Mike Simpson — Artist on a Harley

[Montrose Colo. | January 2020 | By Karen Prather]

[Montrose Colo. | January 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Karen Prather]

He’s an Artist on a Harley, with a paint box and easel packed in the saddlebags. He’s an artist in a black truck with “Art is What We Do” painted on the side. He’s a travelin’ plein air artist whose entrepreneurial goal is “to make my art available to whoever wants to buy it.”

Mike Simpson is an artist heart and soul, and he travels the highways and byways of the North American West painting “the people, places, and things of small-town rural America” from the Mexican border all the way up into Alaska.

“The West is my home,” he said. “The landscape, the buildings, the people, and the animals that make up the West—that’s what I paint.”

Simpson began making art in Vietnam, where he was stationed with the U.S. Army. “I would draw pictures of the soldiers’ girlfriends, their wives, or their mothers, and trade that for guard duty,” he said. “They would go pull my guard duty while I stayed back with pencil and paper and drew.”

When he got out of the army, Simpson received a degree in animal science (in California) and began working on ranches caring for livestock. He worked with cowboys on ranches in Montana and Wyoming and as a lease agent for the Crow Indian reservation. All the while, he kept on drawing, doing detailed sketches of cowboys and the cowboy life. “Then I started painting,” Simpson said. “I began to focus more on the context of the subject. Instead of the page being filled with a cowboy doing what cowboys do, the cowboy got smaller and smaller and smaller and the landscape got bigger and bigger and bigger, till I eventually wound up dropping the cowboy entirely and just doing landscapes.”

Simpson enjoyed his work on ranches and reservations and continued to paint and draw in his free time. Then, in 1984, he hurt his back. “My doctor said, ‘Well, you can’t do this anymore, what else can you do?’ And I thought, well, I can paint pictures, and he said, ‘It’s time for a career change.’”

Two years later, Simpson and his wife, Kathy, moved to Montrose (her hometown) and opened an art gallery and frame shop downtown on Main Street. There, they could show his art and had the frame shop to frame it. The framing operation went from framing only his paintings to doing work for other artists and the public as well. The Simpsons branched out, turning their gallery into half gallery half frame store.

Meanwhile, Simpson often found himself astride his Harley, taking to the road and painting plein air (a French term that translates to “open air,” popularized with the mid-19th century invention of the more transportable, metal paint tube). He traveled and painted, entering his art in plein air contests and selling it at invitational painting competitions or as a guest in galleries he encountered along the way. Simpson produced a prodigious amount of art. “I painted what I saw and when a landscape spoke to me.” His work was soon showing in galleries throughout the West.

Simpson is mostly retired from the competitive side of plein air, painting but he’s still out there making art in the countryside. He can often be spotted, his Harley, camper, or truck parked roadside, as he paints, sketches, or takes photographs. “Frequently, I don’t finish the picture while I’m out there. I get the information I need then go back and complete the work at my studio. I don’t like the competition aspect,” he added, “but I still love painting outdoors.” Last summer, Simpson was a familiar sight on the streets of Ouray, sitting behind an easel and chatting with passersby. Look for him to be there again this summer. The Elk Lodge in Ouray has granted him access to paint on their property this year.

After they closed their Montrose gallery, Simpson said, “I was missing out on the meet and greet with people, sort of the social aspect of painting.” To recover it, the Simpsons moved Simpson Gallery Fine Art and Framing to a new location in downtown Montrose: the Montrose Center for the Arts at 11 South Park Avenue (right next door to the Silver Stage!). Stop in the MCA and take a look at his paintings, check out Mike Simpson Art on Facebook, or visit him online at mikesimpsonart.com to see his most recent adventures.

You never know when he’ll be on the move again, until you see him out there with his bike and his paint gear, so it’s always best to call ahead. 970-249-1098.

Left: Mike Simpson, painting roadside in Utah. Right: Painting in British Columbia from his Harley.  All images courtesy of the artist.