From North Korea to Main Street

Installation featuring soil from countries around the world joins other nature-themed works at Huntington Beach Art Center.

November 23, 2012|By Lindsey Dobruck
  • Gary Simpson's "Common Ground 191," a display of soil from different countries at the Huntington Beach Art Center's current show "The Cylinder, the Sphere, the Cone."
Gary Simpson's "Common Ground 191,"… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

Soon after the tragic events of 9/11, artist Gary Simpson was inspired to create a large conceptual piece combining cement with soil from every member state of the United Nations. He called the project "Common Ground 191."

He relied on volunteers and embassies from around the world to gather soil from culturally or historically significant locations in each country. He received his first sample in 2003. In 2011, he completed the collection in person by traveling to North Korea.

Working with Andrea Lee of Uri Tours, a travel agency that specializes in trips to North Korea, Simpson was granted approval to visit the country to collect the soil.

"The travel is very tightly controlled," Simpson said.

He was accompanied by guides — or "minders" — any time he was outside his hotel.

"They participated in the soil collection," he said. "I think they saw the symbolism in it. They were very friendly and cooperative."


Simpson watched as one of the North Korean representatives gathered the soil from Moranbong Park in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. The guide handed him the sample, and together they went to the DHL office to send the soil to Los Angeles for U.S. Department of Agriculture processing.

Select panels from Simpson's "Common Ground 191" project, called the "Disparity Series," are on display at the Huntington Beach Art Center in an exhibition titled "The Cylinder, the Sphere, the Cone."

The show features three Southern California-based artists who incorporate tangible examples of these shapes into their work — cylindrical tree trunks, soil from around the globe and neon-orange traffic cones. The title takes a literal interpretation of a quote from post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, who famously advised a fellow painter to treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone.

"Everything was dealing with the earth, the natural world," artist Pat Warner said. "I think that all the artists — all three of us — fit in [the title] too. Some of us through our imagery, and some of us through our materials."

Warner, who grew up in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, said she has always been interested in nature and often incorporates scenes from her travels into her art. "Allée for Huntington Beach," a large wooden sculpture on display at the HBAC, was inspired by a garden tour she took in southern England.

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