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Sunday, January 18, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Expanding The Canvas For Public Art -- Agitator Buster Simpson's Works Are Of The People, And For The People

Seattle Times Art Critic

It is a scarf-and-mitten-cold December evening at the University of Washington's new campus in Tacoma, and Seattle artist Buster Simpson is building a barrel fire.

He breaks up discarded wooden pallets, chucking the boards into a cast-off oil drum, tosses in a match, and ignites a cheerful barrel blaze that instantly lends a slightly subversive look to this benign gathering of about 25 university officials, arts administrators and students.

The group has assembled for the dedication of Simpson's latest public art project, "Parapet Relay." The work is essentially a short list of meaning-laden words that Simpson has emblazoned onto to the facades of a red-brick, 19th-century warehouse that is now one of the campus' central academic buildings.

Barrel fires are emblems of social unrest, hearths for the homeless and torches for the politically rebellious. Its political symbolism is not lost on Simpson, who waged skirmishes against the powers that be during the several years it took to get approval for his project, which also includes viewing benches and four ground plaques inscribed with quotations from Maya Angelou, Sencea, Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare, among others.

With his weathered leather jacket, jeans and the firelight on his still-youthful face, Simpson, 55, looks like he could be trying to incite a little civil disobedience.

But Simpson is an agitator, not an anarchist. In a brief thank-you speech to the assembled arts and university administrators, he launches into one of his customary off-the-cuff discourses that are part agitprop oratory, part tongue-in-cheek humor. What the Washington State Arts Commission and the University of Washington Public Art Commission allowed him to do, he says, "goes back to a time when there were artists who didn't want to spend time commoditizing or privatizing their art. This is a more ancient approach to sharing it."

Shaping public art

"Parapet Relay" is Simpson's newest work. It is also the first one he's created in Seattle since his 1989 outdoor sculpture "Seattle George" at Washington State Convention Center. Known nationally as one of this country's most thoughtful, provocative and innovative creators of public art, Simpson maintains a low profile in Seattle.

With the exception of a couple of groundbreaking projects in the '70s and '80s, he's done very few public art works in Seattle since he moved here from his native Michigan in the early '70s. But the few that he has created have been milestones that have helped shaped the character of public art in Seattle, and to some extent, across the nation.

"Buster is really one of the most important public art thinkers in the country because he's redefined what an artist does in a public space," said Barbara Goldstein, public art program manager for the Seattle Arts Commission. "Lots of times people may not see exactly what Buster does because the works are very subtle. But when they look again, his works transform the way people see things."

In "Parapet Relay," Simpson is trying to get people to consider the relationship of certain words and ideas. On the old warehouse building, he has painted "knowledge," "storage," "gather," "labor," "idea" and "wisdom." Because they are painted onto louvered metal, two words seem to appear in the same place depending on the angle from which they are viewed. "Idea" and "wisdom," for instance, appear to flash back and forth like prompts on a computer screen.

"He's very well-known in the world of public art," said Richard Andrews, director of the Henry Art Gallery and chairman of the joint Washington State and University of Washington Art Commission. "One of his strengths is that he treats landscapes as collections of found objects, looking at everything in a landscape for its potential reuse, its value and historical connections. Lots of things that as an artist he draws our attention to, we, as a society, just throw away."

Lorna Jordan, another Seattle artist known for public art, says that there is "an incredible civic overlay to Buster's work. There's a lot of process to it, and the making of gestures."

Jordan says that one of her favorite Simpson projects is his ongoing "River Rolaids," in which he travels to waterways around the country that have become acidic due to pollution. He flings in giant lozenges of limestone, which help neutralize the water. Simpson calls these kinds of guerrilla actions "interventions." Jordan calls them "shamanisitic."

An art pioneer

Simpson was one of the pioneers of publicly funded art in Seattle. Along with Andrew Keating and Sherry Markovitz, he was part of the team of artists who created art for a city-owned electric substation at North 105th Street and Fremont Avenue that was finished in 1979. It was the first project funded by the city's then-new "1 percent for arts" program, in which the city sets aside 1 percent of the budget of all capital projects for art.

Since no one likes power stations in their neighborhoods, the arts commission hoped that a team of artists working with the project's architects could help make the substation more palatable. The result was a substation softened by whirligigs, murals and an inviting, outdoor sitting area in which people can watch the whirligigs spin. In the realm of public art, the Viewland/Hoffman Substation is mythic, and is still applauded as a successful example of how artists can make practical improvements to civic life.

At about the same time, Simpson and Seattle artists Jack Mackie and Paul and Deborah Rhinehart started an ongoing project of installing unconventional benches and indigenous trees along First Avenue. They wanted to improve life for the lower-income residents, seniors and artists who were the main inhabitants of the Denny Regrade. Many of the benches were made of recycled stone and wood taken from demolished buildings in the neighborhoods.

The list of Simpson's public art around the country is long. In most works he addresses historic and civic issues specific to the locale, while drawing attention to environmental and social concerns.

Simpson's aim is not primarily decorative. He has a social crusader's conscience and the monkey-wrenching spirit of an environmental activist. His hallmark as an artist is his ability to create projects that are philosophically elegant and politically provocative. Some examples:

-- In the early '90s, the city of Anaheim, Calif., asked him to come up with something that would be a boon to pedestrians. Simpson's solution? On a city street of hot pavement, whizzing streams of cars and giraffe-like palm trees, Simpson created a drinking fountain whose gray water would irrigate a willow pole that he stuck into a hole in the sidewalk.

