Arts & Culture

This Artist Is the Sole Resident of an Oregon Ghost Town. He’s Just Been Told to Leave.

John Simpkins has lived and painted out of a schoolhouse in Andrews, Oregon, for a decade. Now he’s looking for a new home.

By Christen McCurdy December 18, 2020

John Simpkins and his dog, Phoebe (now passed), in front of his painting Peacekeeper.

Image: John Simpkins

There’s not much left of Andrews, Oregon. The town, formally named Andrews when the post office opened in 1890 but called Wildhorse by locals, lost key structures to fires—a hotel burned down in 1924 and a saloon in 1996—and the ranchers and sheepherders who frequented the place stopped showing up. The nearest grocery store is in Burns, 130 miles away.

But for most the last decade, John Simpkins has quietly occupied one of the three remaining structures, a teacherage attached to the former schoolhouse, down the street from an abandoned dance hall and a combination general store and post office. Simpkins, 69, has been a full-time visual artist most of his life—“I had a couple of jobs but I hated it, and somehow always made it work”—and has spent nine years working on a series of paintings on large canvases he hopes will be displayed as a single exhibit. Simpkins’ work is bold and surreal, often featuring spiritual imagery inspired by his Buddhist practice. Multiple works feature animals, clad in orange monks’ robes, gazing directly back at the viewer.

When Lake Oswego-based art collector George Stroemple, who owns the Andrews property, invited Simpkins to live in the schoolhouse rent-free in 2010, Simpkins thought he might live there for the rest of his life. “He’s actually joked that if I ever found him dead when I came out there to visit him that I should put him in a dramatic pose with a paintbrush,” says Simpkins’s friend Bruce Couch.

But earlier this month, Simpkins received an email from Stroemple saying he has until April to vacate the teacherage. Couch and Simpkins both said he has other plans for the property, though they aren’t clear exactly what they are, and a representative for Stroemple says he isn’t available for comment. Simpkins and Stroemple have known each other since the 1980s, but fell out of touch in the early 1990s when Simpkins’s partner, Victor Brumbach, fell ill. Brumbach died of AIDS in 1996—just months, Simpkins says, before antiretroviral medications became broadly available.

As soon as he heard Simpkins will soon need to vacate the space, Couch, with Simpkins’ consent, created a GoFundMe to raise $20,000. At PoMo’s deadline, friends and fans of Simpkins had contributed just over $9,000 to help him relocate. Couch, who owns a design firm in Bend and befriended Simpkins seven years ago after seeing a story about him on OPB’s Oregon Art Beat, said he started the fundraiser figuring that if Simpkins has money, he’ll have options, and can make decisions based on what feels right to him, not on what his financial circumstances dictate.

For about a month before receiving Stroemple’s email, Simpkins says he had a strange feeling of foreboding—“I sensed that something’s coming, something’s coming”—and struggled to finish one of the paintings he was working on. Now that he knows what’s coming, his plan is to not quite finish it, he says, because this chapter of his life is ending so abruptly that he doesn’t feel finished either.

“I’m not in the greatest of health. I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder],” Simpkins says. “I’m afraid of COVID. And to be asked to leave at this point is like, ‘Oh man, not what I would have done. I would have waited.’” And he knows numerous others are staring down the possibility of eviction as moratoriums expire across the country.

He already has at least one solid lead on a possible next step—another old schoolhouse in Baker City, this one owned by friends—and is exploring other possibilities.

“To be here alone, it’s just a magic place,” Simpkins says. "The light and the magic that happens, it’s changed my life. I’m spoiled. I know I am. It’s not going to be easy to leave it—it’s kind of a heartbreaker for me. It has been a great gift. It has inspired me greatly. I can carry that with me and that will go with me.”