Buster Simpson arrives in Seattle and makes his first eco-art installation downtown, with fellow artist Chris Jonic, beginning on December 4, 1973.

  • By Jen Graves
  • Posted 9/20/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10622

In December 1973, after two summers at Pilchuck Glass School in Snohomish County, Lewis Cole "Buster" Simpson (b. 1942) follows the recommendation of a friend and moves to Seattle, where immediately he creates his first installation. Called Selective Disposal Project and made in collaboration with Mary Christine Josephine "Chris" Jonic (b. 1950), the project happens from December 4 through 19 on the befouled third and fourth floors of a former warehouse at 89 Yesler Way. Though not many people see it, Selective Disposal marks the start of Simpson's long career in making art by reusing and readapting whatever the city of Seattle leaves -- or would prefer to leave -- behind, as the downtown core changes.

Getting the Job 

In 1973, Polly Friedlander was an art dealer with a contemporary gallery at 89 Yesler Way in Pioneer Square. Above her pristine showroom, the third and fourth floors of the building had been empty for years but apparently used as dumping grounds. The materials up there varied: cups and saucers; piles of plaster; sheets of glass; bricks; a broken-down refrigerator missing a foot and unable to stand; antique architectural woodwork, molding and trim, and banister columns from the early part of the twentieth century; inches of pigeon guano caked on every surface covering about a third of the top floor. Friedlander knew the rooms themselves were beautiful, brick-walled and wood-floored with tall windows, and she meant to turn the 14,000 square feet into rentable lofts.

Simpson had just arrived in the city when he met a homeless man who did odd jobs for Friedlander, he recalled. The man told Simpson that Friedlander was looking for a cleanup crew. Simpson and Jonic decided to turn the job into a (filthy) residency, culminating in an exhibition that doubled as a temporary recycling center. (This was 15 years before Seattle began curbside recycling pickup in 1988.) The two artists, who barely knew each other except through friends, moved in and went to work, as both recalled in interviews four decades later:

"Technically, it was the first place I lived in Seattle, squalid as it was. But we treated that as the art form. If you call it art, you can put up with most anything. I'd come to this city, it's kind of like, you immerse yourself in a project and see where it's going to take you" (Simpson interview).

"We were looking for things to do. Buster said there's this space and we could do some installations, and it became a process of reclamation and installation ... He always used to tell me that the dregs of your work are the most interesting. [When they walked in,] it looked like a nightmare. It was just trashed" (Jonic interview).

Separating Trash from Treasure, Joining Past and Future

Since art school in the 1960s, Simpson had been experimenting with video, sound, installation, performance, and sculpture. Jonic brought a refined design sensibility, and had been making installations based on ancient spiritual practices. It was Simpson's idea to use the materials they found by selecting which could be readapted, and Jonic led the way in the arrangements of the objects. The two let the process of cleaning determine how objects would be displayed, for instance simply moving a board to the side to reveal a perfect untouched rectangle of wood in the midst of the cloud of detritus.

The rooms came to look like empty spaces with raw conglomerations of art in certain areas. Over there: cups and saucers arranged precariously on the caps of discarded banister columns that were propped up by sticks of lumber. Over there: a pile of bricks on the floor, fanning out from a corner, topped by wood planks leaning at a 60-degree angle against the crumbling brick wall, leaving the loose impression of a flying buttress.

A mini-lumberyard was evoked in scraps of wood bundled and belted together into "new" logs. Photos from the time depict all of these. Simpson and Jonic had a Super 8, a 35mm, and a Polaroid camera. One picture, showing a hammer coated in guano, looks like something from a dredged shipwreck.

Simpson and Jonic wore masks to try to protect themselves from the all-pervading plaster dust. They slept among the detritus and sought out public showers. They used the tilting broken refrigerator as an ice box, setting a pail where the fourth foot was missing to catch the melting water. They also learned about Seattle:

"It was a very blue-collar town, very much about the neighborhoods. Downtown would be totally empty at night. ... It was tough trying to find a place to eat ... Going up to Capitol Hill was the closest neighborhood" (Simpson interview).

In addition to the installations, Simpson and Jonic made time-lapse movies of themselves sweeping long stretches of floor. Simpson later noted, "It's very reminiscent of Mierle Ukeles [b. 1939]. We had no idea what she was doing. We were all in a vacuum" (Simpson interview).

Ukeles was a New York artist who in 1969 wrote a "Manifesto for Maintenance Art," and who, in 1973, the same year as Selective Disposal Project, had her first exhibition of "maintenance art" at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, where her work consisted of her caring for the museum building (washing the steps) and the art objects on display (dusting the sculptures). It became a landmark of feminist and performance art.

