written by Anna Bird | photos by Talia Galvin
In the foothills of the Steens Mountain and minutes away from the playa of the Alvord Desert, John Simpkins sits in a one-room schoolhouse in the ghost town of Andrews. Outside, the desert dulls its colors in green sage and brown sand. Inside grand colorful paintings brim with spiritual symbolism.
Living at least 140 miles away from any major town or grocery store, ranchers and cowboys call this far-off place home, too. Locals cautiously observed the 64-year-old artist for years before they came around.
From 2011 to 2015, it was basically just Simpkins and Phoebe, his (now) 16-year-old poodle. Friends would visit. He would go into Burns once a month for groceries, but otherwise he connected to the outside world through Facebook.
“My grandfather was a builder, my father was a builder, and then I blew it and became an artist,” Simpkins said. Originally from Napa Valley, he has felt inclined to pursue art ever since his primary medium was crayons. He studied art at the University of California in Davis, but he didn’t finish, even with pop art/new realism artist Wayne Thiebaud as a teacher. Instead, he moved to San Francisco for a brief period in 1980 where he met his partner, Victor Brumbach.
By then, George Stroemple, an internationally recognized art collector in the Northwest, had begun collecting Simpkins’ work. When he and Brumbach wanted to leave San Francisco, Stroemple helped them find a place in Sisters. A few years later, they built a cabin in nearby Camp Sherman, where they lived until Brumbach’s death in 1995.
“After he died, I sat there and looked at the light for a long time, and just thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,’” Simpkins said. “I really don’t know how I’m going to do this.” He wanted to retreat and let it all go. He wanted to release all of their plans, all of their goals, all of their wishes. So he sold their home, and in 2003, he took some of Brumbach’s bones on a journey to Lhamo La-tso, considered the most spiritual lake in Tibet.
At 17,400 feet, looking out over the oracle lake and surrounded by Himalayan peaks, Simpkins made a wish that some day he would find a place in the United States that looked like that. After returning from Tibet, Stroemple again stepped in, urging Simpkins to move to a property of his in southeastern Oregon. When he figured out where exactly that was, Simpkins told Stroemple, “I’m not going down there, it’s too far. Way too far.” But Simpkins finally agreed to check it out.
“The moment I turned at the triangle down by Fields—what they call Long Hollow—I made that turn and faced north toward the Steens up here at Wild Horse Canyon, and I knew,” Simpkins said. “I still had some questions, yes, but it flashed me right back to that moment in Tibet … I saw that and I knew that I had gotten my wish.”
When he moved to Andrews in 2011, setting up his residence in the teacherage and his studio in the schoolhouse, Simpkins had up to that point made small paintings, because it was more practical. Soon, the vastness of the land encouraged him to go bigger and bolder.
“I just decided to go for it,” Simpkins said. “These elements, these strong elements … the mountains right behind the school what I call ‘Nipple Mountain’—the light, the animals, the coyotes, the owls, all these creatures … I began to trust, and I began to work larger.”
Now, his works are free from plans and sketches, guided by the drama, energy and magic of the area. He incorporates spiritual figures, items from his childhood, creatures that wander into his yard, Phoebe and elements of himself—such as his round glasses and mismatched socks. Simpkins contemplates the connection between all living beings, the energy of light and wind, death, the confines of time and the history of the land around him.
“My contact [with the world] really began to solidify with the earth itself,” he said. Simpkins developed a stronger connection to all things, paying more attention to his intuition and letting himself wonder, let go and be present.