By Barbara Kleban Mills
Updated April 29, 1985 12:00 PM

Picture Chicago’s rush hour in March. Businessmen and secretaries, buttoned up against the wind, rush to buses and subways for the ride home. But one couple strolls slowly without coats, displaying a distinctly antiurban look: Their clothes are covered with fresh green grass. “Oh sure—it’s a promotion for something,” says one passerby, hip to hard sell. “Yeah, for a cigarette company,” says someone else. “No—for a golf course,” suggests another.

All wrong. The grass outfits are offered as works of art—part of an outdoor “performance” piece staged by artist Bill Harding, 26. “Grass suits are a great communication tool,” says Harding, who insists that getting people to talk is part of his artistic plan.

According to Harding, the fuzzy fashions make a statement about the environment. “They show the stubbornness of nature—that grass will grow anywhere,” he says. Harding also suggests that such intimacy with 20 or more pounds of sod provides the wearer a surge of energy. “Grass suits give a warm, womblike feeling. They make you feel like an animal, like you have fur.” Pro bowler Bob Handley agreed to wear one during a practice session and credits a 20-point score jump to the suit.

The Ohio-born artist, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, started out as a painter and sculptor but turned to performance as a means of “giving a new emotion.” His first performance piece, in which he slathered himself with mud to show man’s earthly concerns, evolved into a later work wherein an actor dressed in a business suit stepped into a grass-filled briefcase. In 1982 Harding drove a grass-covered Buick through Kansas City but he soon decided grass garb was a better metaphor for his aesthetic message. He created his latest grass suit in the kitchen of the West Chicago flat he shares with an artist friend, Diane Christiansen.

Harding’s walking greens require no soil. He simply sprays a suit (preferably a cheap one) with a can of 3M high-tack adhesive (not Elmer’s Glue, which dissolves in water), sprinkles on Manhattan perennial rye seeds and surrounds the suit with plastic for a greenhouse effect. He then waters the outfit twice a day for 12 days and voilà!—a perfect specimen of lawn chic.

Though he’s made 18 suits—for events in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as The Tonight Show and a Japanese talk show—Harding never tried to sell the outfits. Rather he ekes out a living by doing odd jobs and installing art shows for galleries. Harding offers his own conceptual drawings and mixed-media works for between $400 and $1,200 at the Morgan Gallery in Shawnee Mission, Kans. (So far he has sold only one.)

The grass lover’s next goal is to use the $3,000 grant he just received from the Illinois Arts Council to stage a massive bucolic “suit-in,” at which 35 or more people will wear his soil-less sod. What will he do with the clothes when the event is over? Probably just what he does with them now: He buries them in his backyard. As Harding puts it, “They can return to nature.”