before?” Indira dared to imagine installing 100 fiberglass and resin Buddha head sculptures in 10 Chicago communities as a catalyst to community generated peace building programs. For Indira, the Buddha head represents a “societal longing for peace” and over the years people had responded to being in the presence of her Buddha head photo 4sculptures with unexpected feelings of serenity. So it seemed natural to her to use the image of the Buddha to create opportunities for peace in neighborhoods longing for a respite from urban violence.

She called her vision Ten Thousand Ripples. A year ago, she began turning her dream into reality with the help of Changing Worlds and community representatives from around Chicago. Now you can stumble upon her sculptures as you travel through the city. And as the first year of the project comes to a close you can visit the exhibit now through November 3 at Chicago’s Loyola University Museum of Art. The exhibit chronicles the community-building conversations and art projects that her sculptures helped spark. As Indira took me and my husband Keith on a tour of the LUMA exhibit, our friend Peter asked what made her think that her Buddha head project had made a difference for peace. Peter lives and photo 3works in Chicago and he is well aware that in 2012 Chicago recorded over 500 deaths from gun violence. That’s a big problem to tackle, even for the Buddha! Indira answered by explaining that she thinks peace happens in small ways between people, one interaction at a time. “When I am out walking and someone I pass smiles at me, I feel happy, more peaceful,” she explains. She believes that the more we learn about one another and hear one another’s stories, the better chance there is for peaceful relationships to take shape. And that’s exactly what happened with the community projects that took shape around the Buddha sculptures.

The peace building projects ran the gamut from small group discussions to interactive art projects in public parks to helping a young child grieve the photoloss of his mother. One boy sculpted his own Buddha head, but his head had a hole in it left by the bullet that killed his mom. Indira explained that the group gathered around him to help him think of something that would fill the hole, and he decided on a light bulb because of the light his mother was, and still is, in his life. It is the hundreds of small stories like that one that took place in the past year that convince Indira that her Ten Thousand Ripples project did indeed cause ripples of peace throughout the city. Of course, the work is not over. During the coming year Indira and her team will continue their work with the Chicago communities to sustain the momentum for peace that their engagement with the Buddha heads began. If you’d like to help support Indira and Ten Thousand Ripples, you can make a tax deductible donation to Changing Worlds or purchase your own Buddha head for your home garden. And I suppose it couldn’t hurt to smile at strangers a little more often, too.

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