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The ground beneath our feet

September 22, 2011

Strip away the borders from all of the countries on the planet, get rid of all of the differences among peoples, and what are you left with? The earth. The ground beneath our feet. The dirt from which spring the trees, plants and flowers that feed us and give us oxygen.

But soil is strange. It’s a little like people. It’s not the same any two places you go. It could be the red clay of Georgia or the sand of the Sahara, the rocky terrain of Tavel in France or the volcanic ash of Hawaii. I once wandered through a four-acre vineyard in California’s Napa Valley and watched the soil change. In just a matter of crossing two rows of vines, you could see the earth go from appearing fairly homogenous to having plenty of volcanic debris strewn in it,

Now, a painter from California, Gary Simpson, is attempting to make us think different about dirt. He wants to show how different yet united we are in a massive work of abstract expressionism that will contain paint made from the soils found in each of the 193 nations that made up the U.N.

Simpson’s story was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Here’s a short excerpt from what John M. Glionna wrote:

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.

That is, of course, if Simpson can get the work funded. It’s been a costly project, yet, for the artist, it has been a labor of love. It’s also a reminder of the power that art can have on the lives of so many. The work of gathering the soils have been fraught with difficulty as well as humor, and numerous volunteers have taken part by sending in samples of the dirt beneath their feet at home. Now, Simpson can hopefully begin the process of creating the massive work that will supposedly cover 50 feet x 50 feet.

I hope it in some way lives up to the unifying grandeur of the concept.

In the meantime, you can see some of Simpson’s work at Some have been made using cement, which doesn’t give you a great window of opportunity to play with because it dries quickly. And yet, I love the texture of the works, at least as they appear on a computer screen with my weary eyes trying to focus, and the colors he incorporates are vibrant and alive. Then again, I’ve always loved the works of fellow abstract expressionists, like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly.

What Simpson with do with his dirt remains to be seen. I just know that I’ll think differently about what I’m shaking off the next time I wipe my shoes.


From → #CMC11

  1. John, On the surface that sounds like a wonderful project and indeed, it may be… but suppose I offer a contrary point of view. Sounds like Simpson has a universalistic approach to humanity. Differences are cosmetic, place is an accident. Sounds like a model offered by those who advocate globalization. But there are two tails in that model and the sting in each tail is toxic. It may be that humans are more tied to place and language and their cultural uniqueness than the universalists would suppose. My very being is bound up with my history, my sense of history, the very streets I walked when I was growing up. Universalism dismisses such uniqueness. That’s one sting in the tail. I am not to hold onto an identity that makes use of place. The second sting is that universalism not only dismisses the very stuff of my identity but wants to impose an artificial identity. I am to see myself only as a human , as an inhabitant of this earth. Dislodging me from all the particularism which has shaped me (and you) and imposing a universal version of me onto myself I then become much less connected, much less reflective – all the better to reshape me as a cog in the machine to serve the needs of global capital. Every human then is commodified – totally interchangeable but rather than infinitely valuable because unique we are transformed into miniscule value because we are parts of indistinguishable billions. What was rich and unique becomes indistinguishable and uniform. A world where every town from Jakarta to Ulan Bator from Kyoto to Tyree has a MacDonald’s and a Starbucks. A world where every street in Paris could be a street in London or Madrid or Mombai or Chicago…A world where men and women in Amman dress like men and women in NYC and men and women in NYC dress like men and women in Lima or Lahore. There is a place for universalism. I want to say “we” and mean “all of us” but i want to mean all of us in our uniqueness. There is a place for the particularism of place.

    • Good points, but I would add to the argument that Simpson, as an artist, will be making a singular statement that no one can take from him or change. So, it is an expression of individualism, even as it comments on our shared earth. It also shows us that the earth is not the same everywhere, which is why he collects red soils, brown soils, pink and so on from all different countries. And the people who live on that soil, who work it and tend it are different, too. So, the idea celebrates uniqueness and togetherness at the same time.

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