Chicagoans of the Year 2013: Indira Johnson

Founder, Ten Thousand Ripples

Photo: Jeff Sciortino; Hair and Makeup: Heather Schnell/Ford Artists

Artist and Peace Activist

Founder, Ten Thousand Ripples

When Indira Johnson was growing up in Mumbai, her mother, Florie, ran an organization that helped people afflicted with tuberculosis and leprosy. Florie encouraged her neighbors to make daily donations—a single egg, a bottle of milk—which she asked her daughters to pick up before school. “I saw how important individual action is,” Johnson, 70, recalls.

Her mother’s influence—and that of her father, Francis Freitas, an art director who wrote and illustrated a biography of Gandhi—explains much about the painter and sculptor, who moved to Chicago in 1966 to study at the School of the Art Institute. Troubled by the epidemic of violence in the city, she recently undertook an ambitious public art project called Ten Thousand Ripples. Her objective: “nonviolence through art.”

Johnson created 100 white fiberglass sculptures of the top portion of the head of the Buddha (that age-old symbol of peace and enlightenment). Over the past 18 months, with help from the Pilsen-based nonprofit Changing Worlds, she scattered the three-foot-tall sculptures throughout Evanston and nine Chicago neighborhoods, from South Shore to Uptown (for locations, visit tenthousandripples.com). Installed, the Buddhas look like they’re springing from gardens, vacant lots, and streetscapes all over the city.

Embraced by community groups, the sculptures have become jumping-off points for block parties, peace parades, and pop-up galleries. They’ve inspired companion art projects in some neighborhoods and in others been used to beautify blighted street corners. “The ripples might be small, but hopefully they will keep multiplying,” Johnson says. “Eventually, I’d like to see a tidal wave.”

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