Mayor’s Arts Awards: Buster Simpson

Buster Simpson could not do his art without the city. Literally. As a public artist he counts on the urban environment, and its attendant political landscape, for both the inspiration and location of his work. He is already intimate with Seattle, so it is no surprise that he is a little casual when the city recognizes him with a Mayor’s Arts Award.

“For all the people who have been recognized through the years for their service as imagineers it’s just an acknowledgement,” he says. “It’s nice that they take notice.”

Simpson started his career as an artist in Seattle avoiding notice from the city. In 1974, after earning a Bachelors and Masters degree from the University of Washington, he moved to Seattle squatted in an old abandoned warehouse where he, like many other artists, lived illegally while making art. Quickly, Simpson’s attention turned outside his studio and to the fabric of the city. His first great inspiration came at what has become known as Elliott Bay Park. At the time Simpson found it, it was a dumping ground for rubble from the interstate that struck the young artist as a very sincere gesture of the way the city used its waterfront at the time.

“The parks department wanted to cover it over and disguise and hide it,” Simpson recalls. “I thought that having that rubble exposed and watching people go in and engage with it was far more interesting and honest.”

But Simpson’s lone voice was enough to get attention for the potential art project. Coincidentally, at the same time that Simpson was moving into Seattle, the city was adopting its One Percent for Art Ordinance, which requires one percent of the budget for the city’s capital improvement projects to be dedicated to public art enhancements. A boom in large-scale sculpture and mural projects followed and Simpson found his canvas, eventually becoming one of the city’s premiere public artists, engaging directly with the infrastructure of city-lead projects to create artwork that spoke to the complicated relationship between the city, its people and the natural world.

The work that he created changed the city, prompting this recognition from the Seattle Arts Commission for shaping “social and ecological issues into an aesthetic to inform lasting public works.”

Simpson’s work has filled public spaces in cities across the nation, including installations in Washington, D.C.; Portland and Indio, California. Most recently he has received praise for his eye-popping Bio Boulevard and Water Molecule at the new Brightwater Treatment Plant in Woodinville. Still, Seattle and its forward-thinking artists have a special place in his heart.

“Seattle has served as a good testing ground,” he says. “It’s been a good laboratory and there is still a very vital community here, perhaps it’s a little different now. Back then we were interested in the physical infrastructure; now artists are more interested in the social infrastructure today. I think that’s very encouraging.”

The Mayor’s Arts Awards will be held at Seattle Center at noon on Aug. 31.

Photo of Buster Simpson at the south portal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a “readymade” sculpture inspired by Marcel Duchamp and in appreciation of the 2012 Mayor’s Arts Award by Jennifer Richard.