Selective Disposal Project was pragmatic in nature:

"It just seemed to be the right thing to do at that time. It seemed to be the rational thing to do. You've got these two big floors. You create with what you've got to work with. It was really refreshing not having anything but what was in there. I didn't have a lot of baggage. It was like, okay, this is what you've got, be very judicious about how it comes about, how it gets transformed. When you have New York putting on a pedestal the act of cleaning as a righteous thing, someone like Mierle, you say, 'Oh, yeah, we did that, too'" (Simpson interview).

Inviting People In  

Simpson and Jonic spent December 4 to December 19 of 1973 inside the third and fourth floors of 89 Yesler Way. December 18 and 19 were the days that they were open to the public.

"It was dim, and the lighting was spare, bare bulbs, the refrigerator turned on its side. It looked pretty great ... It was selective disposal, that's really what it was. It was the selection process that interested us. Buster really brought recycling onto my radar" (Jonic interview).

For the opening, Simpson and Jonic handed out postcards and invited art friends. Few people came; it was no spectacle. Through friends and at street level in Pioneer Square, word spread that they were giving away all the materials. They had thrown out what wasn't worth saving, and the rest they'd deemed good and reusable.

The building had an elevator, so "we just took [materials] down, put them on the loading dock, and they came by and got it. People took whatever we had" (Simpson interview). A farmer pulled up with his pickup to haul off more than a dozen boxes of guano to use as fertilizer. A cabinetmaker took the most sophisticated of the antique wood pieces. Other lumber went out as firewood.

At the end, nothing was left -- except two majestic, light-filled levels divided by processions of structural columns, like arcades. A photograph documents this empty space, too.

The artists moved out and continued to live together, but did not collaborate on a major project again. To close and document Selective Disposal, they assembled a handmade book. Describing the book in a 2013 exhibition catalog, Frye Art Museum curator Scott Lawrimore wrote that it includes "a frame made from salvaged architectural moldings that holds what appears to be a shard of concrete with two bullet holes in it. The shard is, in fact, a stack of discarded newspapers that sat for decades under two slow drips from a leaking pipe in the ceiling. This persistent dripping is an apt metaphor for Simpson's dedicated, enduring practice" ("Selected Projects," 33).

They also typed up a detailed description of the nuts and bolts of Selective Disposal Project, including their invoice to Friedlander:

"Common labor @ $2.50 per hour removing accumulation of remodeling and restoration projects dumped or stored on the 3rd and 4th floors (14,000 sq. ft.) 89 Yesler Way, Seattle, Washington. The debris was presented and recorded. Salvage was offered to visitors and the dregs were destined for a landfill site, the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Paid time consisted of that time when a load was collected and hauled to the dumpster (four dumpsters were filled), selection time was all other. Occupancy was supported by a hot plate, icebox (converted industrial cooler) and burlap and polyethylene blankets. Input consisted of a power line and work lights, jugs of water, food, chain saw, hand tools, metal strapping, cinch and crimper, and cameras. Open 18th and 19th labor process continues and recovered materials offered for the taking" ("Selected Projects," 34).

The artists were never paid, they said. "It wasn't much she owed us. Maybe a hundred and two dollars or something" (Simpson interview).

The Birth of Woodman

Simpson's alter ego, Woodman, was born in 1974, out of the ashes of the Selective Disposal Project and what was then called the Bay Building. The turn-of-the-century building, on the south side of University Street between First Avenue and Post Alley, came down that year, torn down by Harbor Development.

Woodman was a stooped figure who made his first appearance on the site of the Bay Building's rubble. The building had formerly been the Arlington Hotel, whose brick foundation stopped the northward advance of the great 1889 Seattle fire along the waterfront.

Woodman could be found wandering its rubble, picking up so much wood that the scraps kept falling from his arms.

"That's where Woodman came from, this dilemma that I had with seeing history being demolished and rendered into kindling wood. From this [Selective Disposal Project] came this persona that was my surrogate, that I would task with that story, so that I would be able to recover from it" (Simpson interview).


Jen Graves telephone interview with Buster Simpson, September 18, 2013; Jen Graves telephone interview with Chris Jonic, September 18, 2013; "Mierle Laderman Ukeles," Ronald Feldman Fine Arts website accessed September 18, 2013 (http://www.feldmangallery.com/media/pdfs/Bios/Ukeles%20Bio.pdf); Scott Lawrimore, "Selected Projects," in Buster Simpson // Surveyor ed. by Scott Lawrimore (Seattle: Frye Art Museum, 2013), 30-85; "Seattle Now & Then: Buzby's Waterfront Mill," Paul Dorpat website accessed September 18, 2013 (http://pauldorpat.com/seattle-now-and-then/seattle-now-then-buzbys-waterfront-mill/).

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