Indira Freitas Johnson PROFILE — Art as invitation to peace and justice

Indira Freitas Johnson
One of the pieces for "Ten Thousand Ripples" being transported to an installation Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

Inside the tall fence surrounding the studio of artist Indira Freitas Johnson there is a fantasy garden. Sculptural objects of cement and rusted metal with colorful bits of mosaic tile reflect sunlight. Nestled in tall grass is a curiously giant foot; a startled round face. Indira Freitas Johnson has an easy laugh — these are my experiments, she says.

The word graceful comes to mind as she walks to the door of her studio —with gestural hands and an elegant shock of graying hair. She is dressed in a black sleeveless top with red piping framing slender dark skinned arms this warm Fall day.

Indira Freitas Johnson — hands, feet and the beauty of the cast-away

Her industrial-sized studio is arranged with exquisitely rendered feet and hands in various stages of completion. There is an intimacy to these symbols of the human body — hands that express openness and invitation; feet that have taken hero’s journeys. These sit among bits of rusted wire, twisted vines pulled from the side of a building, the circular font head from an old Selectric typewriter. Bits of discarded “junk” hold great fascination for her. They become beautiful from her attention to them; from her placing them in a context of beauty.

Indira Freitas Johnson
Recycled art in progress in the studio of Indira Freitas Johnson Photo: Stephen B. Starr
Indira Freitas Johnson
A foot as the metaphor for a peaceful path, in the studio of Indira Freitas Johnson Photo: Stephen B. Starr
Indira Freitas Johnson
Recycled art by Indira Freitas Johnson Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

In 2010, Freitas Johnson made her first installation of the now well-known “Ten Thousand Ripples” at the Chicago Cultural Center. Eleven emerging Buddha heads in pristine white sat atop rusty bedsprings spread around the gallery. People often sat silently in the middle of the gallery surrounded by the Buddha heads. She names this interactive approach to public art a “call and response” — placing a thing of beauty into a community setting and inviting those who stop to respond by enjoying a moment of tranquility.

Indira Freitas Johnson
Ten Thousand Ripples installation at the Chicago Cultural Center Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

A Mark on Chicagoland for Peace

The emerging Buddha heads became the center-piece of a public arts project undertaken by Changing Worlds and nine community organizations in the city of Chicago. An invitation to engage in conversation about social issues affecting the community was initiated followed by the placing of Buddha head sculptures in parks, plazas, alleys, lobbies and abandoned lots. The response was curious — people picking up scraps of litter to keep the sites pristine; people stopping to ponder a thing of elegance in an unlikely setting. “The Emerging Buddha sculptures are not magical” she says, “but when they are accompanied by an invitation to engage in intentional conversation, they can act as a catalyst to empower people.”

Crossing Cultures, Challenging Boundaries

Born in India to a social activist mother and an art director father who worked for the “Times of India,” Freitas Johnson’s father popularized the philosophy of Gandhi in a picture book translated into 300 languages. She says “We were a family of six girls and my parents never needed to articulate — ‘you can be who you want to be.’ We absorbed a sense of empowerment from the lives they were living.”

She came to the U.S. to study advertising design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1965 and met the man she wanted to marry. Becoming the wife of an American man was a social hurdle in her parents’ world so they went to India in a cross-cultural version of “Meet The Parents.” They lived for two years in Sweden before returning to the U.S.

Freitas Johnson is a self-taught artist whose work is intrinsically intertwined with her passion for social justice. Empowerment of women was on full display when she created the “I Can’t, Yes I Can” project a collaboration with MarketPlace Handwork of India in the Golibar slum of Mumbai. Women were invited to write their expressions of “I Can’t” on fabric squares — representations of the many constrictions placed on Indian women by family, society and popular culture.

Indira Freitas Johnson
Indira Freitas Johnson in her studio Photo: Stephen B. Starr

These were torn and hung between expressions of “Yes I Can.” The strings of flags were triumphantly paraded through the streets to their chants “we are strong; we can do anything.” The process helped participants became aware they could teach a new tradition of strength to their own daughters.

A Peace Activist

She created the Shanti Foundation for Peace in 1993 in response to ethnic violence throughout the world. This arts based non-profit has since merged with Changing Worlds a like minded organization that fosters inclusive communities through literary, and performing arts programs in schools and neighborhoods on themes of peace and acceptance. Freitas Johnson is disturbed by the problem of bullying in schools. She says, “How do we cultivate an environment where children feel good about who they are and don’t have to put anyone else down? What makes that happen?”

Indira Freitas Johnson
The women of MarketPlace Handwork of India parading their banners in the streets of Mumbai. Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

Freitas Johnson says “many people assume I am religious because I am Indian.” She was raised in a part of India colonized by the Portuguese that was predominantly Catholic. “My parents taught us two things —love god and love your neighbor. It is the basis for my openness to the beauty of all world religions.”

Echoes of Buddhism

Her piece “Where Sky Meets Water,” commissioned by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art program was a demonstration of the classic Buddhist and Hindu concept of impermanence. Over two years, she painstakingly incised the sacred Sanskrit syllable Om into hundreds of canna leaves. Participants decorated their leaves with markers, paint and chalk and released the leaves en masse into the Chicago River leaving them to fulfill the final aspect of life, dissolution.

Indira Freitas Johnson
Canna leaves inscribed with the Sanskrit syllable "Om" floating on the Chicago River Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

The Fields Project of Oregon, IL invited her to create a monumental five-acre field sculpture. She chose to depict the imprint of a foot on the site, a motif she returns to often as a universal symbol of our connection to the earth; a path inviting us to live with beauty and harmony.

Healing in Community

Freitas Johnson was commissioned to create a communal response to 9/11 in downtown Evanston using the Rangoli tradition from India where a woman welcomes the dawn by drawing a Rangoli pattern with rice flour on the threshold of her home to bring blessings on her family. The people of the household walk over it during the course of the day and it is gradually obliterated.

In Evanston, people worked with bits of earth, flower petals and rice flour. She says “As each person worked on their bit of space and stepped back, they saw a beautiful pattern emerge from the contributions of the group.” They circled the Rangoli and talked about what they wanted for the community and then walked over it. Destruction brings rebirth. Each participant took the memory of the beautiful Rangoli with them, an invitation to recreate beauty in the dark days of healing.

Indira Freitas Johnson
"Growing Peace" by the Fields Project in Orgeon, IL by Indira Freitas Johnson Photo courtesy of Indira Freitas Johnson

The work of Indira Freitas Johnson has become an important talisman for the value of community, creation of peace and empowerment of people. Her work embodies her passion for invitation — how will we fill the space of our lives with the small piece of earth we have been given? Her intimacy with everyday objects and the hands and feet that grace her studio invite the largeness of human opportunity.

Her art, as well as her life suggests that awareness coupled with intention can carry forward a legacy of peace for our children and our children’s children. She says, “of this I am certain. Peace can be taught.”

To learn more about the work of Indira Freitas Johnson, visit

Stephen B. Starr
Stephen B. Starr Photo: Eric Ramirez

About the Author:

Stephen B. Starr is Principal of Stephen B. Starr Design, Inc., a design and communication consultancy in Evanston, IL. Stephen is a former president of the Chicago Creative Coalition, organizer for the Chicago Weekly Sitting Meditation Group and founder and organizer of the Chicago Web Professionals. Stephen is nurtured creatively by the fine art of story-telling — especially in the theater. As a college journalism major, he has since followed the siren’s call of poetry and short story writing in his free time. He is interested in the wisdom of indigenous spiritual traditions and seeks inspiration in natural settings by gardening, camping, hiking and biking.

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