Art or infrastructure? Depends on the climate

Sea armor

On a fall afternoon along Seattle’s Elliott Bay, Buster Simpson, MFA ’69, watched a woman photograph a child crawling on a public art installation he’d recently completed. It’s likely the woman and child had no idea Simpson’s “Migration Stage” serves a dual purpose: providing an area for creativity and play and protecting the bay’s seawall infrastructure.

The child seemed to favor the “creativity and play” function as they clamored among the multiple pieces comprising “Anthropomorphic Dolos,” one of Migration Stage’s two sculptural editions. It can be found at the southern end of Seattle’s Park Promenade, near Pioneer Square Habitat Beach. The artist envisions a time in 30-50 years when the same child he is watching might be protected from rising sea levels due to the sculpture’s intended utility.

“Sometimes, as artists, any one of us will do something that works on a lot of levels, and that’s a treat.”

Functional, sculptural, playful

People sit on an outdoor sculpture comprising several interlocking pieces that can be used to support seawall infrastructure in Seattle. Urban scene with oddly shaped sculpture.

In the event of a massive storm, cable can be threaded through the “armpits” of these interlocking pieces to secure their function as a life-supporting marine habitat.  (Image: Dongho Chang.)

Anthropomorphic Dolos includes 14 “dolosse,” the plural term for the wave-dissipating concrete blocks – “sea armor” – he designed for shoreline stabilization.

Simpson traces the work’s inspiration to a South African invention modeled after a toy with interlocking vertebrae. The use of the singular term “dolos” in the sculpture’s title references stone carvings in the Pacific Northwest dating back 30 centuries. They are “elegant, beautiful pieces of functional sculptural tools,” Simpson says.

“Children use their imaginations and are drawn to [this] sculpture because it’s out of the norm,” he notes.

It’s so out of the norm that in the event of a massive storm, cable can be threaded through the “armpits” of the interlocking pieces to secure their function as a life-supporting marine habitat. The 2600-pound mass functions like anchor stones to stabilize and hold large, buoyant biomass.

A woman photographs a child on a bright sunny day. The child is sitting on an outdoor sculpture that appears to be sandbags.

Sea Bearer was designed as a “kit of parts” that resembles sandbags made of concrete. (Image: Buster Simpson.)

The Migration Stage took eight years to complete and install. It also includes Simpson’s “SeaBearer,” consisting of 15 six-foot-long cast pieces resembling concrete sandbags. The pieces could be perceived literally as sandbags or represent other activities in the industrial seaport town, like the offloading of bags of grain or coffee beans. Three 30-foot sections equal 90 feet of seating along the promenade.

Like Anthropomorphic Dolos, SeaBearer was designed as a “kit of parts” to be used as resilient civic infrastructure. “Sea levels are going to rise. We’re going to have to deal with that and learn to adapt,” Simpson says.

Till then, both sculptural editions are engaging – even nurturing of the public, “like a mother inviting you to sit on her lap,” he says. “The whole installation is intended to allow for a variety of social engagements and play.”

Meanwhile, its potential function as shoreline armor stands at the ready.

But we digress…Enjoy this Stamps video about a 2018 exhibition by Simpson

Flooded with feelings

Simpson’s long history with floods and flood mitigation dates to his childhood, when his parents operated a store in downtown Frankenmuth, Mich. The building flooded every spring as rising waters inundated the base of the store.

“Living with environmental situations kind of stuck with me,” he says. When he moved to Seattle in 1973, he quickly became fascinated by marine and shoreline habitats as well as the environmental forces that affect them.

Simpson isn’t cowed by the foreboding situation wrought by a changing climate. Rather, he is excited by the chance to create large, public sculptures that meld with the environment and serve a purpose.

“It’s a real powerful tool for artists to put work out there and not even have it signed or say it’s art,” he says. The utilitarian aspect of the project gives him hope. “All I can do is be optimistic and do what I can to protect the waterfront.”

As environmental impacts of climate change reshape our world, Simpson says he hopes fellow creators and designers will become politically engaged. He criticizes artists who travel to photograph “pretty pictures” of melting ice when they should be home, dealing with the problem.

“I think it’s time not just to talk about [climate change] in galleries, but actually become more activist about it,” he says. “It’s time to take it to the next level.”

From the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest

The seeds of Simpson’s activism were planted in Ann Arbor during the dynamic ‘60s at what is now known as the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design. After graduation, he attended the historic music festival Woodstock, where he contributed to agrarian art projects for attendees, including large structures from trees that had died of Dutch Elm disease. It was his first experience with public art – “intended to be aspirational” — while addressing social, ecological, and political issues. Since then, he has gravitated toward work that “addresses, confronts and heals.”

“I’m a storyteller,” he says. “Every story has got its own path, which makes things interesting.”

Soon after landing in the Pacific Northwest, Simpson collaborated on a public art design team for a new Seattle City Light substation. In the five decades since, he has found the public art world more gratifying than museums and galleries.

“I’m given a task to figure out something, which is kind of fun,” he says.

That personal reward helps offset the stress of surviving financially while deferring to his “patron,” the taxpayer. “You have to hone your purpose about what you’re doing and be relevant to their perspective,” he notes.

The artist’s way

A longshot of a Seattle street that features the sculpture of Buster Simpson. Industrial brick buildings, a crosswalk, several people, and cars.

The installation is intended to allow for a variety of social engagements and play. Meanwhile, its potential function as shoreline armor always stands at the ready. (Image: Joe Freeman Jr.)

Migration Stage is the most recent artistic contribution to Simpson’s longstanding commitment to environmental activism. He’s produced several multifaceted installations and contributed to other major infrastructure projects in Seattle and elsewhere. In 2000, he received U-M’s Distinguished Alumni Award in Architecture and Design.

Simpson hopes his latest work will encourage people to protect the environment, but says he also understands the concept of simply enjoying art for art’s sake. He is drawn to abstract work that he says doesn’t appear to have any intrinsic or utilitarian value. Jerry Pethick, a Canadian artist, is one of his heroes. He admires artists who shake up the idea of the art becoming “its own self-centered existence,” like Marcelle Duchamp, as well as conceptual artists, process artists, and dancers.

These days, Simpson is crafting a proposal for an installation on the Greek island of Ikaria. He pictures a large array of solar panels depicting the wings of the mythological character Icarus for whom the island is named. As the legend goes, Icarus attempted an escape from Crete, flying on wings of wax and feathers. He met his demise when he ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, melting the wax. Simpson considers it an apt metaphor for the current climate crisis, as world leaders fail to heed the advice of scientific experts.

True to form, the proposed installation for Ikaria is markedly practical. The solar power it would produce could mitigate the need for burning oil, which can cause devastating forest fires. The project is yet to be funded, but that’s no reason to stop working, says Simpson.

“Sometimes you put out these ideas and if the gods are listening, something will happen.”

(Lead image credit: Joe Freeman Jr.)


  1. Susan Wineberg - 1967, 1971

    Ann Arbor or the University should commission Buster to do a work of public art. This is long overdue. He’s a true visionary and one of our own. Let’s get busy!!


  2. Rose O’Neill - 1976

    Salute to this artist. He has found his niche in creating utilitarian public art that has an environmental focus. His shade thrown at artists photographing “pretty pictures” of melting ice is off-putting and surprising, though. There is room in this world for all sorts of art created with a variety of focus.


  3. John Woodford

    Ann Arbor should definitely commission a work from Simpson. It would mark a welcome departure from the generally unexceptional (I’m being kind and tactful here!) commissioned work now standing.


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