The willow, an homage to the willows that once grew wild in the area, has grown from a bare, five-foot pole into a sizable tree, providing shade and welcome foliage while the rows of towering palms around it - which are not native to California and which provide virtually no shade - are little more than props for picture postcards.

-- In his "Host Analog" project at the Portland Convention Center, Simpson made art out of a nurse log. From a giant old-growth Douglas fir left on the ground by loggers in the 1950s, Simpson chopped eight 8- by 8-foot sections and arranged them in an arc outside the convention center. He rigged an irrigation system that brings water from the Bull Run Watershed next to Mount Hood, the same water source used by Portland.

The log, now host to numerous seedlings, is a rough and dramatic visual contrast to the formal, urban landscaping around the convention center. The project is also a metaphor for what it means to be a host or parasite. Are urban centers parasites on the natural world?

Simpson loves these philosophical paradoxes. He likes to say that this project won't finished for a thousand years, when some of the parasite trees grow to towering heights. He wants people to think about nature's time, versus the hyped-up time of the contemporary world.

-- Simpson also works with cultural and historical metaphors. His "Seattle George" sculpture is made partly out of a Boeing 707 nose cone, something that is integral to the region's economy and also accidentally mimics the shape of a Native American lodge. Above the cone, the profile of Chief Sealth is fanned out into a 360-degree sculpture.

But as ivy grows up the cone to cover Chief Sealth, a giant cookie-cutter contraption will shave the topiary to the shape of George Washington's profile. The piece is meant to remind viewers that Chief Sealth and his people are the foundation upon which Northwest culture was built, even though that indigenous culture is now becoming obscured.

From Woodstock to Seattle

Simpson has come a long way, geographically speaking, from his first official job as a public artist, which was at New York's legendary Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969. Equipped with degrees in sculpture from the University of Michigan, Simpson and a couple of other artists were hired, he said, to "put energy into an area for people to kind of hang out in.

"We did a quasi-Druid thing with a lot of dead wood and bales of hay. But the big learning lesson for me was that all of what we did was eventually used for basic survival needs. As the festival went on, people tore up the wood structures we'd made for firewood. They used the hay for bedding. It put things in context for me. Public art gets re-apportioned by the public. People do what they need to do."

Later Simpson considered moving to New York, but turned west instead. He liked Seattle's size and the city's attitude. He arrived about the same time the region's pioneering public art program was getting under way.

"In New York there were people doing public art, but you had to do it outside of the system," Simpson said. "I was more interested in trying to work the system; it becomes more effective that way."

Many artists don't attempt to win public art commissions because they can't stand the frustration of lobbying committees and appeasing officials. But Simpson, for all of his '60s skepticism about the status quo, actually enjoys the process, which often takes several years per project. Arts administrators and others who work with him say he has boundless energy for his projects and, underneath the anti-establishment rehetoric, an unflagging optimism. He's an idealist at heart. He also likes to celebrate the wisdom and struggles of everyday people.

When his plans to put a 20-foot concrete or marble striding foot along San Francisco's Embaracdero caused headlines last year in that city, Simpson shrugged it off as the price of winning the job of making a major piece of public art. The piece, which Simpson says is about immigrants arriving in San Francisco, among other themes, had already been approved by the city's art commission, and it still is on track to be installed some time in the future.

"When you're doing public art, the public is the patron," said Simpson. "That means the public has to be patronized to, and I mean that in the sense of that the public needs to be informed about what the project is about. Commissions need to take on that responsibility, but it also asks more of the artists.

"Artists have to retain their provocateur's edge while catering to a bigger rainbow. We have to be the tricksters."

These days Simpson is working as an artist in residence for Seattle Public Utilities, and devising a plan to use the rain runoff on Vine Street to irrigate a neighborhood pea patch.

But his most pressing project is something he calls "Brush With Illumination." In the Leschi home he shares with his wife (the artist Laura Sindell) and their daughter, he has stacks of solar panels and tables full of sketches for the kinesthetic sculpture, which will be installed sometime this spring at the former Expo 86 site in Vancouver, B.C. The piece is a 26-foot-long sculpture meant to look like a Japanese calligraphy brush. It will be sited in the water 60 feet in front of the Expo site.

Thanks to solar panels and fiber optics, the brush's handle will glow at night and the tip of the brush will shine a red `X' meant to look like a computer cursor onto the water. The brush will bob and weave with the currents, tides and winds, and will collect data about the water temperature and currents for a Web site designed for the project. Given that the redeveloped Expo site will be home to high-tech firms and condominiums, the sculpture is intended to be an homage to the powers of communications through the ages.

Simpson doesn't like to be called a public artist.

"I just like to be called an artist; that keeps it kind of vague. That's the best." He also doesn't think of his work as particularly political. Still, if being political means agitating the establishment at the same time he creates art that promotes public dialogue, then his work certainly is.

"Is good aesthetics and spirituality political? It sometimes is. Particularly when it flies against the perceived notions of doing business," Simpson said. "Sometimes you need to stretch the canvas."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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