Conversations: Here & Now is a sculptural installation in bronze by Evanston’s own, internationally known Indira Freitas Johnson.

Her seven unique bronze chairs, sometimes referred to as The Chairs, stand on a large colored cement slab at the northwest corner of Raymond Park, Chicago Avenue and Grove Street in Evanston.

This sculptural artwork was commissioned by Evanston resident Chie Curley and given as a gift to the city in memory of her mother, Isabel Alvarez MacLean. The latter lived in the building across Grove Street where the installation can be seen from the windows of her former corner apartment. The sculpture was dedicated on Mother’s Day, 2009.

A family of artists, MacLean was a painter and her brother was the famous Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Curley is a sculptor and was active at the Evanston Art Center and on the Evanston Arts Council where she served as co-director. (There is no longer a director, but a chair.)

As a volunteer, Curley co-curated 35 years of exhibits at the Noyes Cultural Center in Evanston, along with sculptor Barbara Goldsmith. Their efforts earned them a Mayor’s Award for the Arts in 1997, an award for curatorial expertise from the Evanston Arts Council, and the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award from the Illinois Humanities Council in 2009.

Originally, Conversations: Here and Now was an entry to a city-sponsored international competition for an artwork at the corner of Davis Street and Sherman Avenue. The sculptors who entered, submitted maquettes (models), a common practice, which were then seen by a committee that included Curley. Although Freitas Johnson’s particular proposal did not win the commission at the time, Curley remembered it, loved it and commissioned it privately, in memory of her mother. 

The artist had intended to create the chairs out of the clay that she traditionally worked with. But she chose the “best” foundry in the U.S., the Walla Walla Foundry, in Walla Walla, Washington, which casts for Deborah Butterfield.

The cost of working with clay models was so high, compared to wax, Freitas Johnson learned to work with wax – by “trial and error,” she claimed. Of course, she had to buy the necessary equipment and air conditioner her studio needed for the wax. She credits an excellent assistant for important help.

Johnson’s family are activists and artists

Freitas Johnson is from a family of activists in Mumbai, India, where her father, Freitas, was the art director for The Times of India, a major newspaper at the time, and a prominent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Freitas Johnson’s father wrote and illustrated a book on Gandhi’s life, which was told mostly via pictures because many Indians could not read. Freitas Johnson said she always wanted to be an artist, was always encouraged in art and always had access to art supplies in the family’s not-too-large apartment.

Freitas Johnson came to this country in 1965 to attend St. Xavier College on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She already earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Bombay. Freitas Johnson’s mother worked in India with Mother Teresa, and the famed nun and missionary (now a saint) arranged for her to have a complete scholarship to St. Xavier.

Freitas Johnson at work. Credit: Submitted

Not long after her arrival, however, Freitas Johnson applied to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Fortunately, for her budget, she was able to continue living at St. Xavier. It was at the Art Institute she met her husband, Carl Johnson, also a student there. (Carl Johnson is a member of the Nels Johnson Tree Care family, in Evanston since 1930.)

Johnson followed Indira Freitas back to India after both of them received their Masters in Fine Arts degrees. Johnson charmed his future wife’s family members, who were concerned about a mixed marriage. The couple married, lived in India where Carl taught, while Indira worked in advertising design and soon enough their first child was born.

The couple then moved to Sweden where Johnson taught at the University of Lund, then to Colorado, where he taught at the University of Denver. When the family’s tree business needed Carl Johnson, the Johnson family came home to Evanston.

Chairs, conversations and community

“The title of the sculpture explains its meaning,” says Indira. “It’s about being able to talk to each other.” The artist realized random people would sit in the chairs and would have to interact, even if just to say hello. “The space is empty in the middle, to be filled with conversation,” she says. 

Children performing around The Chairs. Credit: Submitted

Several community meetings were held during the process of designing The Chairs. Neighbors met and, though most liked the plans, there were concerns: Would the homeless use the chairs? Freitas Johnson answered, “What’s wrong with that?” 

