NEIU Gets Heads Up

Emily Haddad, Editor-in-Chief and Greg Adler, Staff Editor

Photo by Greg Adler

NEIU student Steve DiMaso enjoys the calming presence of the Buddha head outside the B-building.
Photo by Greg Adler

Students may have noticed the sudden eruption of white Buddha heads in several places around the Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) campus and around Albany Park at the start of the Fall 2012 semester. These resin and fiberglass heads are part of a citywide art therapy project named Ten Thousand Ripples (TTR). Described as “a collaborative public art, civic engagement and peace project,” TTR seeks to use the unusual placement of the heads to supplant an image of peace in a total of 10 Chicago neighborhoods by 2013. The project’s goals are to encourage community unity, artistic responses unique to each area and open a safe space for dialogue about increasing peace in the surrounding neighborhood.

Mark McKernin, Chairman of the NEIU Art Department, acted as one of the community leaders for the Albany Park area, specifically guiding NEIU’s participation in TTR. “The statues are intended to use art as a catalyst to start a dialogue about peace and non-violence in solving conflict. Given our proximity to Albany Park, our diverse community and the internal conflicts we’ve seen over the last few years, the placement of the heads on campus seemed appropriate,” said McKernin. Mary Porterfield, NEIU Adjunct Art instructor described the heads as very calming. “When I see the statues, I get a sense of peace radiating off of them.”

NEIU student response has varied. Some described the statues as surprising and eye-catching while others wondered where around Chicago they would next appear. NEIU freshman Adriana Espinoza found the statues a pleasant addition to the campus grounds. “They’re different, they remind me of cupcakes,” Espinoza said. None of the students questioned appeared to know about the Ten Thousand Ripples project specifically, and many wished there were informational plaques accompanying the heads.

The Buddha heads were designed to appear as if just emerging from the ground. Designed by artist and nonviolent activist Indira Johnson, the heads symbolize the emergence of self-awareness and spiritual growth a person experiences through their lives. Johnson’s inspiration was the emphatic public response to her emerging Buddha sculptures at the Art Center of Highland Park in 2008, and the Chicago Cultural Center in 2009. “People said that they felt a sense of calm and peacefulness and this became the genesis for the Ten Thousand Ripples Project,” said Johnson in her artist statement.

They grace both high traffic locations and more secluded neighborhood locations selected by civic leaders of each community to promote reflection and peace. Currently there are a total of 25 heads placed in Roger’s Park, South Chicago, Pilsen, Uptown and NEIU’s own Albany Park. NEIU has one peeking over the green between Bernard Brommel Hall and Ronald Williams Library, and a second head situated facing the Student Union in the raised garden area beside the B-building. Across from the Kimball Brown Line train station, two heads watch the pedestrians and heavy traffic at Kimball Ave and Lawrence Ave. North Park Theological Seminary campus has a Buddha across from Ohlson Hall along Foster Ave. Beside the National Shrine of St. Jude and the Pilgrim Baptist Church of South Chicago on East 91st Street, one Buddha keeps each church company. There will be a total of 100 fiberglass and resin Buddha sculptures placed around Chicago by the culmination in spring of 2013.

TTR was designed by Johnson in conjunction with the education-based arts non-profit Changing Worlds. Changing Worlds was founded at Hibbard Elementary School in Albany Park with the mission to “foster inclusive communities through oral history, writing and art programs that improve student learning, affirm identity and enhance cross-cultural understanding.” TTR strives to bring neighborhoods together and enact “sustainable change” by erecting a symbol of peace as public art that localizes and initiates artistic and community response.

“TTR is rooted in the beliefs that art is for the people, that community art should contribute to daily life, and that creating safe forums for residents to talk creates a habit of dialogue and a foundation for trust and mutual understanding,” according to TTR’s website. With the current murder rate at 442 so far for 2012, a number that eclipses the total 2012 U.S. casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (285), a little trust and mutual understanding may be just what Chicago needs.