Buster Simpson’s social and ecological art as antioxidant for the past and present

Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 12:14am

Seattle-based artist Buster Simpson will be making a homecoming to Ann Arbor on Thursday to host a talk for the Penny Stamps Lecture Series. Simpson was born in Saginaw, Michigan and received a master in fine arts from the University in 1969.

Simpson is recognized for his large-scale social and ecological works, often public and site-specific.

In an email interview with The Daily, Simpson said, “I was a student at the University of Michigan from 1964-1969. Ann Arbor was a radical hot bed for social justice issues, politics, music and the arts. One group that seemed to distill much of this was the ONCE Group, comprised of composers, a filmmaker, architects, installation artists, writers, and dancers. Working collaboratively, they created complex events that were somewhere between theater and happenings. They were a big influence on the creative community at the time.”

Simpson still believes that following instincts and maintaining connectivity among artists and activists of any kind is vital.

“The multiplicity of ways of making connections seems like a great way to work. An artist, as with anyone engaged in research, following a ‘hunch’ is part of the journey and hopefully allows one to make surprising discoveries.”

The activist community in Ann Arbor persists, as well as the presence of social, economic and ecological issues encapsulated in Simpson’s works.

“Each of my projects is unique, thus the level of social, economic and ecological engagement varies with the needs of the context/project,” Simpson said. “We all carry the past; the trick is to convert baggage into asset, applying the personal into a shared experience. Environmentalism, social practice and social justice are a growing concern with artists, one that I feel has always been an important criterion in public practice.”

Though not his own, the title of Thursday’s talk, “Art Antioxidant,” is relevant to the message behind Simpson’s art.

“Antioxidant, though it is not my title, is appropriate to a body of work dealing with the notion of purging. One well-known series is the use of limestone as an art medium to neutralize or purge acidic environments. Perhaps antioxidant could be applied to social actions, too.”

Simpson’s works are often composed of sustainable materials and, in some cases, with utilitarian intent. Unlike many artists, Simpson does not prefer to work with certain mediums over others, but allows the context of the work to suggest the medium itself.

“My work is often public. I would say my mediums are a mix of poetry, utility, and engagement,” Simpson said.

Simpson’s work communicates with and even challenges the political, environmental, and social climate of the world today, which is reminiscent of the turmoil of the time in which he attended the University. He believes that art holds a place in all activism and continues to communicate this through his work.

“It would be a depressing, boring world without art. With the lack of inventive spark and ability to be fascinated, we would be no better off than the dinosaurs. We are approaching a critical time on the planet, on many levels. Let’s hope we get our shit (substitute: act) together.”