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A bottle containing a mix of soils from 193 countries, accepted by North Korean President Kim Jong-Un (photo courtesy Gary Simpson)

Before his unexpected death last month, Los Angeles-based artist Gary Simpson had envisioned a five-story tall fresco, swirling with soil from all continents. Simpson spent the last two decades of his life tracking down soil samples — sent primarily by strangers from 193 countries across the globe — that memorialize moments in the personal and national histories from their place of origin. Some of the most memorable, he told me the last time we spoke, were from the execution sites of anti-Soviet poets, artists, and scientists in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany; and from the rubble of the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Some samples were sent in DHL packages and others in official diplomatic pouches. Simpson also received dirt from Tahrir square in Egypt amidst the Arab spring, and Yemen in the height of its civil war. “Through the process of soil collection, I’ve encountered many aspects of our civilization that I’m very disturbed about,” he explained over the phone. “Just to visualize as we can do with art, what that soil experienced at the time, it can take you to another dimension.”

Gary Simpson’s mix of soils from 193 countries, magnified 125 times through an Edge 3-D microscope (photo by Dr. Gary Greenberg, courtesy Gary Simpson)

After spending an estimated 24,000 hours corresponding with volunteers from Zimbabwe to Poland, Simpson combined the 193 soils into a single aggregate. “I wanted to take it to another level and put them together.” Simpson said. “For me, it’s the power of the possibility that it could rest peacefully in one place.”

Although Simpson’s death spells an unknown for the many pounds of soil now headed for storage, the momentous work-in-progress is part of a wave of art works around the world that — following the Land Art movement in the 1970s and the use of soil to raise awareness for environmental issues in the early 2000s — employ earth as an artistic medium for reflection, to address social issues.

Simpson’s effort complements that of installation artist Natalia Lopez of Colombia, jeweler Lorena Lazard of Mexico, and artist and activist Sita Bhaumik of Oakland, California.

Photo of Japanese-Americans interned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, placed on soil from the site
at the SCAD Museum of Art (photo by Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik)

Bhaumik recently created a soil-based wallpaper installation at the Savannah College of Art and Design to raise awareness around Executive Order 3066: President Roosevelt’s authorization to intern tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. At first, the soil — which she borrowed from a friend who had collected it at a former internment camp in Tule Lake, California — appeared uniform.

A pole-bean cyanotype filled with soil from the Tule Lake Segregation Center at the SCAD Museum of Art (photo courtesy Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik)

“There was a moment when all of us were kind of like ‘Oh, it doesn’t look like there’s anything in here besides … maybe a few clumps and some grass,” Bhaumik told me on the phone after installing the piece. But the team kept sifting. “We found a lot of shells. Super tiny, white shells,” Bhaumik continues. “And this is how Japanese Americans actually made crafts. They would find these tiny, tiny shells,” and make whatever they could, she says. In preparing the exhibit, Bhaumik and her team left the gallery each day covered in a thin layer of dust. Getting close to soil entails tapping into place and memory, she says. “We can, thousands of miles away, feel in some way, or make a connection to a history that maybe we don’t share.”

Natalia Lopez, “Punto de Quiebre – La Tierra Bajo Nuestros Pies” (photo courtesy Natalia Lopez)

Like Simpson and Bhaumik, Lopez sees soil as a highly charged medium, so much that she bends over to kiss the ground wherever she visits. She and Lazard both first began using earth in their art to commemorate the death of a parent. Lopez has continued to work with soil because she believes it is a guardian of memory.

Natalia Lopez, “Punto de Quiebre – La Tierra Bajo Nuestros Pies” (photo courtesy Natalia Lopez)

“It has resisted all of human history,” Lopez told me over Skype. “Digging and holding soil in your hands is like holding life, like holding history.”

One of Lopez’s latest projects enlisted volunteers throughout Havana, Cuba in the collection of soil from all around the city. With the help of many, she gathered and packed this material into one-centimeter-by-one-centimeter cubes, and arranged the cubes on the floor of a room at Havana’s First Alternative Biennial, to be stepped on and blended back to their original form by passerby. The project morphed into a full-blown community effort, which, Lopez says, “was much more interesting than the physical art piece.” Soil, she says, is ethereal and participatory by default.

Lorena Lazard, “Tierra V” (photo by Paolo Gori)

Since finishing a sculpture with soil from her father’s grave, Lazard has produced a series of double pendant necklaces. Each piece contains a pendant with soil gathered in Tijuana, and another with soil from just across the border in San Diego. As Lazard explained over the phone, in terms of aesthetics, you cannot tell the difference between the two organic compounds. Each soil sample contains “a lot of [shared] emotions and memory,” she says. “Being so close, barely some kilometers, we are talking about the same soil,” she says. As is evident in her pendants, which exude an organic essence while alluding to the violent and artificial tendency of humans to draw lines, it is the concept of a border that contains and separates us.

Lorena Lazard, “Tierra VII” (photo by Paolo Gori)

In the midst of a xenophobic wave deeming immigrants as other, reifying the soundness of borders as if they were a natural landform, and the financing of overseas wars based on dominant historical narratives, the contemporary use of soil in installations, collections, and jewelry pieces has provided a site of gathering and discussion, and has aided in building empathy. Before his death, Simpson heard from North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, who accepted Simpson’s gift of a small bottle containing the soil mixture, in spite of its containing earth from South Korea. “As simple as that is, [that he] could agree … that they share common ground … it’s the start of a conversation,” Simpson said.

Leanna First-Arai

Leanna First-Arai is an educator and freelance writer based in Memphis. She is a former reporter/producer for NPR affiliate New England Public Radio.