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Buddha Sculptures Promote Peace and Beauty in Unexpected Places

By Patty Wetli | November 1, 2012 9:54am | Updated on January 17, 2013 11:39am

ALBANY PARK — Can art inspire peace?

That's the central question behind Ten Thousand Ripples, an ambitious city-wide public art installation conceived by artist Indira Johnson.

Her vision: to locate Buddha-head statues in unexpected places in hopes of sparking conversation about peace.

Albany Park is one of 10 neighborhoods across Chicago participating in the experiment.

A first wave of Buddhas were installed in five neighborhoods last fall, with a second wave coming in spring 2013. Pilsen, Uptown, Little Village and Back of the Yards are among the other chosen locations.

Over the course of two years, Johnson met with numerous community organizations before settling on the eventual hosts for the statues of Buddha, the spiritual leader whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism.

"We wanted to go into neighborhoods where there were challenges," she said. "We weren't interested in being on Michigan Avenue."

Peace so often is associated with beauty, Johnson noted. Ten Thousand Ripples takes that idea and stands it on its head, attempting to create that same sense of serenity in marginal spaces.

"Can you meditate in your alley?" she asked.

Albany Park Community Center (APCC), the North River Commission (NRC) and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) teamed up to bring Ten Thousand Ripples to Albany Park.

"We've just learned time and again that artists are able to access our thoughts and emotions and provoke our thinking the way few people can," said Radhika Sharma Gordon, former coordinator of the Safety Net Works program for APCC.

Locations for the Buddhas were determined in part by a series of community meetings where attendees were asked to identify places in the neighborhood where they either felt peaceful or unsafe, according to Rebecca Rico, program coordinator and office manager for NRC.

One of the Buddhas is situated on a vacant lot at the corner of Central Park and Lawrence Avenues "emphasizing the barrenness of some of these large unused spaces," said Gordon.

Another rests inside a planter at the corner of Montrose and Whipple Avenues —  "an area that has seen a lot of gang violence," said Rico.

By contrast, a pair of Buddhas can also be found at Global Garden, where a community garden and urban farm have sprung up on the site of a failed development.

The juxtaposition of the starkly white Buddhas against an urban background provides much of the exhibit's visual interest. "It symbolizes something clean and pure over all the crazy nonsense," Rico said.

Mark McKernin, professor and chair of the art department at NEIU, helped install the Buddhas, including two on the school's campus. The statues, crafted from lightweight fiberglass and resin, originally were filled with 100 pounds of sand and secured to the ground with metal spikes.

Thieves were not deterred.

A Buddha located on the South Side was vandalized — "They left the Buddha, they just wanted the stakes for scrap metal," said McKernin — and another was stolen.

"[McKernin] said, 'There's no way anyone can take this.' And...there is a way to take them," said Johnson, who replaced the missing sculpture.

The Buddhas are now attached to 300-pound concrete bases, though Johnson is prepared for the eventuality that more of her artwork may be targeted by bandits.

"We want to document the process," she said. "Why someone was so angry" that they would steal a Buddha. "That's the whole conversation."

In addition to giving the Buddhas a home in their communities, Johnson asked participating organizations to develop programming around the statues that spurred dialogue about peace.

To that end, APCC, with funding raised by Ten Thousand Ripples, placed artists in residence at North River Elementary, where instructors Holly Hutto and Pamela Chermansky of Global Explorers Kids engaged K-5 students once a week in multi-disciplinary art projects connected to the concept of peace.

"We played a lot of different theater games, did some musical meditation," said Chermansky. "A big part of Global Explorers in general is learning how to treat each other with respect, listening, waiting your turn, learning patience."

Conflict resolution was another key message presented to the children.

"At my house, when I see fighting, I help," said 10-year-old Bryan Garcia, who participated in the program.

Near the end of the 10-week course in late December, the students invited the community, including Johnson, to a sort of peace pageant. They played tug of war, joined hands to sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and unveiled a "peace tree," festooned with with messages like "no more guns."

Johnson surveyed the scene and said, "I had the seed of an idea and it blossomed. This is exactly what I wanted to happen."

The Buddhas will be in place in Albany Park through March, according to NRC.

For a self-guided tour of Albany Park's Buddhas, the locations are:

Albany Park Community Center, 4730 N. Kimball Ave.

Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N. St. Louis Ave. (2)

Southeast corner of Lawrence and Central Park Avenues

Kimball Plaza, Northeast corner of Lawrence and Kimball Avenues

Northeast corner of Montrose and Whipple Avenues

Global Garden, 2950 W. Lawrence Ave. (2)

Frankenstone Art Center, 3310 W. Foster Ave.

NRC is awaiting approval on a final location along the CTA Brown Line, possibly near the Francisco stop.