an essay by Linda Tesner, curator of the George R. Stroemple Collection
“MY LIFE IS LIKE A DREAM,” John Simpkins has said of his isolated existence in the ghost town of Andrews, Oregon, in the most southeasterly corner of Harney County. He lives there with his poodle, Phoebe, in an abandoned teacherage and works in the old stone schoolhouse, a good three hundred miles round-trip from the nearest grocery store. The closest community is Fields, population eight. Simpkins comments that it has taken five years to make friends with some of his cautious neighbors. He has gone weeks without seeing other human beings, he says, yet he is never lonely. Not only do his dog and the native fauna keep him company, but even the wind there assumes an almost anthropomorphic boisterousness. Here Simpkins lives at the edge: at the margin of the barren playa known as the Alvord Desert, in the shadow of Steens Mountain, at the very fringe of American civilization. Here Simpkins paints.
Simpkins’s route to the Alvord unfolds like an epic poem. In 1990 he lived with his friend and life partner, Victor Brumbach, at Camp Sherman in Central Oregon. There he became friends with the art collector George R. Stroemple, who lived in nearby Sisters, and proposed to him a monumental triptych based on the narrative and symbolism of Noah and the Flood. Stroemple is, and has been, Simpkins’s major patron and most stalwart supporter. Victor died in 1995, but the Noah’s Ark project slowly evolved until Simpkins finished it in 2011. The triptych, The Flood, now in the George R. Stroemple Collection, is likely Simpkins’ magnum opus.
By the time The Flood was complete, Simpkins had to leave Camp Sherman, but he had no particular place to go. Stroemple owns property in Harney County, including the Andrews Schoolhouse, and he proposed to Simpkins that he could live there. It has been a nearly ideal situation for an artist who deeply reveres nature and whose subject matter invokes a hopeful amity between humankind and the animal world.
Simpkins’s art education took a circuitous path, mostly outside of art school. He grew up in the Napa Valley and attended the University of California, Davis, where he at least brushed up against Bay Area Figurative school artists such as Wayne Thiebaud. During a break from school, when Simpkins was recuperating from a severe case of mono, he learned that the California artist Earl Thollander was offering a class in figure drawing. He enrolled, and the experience led him to leave the university altogether and work side-by-side with Thollander until he felt that he had absorbed Thollander’s signature linear style—and then he stopped drawing and began to paint. Eventually Simpkins found his voice in his own graphic style of naïve painting.
Simpkins’s work calls to mind the Peaceable Kingdom paintings by the American Quaker folk painter Edward Hicks. The nineteenth-century artist made sixty-two versions of the famous composition illustrating Isaiah 11:6-8, a passage that foretells a time when all animals (including humans) live harmoniously. Many, if not most, of Simpkins’s paintings involve animal portraiture, reminding his viewers of the sanctity of the natural world.
A recent painting, Peacekeeper (2014), is a revealing example of Simpkins’s view of the world. Here he uses brightly saturated colors to construct a collage-like picture of images and symbols that are important to him. Simpkins used to sketch out his compositions, deciding on the narrative in pencil before beginning to paint. More recently, however, he simply begins painting, launching into the composition with steady faith that whatever he is supposed to paint will evolve onto the canvas.
On the left-hand side of Peacekeeper is the Andrews schoolhouse, Simpkins’ home and studio. There are sunflowers blooming and pumpkins on the porch—Simpkins started the painting in the fall and painted through the holidays (notice the Santa cap on Phoebe), working from left to right until the painting was finished six months later. In the left window of the schoolhouse is a Virgin Mary–type figure, her head wreathed in a luminous halo. In the right window, the sheer curtain obscures another figure, a demon, here to remind us that every life experience is both good and bad, both yin and yang. To Simpkins, the left figure symbolizes the feminine—gentle creativity, a deeper sense of connectedness to the Earth and to other life forms—in contrast to the right figure, which he identifies with greed, personal gain, and disregard for other beings.
The figure of the man with a white beard and round glasses, wearing a painting apron, is Simpkins’s self-portrait. He’s standing on the moon, with Phoebe; he’s winged—part man, part bird or angel. Behind the schoolhouse and running across the canvas is the escarpment of the Steens, literally the backdrop of Simpkins’s daily life. Steens Mountain is a bit of a trickster, too. It looks like a mountain range, but its fifty-mile span is actually one single mountain, named for United States Army Major Enoch Steen, infamous for driving the indigenous Paiute tribe off the mountain in 1860. In Simpkins’s painting, the foothills and the long ridge of the Steens have eyes. At the right edge of the painting, a hill is even transmogrified into a beast, with spiky teeth and spine. In Simpkins’s world, all elements of nature are sentient beings.
Occupying the center of the painting is a variation on the Tree of Life, a stylized tree loaded with abundant fruit, a snake wrapped around the trunk. There is a single, golden apple on the tree, a reference to the Tree of Knowledge and the fruit proffered to Adam by Eve. Nearby, there is a hanging persimmon, a tribute to Simpkins’s early teacher, Thollander, who was known to paint those fruits.
The right-hand side of the painting is filled with a serene bodhisattva hovering above the planet Earth. Simpkins is evasive about whether or not this figure, too, is a self-portrait. The bodhisattva has a third eye and a spiral of energy over his heart chakra. This whorl is echoed in the cyclonic cloud patterns that overshadow the globe. Behind the figure are references to past paintings in Simpkins’s oeuvre: the expanse of water and the boat refer to the Noah’s Flood painting, a project that was literally life-changing for Simpkins. Behind the ark are the Twin Towers of New York City, one being struck by lightning. In an example of eerie prescience, Simpkins painted the World Trade Center towers in The Flood triptych years before 9/11—then added an approaching plane to the painting following the tragedy.
The interstices of Peacekeeper are decorative elements that are typical of Simpkins’s work. Patchwork-quilt patterns, rainbows, Tibetan clouds, the open-palm hand (reminiscent of the protective hamsa), a lotus form, hints of fire, and repetitive geometric marks are all signatures of Simpkins’s colorful vocabulary.
Simpkins’s paintings are not so much cautionary tales—they are too exuberant to be interpreted with foreboding. That said, Simpkins is deeply aware that humankind is living in a precarious and potentially cataclysmic moment. There are elements in Simpkins’s work—the flood, the thunderclouds, the typhoon spirals—that are visual reminders that humankind has already let the genie out of the bottle, that it is time for humans to more seriously regard and respect the abundance of Earth.
“My heart leads me,” says Simpkins. “Because I look out at nature’s perfection every day, I have a strong conviction that there is no separation between me and the universe. I am Earth, and this trust—with patience—leads me to believe that whatever wishes to be expressed from my spirit into my painting will be revealed. I just go with it.”
Written by Linda Tesner, November 14, 2015. Linda is the curator of the George R. Stroemple Collection.