Half hidden by sand and vegetation, the Buddha emerges from a small dune-restoration zone at the lakefront in Rogers Park. Today, the oversize bust of the Enlightened One (actually, just the top half of his head) gazes west into the neighborhood. Some days he peers southward at the skyscrapers in the distance. Other times, he regards the lake.
Installed near the shore in late October by a team of volunteers for the Ten Thousand Ripples project, the sculpture is an excellent case study in community art: The Buddha is there to move viewers, and in return they move him. “I have no idea why it turns or who’s turning it,” says Chris Skrable, the Rogers Park liaison for Ten Thousand Ripples, who helped lug the 300-pound sculpture to its beachy vantage point. “Somebody in the neighborhood wants the Buddha to see all of Rogers Park on a regular basis.”
Apparently a vandal with a sense of humor thought another of the statues could use some prettying-up and applied “makeup” to its head. The paint has since disappeared.
There’s plenty of mystery around the project. The Buddha half-heads seem to suddenly appear in public spaces, often without any explanatory sign. With 100 of them dotting the Chicago landscape, it seems Buddhas are the new cows. Ten Thousand Ripples, however, is not an official city project (as was the wildly successful Cows on Parade in 1999).
The fiberglass and resin heads were envisioned by Evanston artist Indira Freitas Johnson, who sculpted her first Buddha years ago. “The image of the Buddha growing out of the earth represents, for me, the spiritual growth that we all struggle to achieve,” she says. Inspired by the response to her emerging-Buddha installations at the Cultural Center in ’08 and in Highland Park the following year, Johnson conceived of Ten Thousand Ripples happening across the city. To actualize the expansion, she partnered with Changing Worlds, a local literacy and arts organization.
Nine Chicago neighborhoods and one in Evanston each have ten of the Buddha heads. Last week, new Buddhas were installed in the Back of the Yards in a peace garden, in front of a parish and near a public school. Another one travels with volunteers to senior homes and rehab centers, so people who don’t normally get out can still experience it.
A peace educator, Johnson hopes the project encourages quiet reflection. “The image of a rising Buddha with its serene countenance in unexpected urban landscapes” suggests, she says, “that peace can be found in the most mundane places.” The project culminates in July, when half of the Buddha sculptures will be gathered for an exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art in the Mag Mile.
“I love the idea of people stumbling on one of these [heads] under the El tracks or in some ugly vacant lot,” says Skrable, a service-learning program manager at Loyola. “The image of something beautiful in the midst of a lot of ugly—that’s a relief for the eye and a relief for the soul.”
Johnson and Skrable discuss Ten Thousand Ripples Saturday 23 at the Loyola University symposium “Pacem in Terris: Building Peace in Chicago and Beyond,” Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons, room 215 (6525 N Sheridan Rd, 773-508-8000). 10:50am; free.