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Sept. 11 artist will use dirt to paint a unified portrait

Gary Simpson of Orange County had the soil from all but one of the 193 U.N. member countries for his project. He knew he had to make the trip himself to North Korea for it.

September 19, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Gary Simpson with his soil samples from the United Nations' 193 member countries at his studio in Santa Ana.
Gary Simpson with his soil samples from the United Nations' 193 member… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Seoul — Kazakhstan was becoming a problem. Gary Simpson had already failed once to get his package out of that country through an operative there. Now came more bad news.

Kazakh customs officials had confiscated the latest shipment, Simpson's contact emailed. "They are very suspicious and think there are ulterior motives intended to undermine state security or foment revolt."

Simpson sighed. This wasn't any top-secret government file, just an airmail parcel containing 2 pounds of dirt.

The Orange County conceptual artist was hunting raw materials for his latest venture, a 50-by-50-foot swath of Abstract Expressionism using soil from each of the 193 member countries of the United Nations.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Simpson decided he wanted to look past language, cultural and religious barriers to focus on what people had in common. They all stood on the same soil.

He calls his concept "Common Ground 191" for the number of U.N. members when he began the project, before the additions of Montenegro and South Sudan.

He plans to mix the dirt with concrete and pigment to create 196 panels, 42 inches by 42 inches apiece, one for each nation, with a few left for discretionary use. The work will eventually depict an abstract multihued landscape that Simpson says will contain symbols of humanity's past and future.

Dreaming up the idea was simple; carrying through hasn't been. "I was naive," said Simpson, 63, a burly, white-bearded man. "I mean, it may be mere dirt, but you can't just send it from here to there. Oh, no."

His soil collection drive became a years-long odyssey involving crabby customs officials, fine-print regulations and byzantine bureaucracies, not the least of which were in his own country. His dirt shipments have been scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which baked each sample at 500 degrees for 45 minutes to remove any contaminants.

When it came to the troublesome list of nations under U.S. embargoes, such as Cuba, Syria and Iran, the Treasury Department's Foreign Assets Control office got involved. From its perspective, the soil was a potential asset, which required a special license to collect.

Simpson couldn't afford to go and fetch the dirt himself. It came to him through a phalanx of vacationers, vagabonds, workers for nongovernmental organizations, inspired locals and some 60 embassy officials. They were people who either immediately grasped Simpson's vision or were keen for a bit of adventure. Simpson calls them "quiet crusaders."

Since 2002, the artist says, he has logged 12,000 hours and spent $250,000 on his project — including $25,000 on postage alone — mostly through loans and money earned through his art sales.

Working the phones, writing letters, coordinating volunteers, Simpson built up his soil bank slowly, patiently crossing off each contributing country like an inmate marking time. Finally, only one nation remained: North Korea.

Simpson had little hope of piercing the isolationist regime. But then he got lucky. He met a travel agent who did business with Pyongyang and who persuaded officials to permit the taking of a sample.

This was one trip the artist knew he had to make himself. Simpson recently sat in an airport lounge in Seoul on his way to Pyongyang, and it was clear that the years of work haven't dimmed his enthusiasm. "This is for Kim Jong Il," he said, producing a vial of Common Ground dirt from numerous nations he wanted to present to the reclusive North Korean leader as a gesture. "Do you think I can get it to him?"

*

The samples were collected in nations at peace and at war. Simpson recalls the U.S. helicopter pilot who scooped up soil from Iraq in 2005.

Simpson's volunteer collector approached the pilot in Kuwait, who offered to set down his chopper in the Iraqi desert. The collector later wrote Simpson of the exchange: " 'Are you crazy? I mean, they're shooting helicopters down right and left, and you're going to stop for dirt?' So he stopped in Basra, just for the dirt."

Simpson's website, http://www.commonground191.com, documents "the torturous route that the soil must take to reach the artist."

The gathered soil is as varied as its sources — orange sand from Qatar, black loam from Bulgaria, rich soil from former slave-trading ports in Cape Verde. The samples are pink, gray, brown and red — some dull, others twinkling with fool's gold.

Some samples carry only general explanations of where they came from: a "coastal area in Australia," "forest by a train station in Belarus," "a deserted house in Luxembourg" and "the home of a friend in Croatia."

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