Other meetings were held at the Lake Street Church of Evanston, the Levy Senior Center and Family Focus. Information was collected as were words and images of what residents wanted for Evanston. In the central bronze spiral are the names of people who contributed to these meetings.

It was at one meeting that Freitas Johnson learned that the famous Tinkertoys construction sets were first made in Evanston, so one chair in the group references Tinkertoys.

The sculpture was installed at ground level on one side, with a space between two of the chairs large enough for a wheelchair to pass through. (On a recent visit, this RoundTable reporter found the wheelchair access was still quite viable and that two young adults were enjoying their morning coffee seated in two of the chairs. The bronze is clean and in excellent condition, with very little verdigris patina.)

Community art with a purpose

Freitas Johnson is not just a sculptor but a community collaborator-artist, peace activist and an educator in nonviolence. In 1993, she responded to the rise of ethnic violence the world over by starting the Shanti Foundation for Peace, a Chicago area arts-based non-profit organization, fostering the practice of non-violence in everyday life. In 2011, Shanti Foundation merged with Changing Worlds, a like-minded organization in Chicago. Shanti programs are now offered under the Changing Worlds umbrella.

In 2001, following 9/11, Freitas Johnson led Evanstonians in the creation of a rangoli, called Community Blessings in Fountain Square. Rangoli is a common Indian tradition where a woman creates a pattern on her home’s threshold each morning, one that is to be erased by wear and redone the next day, bringing blessings and protection to the family inside.

From left, Tim Rhoze, Melissa Raman Molitor, Angela Lyonsmith and Indira Johnson Freitas facilitated the kickoff of the Year of Kindness and Nonviolence in 2021.

“It is the making of the art that is important, not the keeping of it,” says Freitas Johnson. When the Fountain Square rangoli was finished, participants joined hands and spoke of peace as they walked over the design made of earth, flower petals and leaves. She has done many of these community rangolis in the Chicago area and well beyond.

In the middle of COVID-19, Freitas Johnson spearheaded a participatory, traditional peace offering, again with natural materials.

Catalpa leaves were inscribed with messages of peace and hope, joined together in different patterns and set afloat in the North Shore Channel of the Chicago River. Six Evanston organizations joined together for this event, which was funded by small grants from the Peace Studio in New York and the Evanston Arts Council. “Most people think art is something that’s in museums and think ‘I’m not an artist,’ said Freitas Johnson. “But everyone can do things that are beautiful and there is joy is seeing the results.”

Freitas Johnson’s studio and sculpture garden is at Main Street and Fowler Avenue. 

Bringing Buddha to open spaces

She was also the creator of Ten Thousand Ripples, the project that brought 100 cast fiberglass sculptures to Evanston and also put them in each of Chicago’s 50 wards. The half heads of Buddha appear to be emerging from the ground in the parks and neighborhoods where they were installed. They are meant to spark conversations about peace.

Indira Freitas Johnson art work projects Credit: Submitted

But installing art outdoors isn’t always easy. Public art endures much more wear and tear than pieces in a museum. Indeed, one of the chairs in the Conversations grouping has been broken twice. The second time, that chair was removed and sent back to the foundry in Washington, where it was reinforced and stabilized before its reinstallation. 

The City of Evanston covered those substantial repair costs. Curley said that responsibility for maintenance was in the donation arrangements. (At the present time, donors are being asked to contribute a maintenance fund along with any gift of artwork, making donations more difficult and fewer.) Freitas Johnson currently serves on the Evanston Arts Council and the Public Art Working Group.

But her art serves us all. A beautiful poem by Isabel MacLean’s granddaughter, Molly Curley, graces two corners of the installation: 

the most beautiful monarch
migrated from 
Mexico, north
wings open to everything in her midst
stirring the souls of all she touched
leaving a brilliant, painted ribbon
of life in her wake

For more information on Freitas Johnson and her work, visit her website.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. Wow! What an interesting life and interesting art! Thank you for this excellent article. I had always wondered about the chairs. And the heads! Thank you.