CHICAGO — Some believe the solution to neighborhood violence is increased police presence and arrests. For others, it’s teaching parents how to raise respectful children. And then there is a small cadre of idealists who believe all it takes is art.
After all, what if the vacant lots littered with trash, the grimy underbellies of the L tracks and the public parks annexed as gang turf offered the kind of creative scenery reserved for tourists. In the urban din, could an artist’s voice make a difference?
That’s the theory behind Ten Thousand Ripples, a public art project that culminated last week when community activists installed the 100th statue of a partial Buddha head emerging from the ground beside a rose bush in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
Since November, 300-pound emerging Buddhas have suddenly appeared as if rising out of the earth in 10 neighborhoods across Chicago, including Rogers Park and Uptown in the north, South Chicago and Back of the Yards in the south and Lawndale and Little Village in the west. On June 4, community activists and the artist behind it all unveiled the final statue in front of Amor de Dios United Methodist Church.
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“We think of sculpture being at the Art Institute or gardens,” said Indira Johnson, the artist and peace educator whose exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center a couple years ago inspired the public art project. She noticed how the emerging Buddha caused visitors to stop and contemplate. “To bring it into neighborhoods, that’s something else. This is like a call and response piece in the public domain and people respond to it.”
As the name implies, Ten Thousand Ripples has intended to create just that — shock waves that reverberate through each community, sparking conversation, galvanizing neighbors and renewing efforts to improve each community’s quality of life.
Of course, installing each piece of art was not that simple. Johnson and her partners at the educational non-profit Changing World approached community organizations, businesses and houses of worship to help pinpoint 10 spots where the emerging Buddhas could have the greatest impact.
Five of the 10 statues will become part of an exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art starting July 20, then will be sold to cover the remaining costs of the project. The other five statues will stay put in their respective neighborhoods so conversations can continue and the art installations can have a lasting impact.
In addition to selecting sites, community leaders also had to develop programs that enabled children, senior citizens and families to address the various issues in their neighborhoods that prevented peace: bullying, gun violence, gangs, sexuality and interreligious relations, to name a handful.
“The sites have been carefully chosen by the community because we don’t know the same history that the community knows,” Johnson said. “When they are in a marginal space or when they are in a space that was chosen because it was a space of violence, it gives people pause to think what can they do. Now time has passed and no one has done anything. This is an opportunity to something.”
Schoolchildren have written plays about bullying and sexuality. Community organizers have offered safety workshops. One master gardener in South Chicago kept a statue in the back of his truck as he moved between gardens.
Jackie Samuel, the New Communities program director for Claretian Associates, said some communities had reservations about sponsoring a Buddhist sculpture.
“It really depended on the culture of the community and what they were open to,” she said. But most neighborhoods embraced the sculpture’s universal message of peace, she said.
In fact, Johnson herself is a Christian and the sculptures appeared outside a number of churches from varying denominations.
Mark Rodriguez, executive director of Changing Worlds, said he hopes the project instills a greater sense of neighborhood pride and respect for one’s surroundings, including the diversity.
“It changes the way you interface with an urban environment,” he said. “When you see a piece of garbage in an empty lot on the ground you might just walk past it, but if there is a beautiful sculpture in it you might think about picking it up because it’s impacting your view on this piece of art. You’re looking at your space and that public space in a much different light.”