Tashi Norbu started his career as an internationally-acclaimed artist in a typically humble way. He was 4 or 5 years old, too poor for paper and pen, drawing a picture of the “Tortoise and the Hare” in the dirt of his Himalayan country of Bhutan. His grandfather was watching and thought Norbu had the skill to become a Thangka painter. Norbu not only mastered this traditional Tibetan art form, he studied Western Art in Belgium and Modern Art in Amsterdam. 

His latest project took him from his home in the Netherlands to Maywood. During the weeks leading up to July 4th, Norbu was busy working on a large-scale Buddha at ReUse Depot. The sculpture was commissioned by the Chicago Park District for the skateboard park at Roosevelt & Michigan in Grant Park. 

The Buddha combines all of Norbu’s influences. Using wooden boards, Norbu incorporated the modern western form of Cubism. The Buddha itself is an eastern icon, with Norbu painting Buddhist mantras about compassion on the boards. Finally, the sculpture embraces the modern sport of skateboarding. It has a passageway at its base that allows extreme sports fanatics to skateboard through the sculpture. By constructing the Buddha from recycled materials, the sculpture, “Carries a huge message regarding the deforestation of Tibet by the Chinese,” the sculptor said. 

Norbu could not have found a better place to create his 15-foot sculpture than ReUse Depot. Owner Kyle Fitzgerald generously donated the thousands of dollars of wood and paint that were needed. He also provided all the tools. Fitzgerald even joined in the work, happy to fire up his chain saw. Other community members joined in to paint the Buddha. But Norbu’s steady partners were Brooks Warman and Matt Doljanin. They provided hands-on help because Norbu’s time is very limited.

Warman and Doljanin met at North Park College, as sophomores studying business economics. College was great but both were itching to apply their knowledge in the real world. Doljanin’s father, Patrick, manages top boxers from around the world. “I always wanted to manage someone with talent,” Doljanin said. “I wanted to work with artists.” The two friends left North Park to start North Branch Management. Norbu is one of their top talents, commanding high-end prices for his pieces. 

Warman was scouting in Maywood, looking for a historic building to house their gallery, when he stumbled on ReUse Depot. Director of Operations Katie Widmar, greenlighted the project and allowed them to build Buddha in their parking lot. Norbu already had a vision for the sculpture and they had Hal Link, who runs a woodworking shop, design the piece. They submitted the drawings to the Chicago Park District and got the OK to build the Buddha. They started work in mid-June and added boards to the sculpture every day. They worked feverishly because Norbu was scheduled to go to San Diego to create a piece called “Stairs to Heaven.”

It was heavenly for Warman and Doljanin to work alongside their star artist. ReUse Depot was also a godsend. “It’s the perfect partner, because it’s saving trees through recycling,” Warman said. “We miss having AC and a computer but we get to work hands-on with Taji.” The project was even more of a treat for Doljanin because Norbu stayed at his place for several weeks. “I learned a lot about Tibetan culture and selflessness,” he said, “I learned life lessons about how our actions affect others.”

“Compassion is the key trait of Tibetan Buddhism,” Norbu said, “My art comes from compassion.” He used Fitzgerald as an example of this spirit. “Kyle’s a great guy. He’s not greedy. He’s not a miser. He wants everyone to work together to save the Earth. I’m happy to be part of this movement.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.