March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

Mother Nature Is Her Medium

Method and mission meld in MEG WEBSTER’S sculptures. Using such materials as lake water, moss and just plain dirt, she gives the natural world a mysterious dignity. In New York City’s Whitney Museum last year, the artist with the green thumb showed a wetlands plant assemblage. At a SoHo gallery recently she installed a compost box acrawl with worms. “By taking these life-giving elements out of their context, I call attention to them,” she says. The Virginia-bred daughter of an orthopedic surgeon and a housewife, Webster, 45, first experimented with earthworks at Yale, where she got her M.F.A. in 1983. A move to the metropolis only intensified her interest. “In New York there’s a need to deal with natural materials because they’re missing from your life,” she explains. Environmental art, says Webster, is a response to these troubled times: “Once our culture experiences a complete sense of safety, perhaps there will be a rebirth of pure abstraction. But until then, you can’t get away from the threat of the earth’s annihilation.”

How One Artist Spells Relief

Part realist, part abstract exhibitionist, BUSTER SIMPSON, 47, has a way of making his world one big science-and-art project. His works are not only aesthetic but also politically eye-opening and earth-changing. His weather vane-powered sculpture smashes bottles for recycling; the dinner plates he left for three years under sewage outfalls in New York City and Puget Sound reveal their ravages; his giant limestone “antacid pills” sweeten as well as decorate the nation’s waters. While admitting he can’t correct the planet’s pH alone, Simpson says, “The melodrama makes a nice platform to talk about effluents.”

He discovered the power of industrial poisons when he saw fish killed by the runoff from a sugar beet plant upstream of his boyhood home in rural Michigan. After earning degrees in sculpture at the University of Michigan, Simpson turned to conceptual art. He has worked the last 16 years in Seattle, where he lives with his artist wife, Laura Sindell, and their daughter, Hillela, 2, but until last year he might as well have been howling in the wilderness. That year national recognition arrived when he filled a fountain at the Hirsh-horn Museum in Washington, D.C., with barrels, pipes, trees, 40,000 gallons of Potomac River water and 45 of his river Rolaids, as he calls them. Ruled one critic: “It does make its point—and poetically.”

Tomorrow’s Designers Send an SOS Today

Clothing designers are pelting us with faux furs, surf shops are promoting save-the-ocean T-shirts, and now New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology has launched the most dramatic effort of all: a decade-long SAVE OUR SURFACE campaign. Undergraduates at the famed design hothouse (alums include Calvin Klein and Norma Kamali) leapt to the challenge, and endangered elephants, birds, big cats, reptiles and whales are already sweeping across wallpaper, bathing suits, beach towels and scarves. “Textile design has always been inspired by the animal and plant world, but I was really sick of doing one more rose for no reason,” says professor Susan Rietman, who initiated the project. “We’re a very career-oriented school, but here’s an assignment that has taken the students beyond that focus to bring a message.” Indeed the SOS campaign is proving so successful that not only Rietman’s textile department but also all 14,000 FITers will be sent to their drawing boards. Then, as manufacturers purchase the most marketable designs, the crusade will hit malls coast to coast. A large piece of the payoff is earmarked for Ted Turner’s Better World Society.

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