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.
"In a lot of their gardens, most of them incorporate something called an allée, which is a walkway between rows of trees," Warner said.
She recreated the intricate, bare branches she observed in English gardens by refining "peeler poles" for the trunks and hand-sculpting pine for the limbs.
Other works at the exhibition, such as the "Floragalora Wall," drew from Warner's visit to Tokyo in 2010, where she was awarded an artist residency at Youkobo Art Space. "I was there in the spring time, and it was cherry-blossom season," Warner said. "I spent a lot of time in parks and gardens and going to museums and galleries that were showing traditional Japanese art."
Working with layered Mylar, unryu paper and ink, Warner wanted the "Floragalora" collage to be "kind of joyous, a celebration of the natural world, a celebration of plants."
Simpson's "Disparity Series" is study work for the final "Common Ground 191" project, which will consist of 196 panels displayed in a square measuring 50 feet by 50 feet. The total amount of panels was determined by squaring the number 14 to achieve the closest figure to 191, representing each United Nations member state at that time.
"It's a conceptual art piece," Simpson said. "I like the idea of all these soils in one place peacefully, and take away the possibility that this could be achieved on another level outside the display."
In the "Disparity Series," Simpson imposed printed statistics into his work to illustrate the drastic contrast of life expectancy at birth, gross domestic product per capita and oil consumption per capita among the represented countries.
"I'm always complimented if the imagery itself draws people, but further if they are drawn so far to get closer and realize the comparisons, and then even further to understand or to think or question why there [is] such a difference," Simpson said.
Artist Lana Shuttleworth, who is based in Los Angeles, recycled battered safety cones to create the textural landscapes on display at the HBAC. In her statement, Shuttleworth wrote that the cone is a "fallen soldier" that she "resuscitates" into works of art.
"The malleability of the cone allows me to reconfigure the flesh by carving into a multitude of organic shapes," Shuttleworth wrote. "I piece together thousands of slivers of plastic attached with thousands of brad nails to give life to a series of impressionistic mosaics with color intricately laid to create imagery conducive to a return to nature. With Cone, I construct landscapes where the magnificence of life can be seen in the commonplace objects that shape our modern world."
If You Go
What: "The Cylinder, the Sphere, the Cone"
Where: Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach
When: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 6 p.m. Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 15