Remarkable Woman Indira Johnson

Remarkable Woman Indira Johnson (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / October 16, 2013)

Art is more than a creative outlet for Indira Freitas Johnson. For this self-taught artist and sculptor, it's an opportunity to connect communities and cultivate peace.

"Very often we think peace is such a big word and concept and wonder, 'What can my impact be?'" she says, sitting in her Evanston art studio. "But to understand that the small actions, through art or through conversations, those are what will bring us to peace ... that is why I am so drawn to public art projects these days."

Most recently, Johnson's sculpture of the emerging Buddha has gained much media attention. It has become the symbol for "Ten Thousand Ripples" (tenthousandripples.com), a public art and civic engagement project she developed with the nonprofit organization Changing Worlds, that gave 10 Chicago-area communities 10 of her emerging Buddha sculptures to help raise awareness of and promote peace.

Her work has been displayed in exhibitions and as part of public collections across the U.S., including Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Asian American Arts Centre in New York and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Raised in Mumbai, India, Johnson came to Chicago in 1965 to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree in advertising design at the School of the Art Institute. She met her husband, Karl, an artist, while pursuing her degree. She originally launched a career in advertising but left to pursue art, and care for sons Kurt and Bjorn, in the late '70s.

The following is an edited conversation.

Q: Why did you choose the image of the Buddha for the Ten Thousand Ripples project?

A: I created an image of the Buddha which to me is an image of peace — for me, he is emerging out of the ground and, just like we are, sort of developing our own spiritual selves. We were very clear from the start that this is not a religious image. I am not Buddhist; we are not promoting Buddhism. There were concerns from different groups, but it was always a point of conversation. We've had some really great discussions because of that. It opened some people up to see that there is a worldview and that art can be a catalyst for social change and how that can be done.

The idea was to have an intense and meaningful art experience with people as they were walking to work and doing their everyday activities, (and) this would hopefully trigger some peaceful responses.

Q: How does it feel to look back at your body of work?

A: I see a consistent thread, but the shapes have changed. I learned by doing. I started with drawing and then moved into sculpture over time. ... When I first started doing sculpture, I had small children and there was that expression of caring and nurturing but also the struggle between your personal ambition and then what is necessary for the family. You constantly have to remember what's important and your children — the nurturing — comes before personal urges. I see that in my earlier work. That has transcended into the struggle to bring people together and seeing how they can help make peace happen.

One of my public art pieces was a "Peace Bus" in 1994 where we had children identify actions for peace, and their drawings and their words were put on a CTA bus. It changed routes and at one time it came to Evanston, and we used to have a stop right in front of my studio. One day, I looked outside and saw the bus! It was amazing to see how people would stop and watch it go by while looking at the images. And that is very gratifying — seeing children smile because they know their work is on a bus and people are talking about it. Then they see how they've made a difference.

Q: How often do you travel to India?

A: I go back to India about once a year to work on public art projects. I did a project at the Museum of Contemporary Art called "Enough," where I asked people what they wanted. The underlying thing is, "How much is enough?" It started as an international project, so I was asking questions in India and wherever I traveled. It was interesting to see how there was a correlation to what everyone wanted. Maybe they expressed it in different ways but everyone wanted peace, education for their children and a better world for the grandchildren. And that was universal, whether I was in one of the slums of Mumbai ... or here. We all share the same yearning for peace and a better life for the future.

Q: What advice would you give your 20-something self?

A: When you are 20-something you are struggling to find a voice. As you get older, that voice comes out from doing. Most of all, you can do whatever you want but it's hard to imagine this at that age. But it's about taking the initiative. And look at your strengths. Often we think, "If I had this," or "If I was in New York, my art would be recognized" ... but to be able to look at your life and say, "What do you have? What are your strengths?" and then leveraging those strengths — this has been a life's lesson that I've learned as I've gone along.

Q: Any advice for an artist who is going through a phase of doubt?

A: I think for me it was holding true to my own voice. Very often people would say, "If you did this, then you would sell more or be better known." But always you have to go back to what is true to yourself.

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter @jenweigel

Drawing inspiration

Indira Freitas Johnson finds inspiration through the artistic works of others, including "the art from the villages of Bihar, India, where collective visions are ritually painted on floors and walls of huts." She also admires the environmental art of Christo and his late wife, Jeanne Claude. "I'm very drawn to artists who share my belief that art has a role to play in addressing social issues and can be used as a tool for social change."