'Urban Buddha' gets a Grant Park transplant

Sculpture makes a strong environmental statement

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

The Buddha that was constructed at ReUse Depot on Madison Street in Maywood this summer [Buddha gets a boost from ReUse Depot, News, Aug. 17] has been installed in more spectacular surroundings. The 15-foot-tall sculpture now sits at the south end of the Grant Park Skate Park, near Roosevelt and Michigan. The work was created by internationally-acclaimed Tibetan artist, Tashi Norbu. "Urban Buddha" is his first outdoor piece to be displayed in the United States.

Michael Dimitroff, manager of art initiatives for the Chicago Park District, said the Buddha is more than a stately figure of "peace and benevolence." Having been constructed from recycled materials, it expresses a powerful message, protesting the deforestation of Norbu's native Tibet. Norbu painted Buddhist truisms on the wood pieces, e.g. "Remove yourself from ignorance" and "Be the flower not the bee." Dimitroff said, "All the messages were right."

The Buddha was constructed using 3,500 pounds of reclaimed wood donated by the owner of ReUse Depot, Kyle Fitzgerald. In addition to the wood, the recycling center donated the vibrant orange and green paint used to decorate the sculpture. Park officials, who had commissioned the work and approved its drawings, hope the statue will draw visitors to the south end of Grant Park when the skate park closes for the winter.

Working with these officials was Bob O'Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy. The conservancy is an independent body that plans projects like the Skate Park and festivals like Lollapalooza. 

"We want to make the park as green as possible but also active and interesting," O'Neill said. "'Urban Buddha' falls in the 'interesting' category."

O'Neill was first approached about the project 6-7 months ago by Sarah Rose Warman, who had collaborated with Norbu on a project in New York. She told O'Neill that Norbu could create a sculpture for Grant Park. It took months to get approval from the park district and the mayor's office. 

"Grant Park has a lot of visibility and many artists want to display there," O'Neill noted. "Tashi was tenacious to get it done."

To land the statue, O'Neill worked with a consulting firm, North Branch Management, which represents Norbu in his artistic ventures. One of the partners is Rose Warman's brother, Brooks Warman. The other partner is Matt Doljanin. They spent weeks this summer helping Norbu construct the sculpture. They enjoyed working with the artist and soaking up his wisdom. He is one of their top talents, commanding high-end prices for his pieces.

With its materials alone, the sculpture is worth $30,000. The Chicago Park District spent an additional $3,200 to install it and place a circle of rocks around it, where visitors can rest.

"We shepherded the project down to the last minute, getting insurance for the sculpture," O'Neill said. "We hired a sculpture installation expert. It took a flatbed semi to move it." On Oct. 25, the statue was loaded onto the semi at ReUse Depot and driven to Grant Park. 

"We used a crane to lift it into place," O'Neill said. "It's a cumbersome piece, large and non-symmetrical. Kyle Fitzgerald was there for the installation. He used a nail gun to put more and more nails into it, to stabilize it."

"Urban Buddha" is intended to be a temporary sculpture. "We designed the skate park to display sculpture," O'Neill said. "It fits well there; it's very visible and getting exposure to people from all over the world. It's getting a positive reception. You want a piece people will talk about, and learn more about. We convinced the park district to accept it for at least six months, with a possible six-month extension." 

According to a Chicago Park District statement, "This artwork is a silent speech addressed to every bystander with a message of awareness about environmental issues like global warming and tropical deforestation in Amazonia and Tibet."

"The sculpture not only practices what it preaches, but it is a social work," Dimitroff said, "in the sense of peace, benevolent acts and expanding cultural awareness through art." In his position at the park district, Dimitroff oversees a "really diverse array of urban art. 

"We have three other Buddhas," he noted, "one in Jackson Park, one on the lakefront and another at Stearns Quarry Park. One is entitled 'Ten Thousand Ripples.' Its energy radiates out a humanistic message."

Dimitroff takes these messages to heart. The district stockpiles wood from fallen ash trees and arranges with Sterling Lumber to have this wood milled for future use in their workshops. "It's full-circle re-use," Dimitroff said. 

The park district plans to hold a dedication of "Urban Buddha" on a Sunday in the spring. 

"It's going to be an event with skateboarders to get their reactions," said Dimitroff. The sculpture is already stirring interest among visitors to the park. They are drawn by its striking form and powerful statement. As Norbu said, "The harmony of nature plays a great role in human survival on Earth. We can learn everything from nature and its creation."

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