NORTH LAWNDALE – The life-size sculpture stands about 6 feet, 1 inch tall, wrapped in old charcoal-colored tarp and painted dark blue to resemble a suit. The arms rest by a chest made of an electrical box. But the most defining feature sits on its shoulders: a concrete square with President Barack Obama’s face sketched onto three sides.
Built in the Urban Arts Retreat Center’s garden in North Lawndale, the homage is one of three prototypes designed by the organization’s staff and volunteers for a peace park project to beautify vacant lots in the neighborhood.
“We hope to increase the peace,” said Dianna Long, Urban Arts’ director. “If people sit in the parks and look at the peace sculptures and signs, then they’ll start ruminating on what this peace means.”
In February, North Lawndale ranked fourth in the city for violent crime and had 119 drug arrests, according to Chicago Police Department data. Long’s and the community’s effort to revitalize the lots is an early catalyst for positive change, said Tracie Worthy, the new communities program director for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation.
“The project will indicate somebody cares about the space,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for people who live near to see something positive.”
An online fundraising campaign launched last month on the website Indiegogo looks to raise $9,000 for the project. Long said the small budget will be bolstered with volunteer work and recyclable material. The Obama sculpture and two other homages to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison were built from local refuse by community members.
The budget’s size means land will need to be donated. No vacant spaces have been given as of mid March, but Long plans to search for the six or seven lots this spring.
“There are so many [vacant lots]; we want to claim more,” Long said.
The peace parks project was an offshoot of a larger venture by Chicago artist Indira Johnson. She passed out Buddha head sculptures to different neighborhoods to promote civic engagement. North Lawndale received 10 of them and has kept five, and the organization plans to put one head in each park.
“It’s a provocative image and in some extent unfamiliar to people,” said Johnson, who spent a year with the communities before giving out the sculptures. “We wanted to make sure they wanted that image in their public space.”
Along with spreading peace, the project aims to celebrate the African-American heritage of the predominantly black neighborhood, Long said each park will hold a sculpture honoring a local African-American hero along with a wooden mural constructed by local schools.
The first deadline is April 12. The organization plans to wrap up the project this fall.