Jackson Hole News & Guide
Written By Kirsten Forrester
John Simms will introduce himself as a sculptor, but in reality he’s a pioneer. He has been an artist, a ski patroller, a river guide and a fly-fisherman, but the title that suits him best is inventor.
“When nothing like it has been done before, you’re flying by the seat of your pants,” he said.
In 1960, after working in management for his family’s plywood business, he decided it was time to forge a different path. He loaded up his Jaguar XK120 convertible and headed west.
“I wanted to see what I could find,” he said.
Simms ended up in Georgetown, Colorado. He got a job bartending with room and board included, and started skiing at Arapahoe Basin. His skiing caught the eye of the area manager, who offered him a job as professional ski patrolman.
“I didn’t know any first aid at the time, but of course I said yes,” Simms said.
The next year he became the patrol director. When Vail opened two years later he was hired to head up avalanche control at the new resort.
“I’d had an awful lot of avalanche experience, so I got very good at forecasting,” he said.
At the time, skiers wore their pants on the inside of their boots. Naturally, snow would gather around the boots and seep in.
“I thought, “Boy, that’s just stupid,” so I made a neoprene cuff that would go around your boots,” he said.
Simms has invented something for almost every profession he’s been in.
“I just made things for friends,” he said, “I made what we needed.”
That included things that were needed for safety.
Simms moved to Jackson Hole in the early ’60s, before the ski area was developed. In those days people who ventured into the backcountry didn’t have the resources to help one another if someone was caught in a slide. Simms started creating tools for avalanche forecasting, devices that he sold all over the world.
“No one had ever done anything like that,” he said.
His tools included a probe and shovel he called Life-Link.
“I had modified a pair of ski poles so you could pull the grips off and the basket off and the poles would screw together to make an 8-foot-long probe,” Simms said, “It was very gratifying. It really saved lives.”
Simm’s industry-changing inventions also extended to his summer pastime: fly-fishing. At the time, wading shoes didn’t keep out sand and gravel.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, back at A-Basin I made these cuffs, so why not do the same here?’” he said. “I designed these things called Gravel Guards.”
Gravel Guards evolved into the first neoprene waders, which eventually turned into the company Simms Fishing Products.
“It just really took off,” he said. “People were using them all around the world.”
After disagreements with a partner, Simms left the business in 1993. His mathematical, engineering brain gravitated toward sculpture.
“I bought a little welder and just started imagining sweeping, elegant forms. I thought that’d be fun to do,” he said, “I had started learning through a design program, Rhino 3D, and made this cube shape.”
Simms is fascinated by the possibilities that exist among the most basic of forms: circle, triangle and rectangle. That “cube shape” turned into his first piece, an aircraft aluminum sculpture he mounted on bearings. It featured a cube of negative space in the center that connected each edge to the complementing edge of the larger cube.
“One morning I went out — it gives me the shivers — and it was revolving in the wind,” he said. “I mean, it was totally serendipitous.”
He brought it, along with four other pieces, to a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it sold to a member of the Indianapolis Art Center board. It’s one of the center’s main display pieces.
“I’ve really been lucky. I’ve always had a lot of confidence, which is why I can do stuff like this,” Simms said, pointing to a piece he’s working on, a smaller version of his original cube.
Simms has made a few variations of the cube over the years, including a red version next to Rendezvous Bistro.
His work is represented by Diehl Gallery in Jackson, which has a smaller version of the red cube in front of its sculpture garden at 155 W. Broadway.
His favorite piece remains a family of bison similar to his 16-by-24-foot bison along Highway 390. The couple who bought the piece recently donated it to the town of Driggs, Idaho.
Simms’ artistic direction has shifted to smaller pieces in recent years, but Simms is constantly coming up with new ideas.
“I have hundreds if not thousands of ideas on my computer,” he said.
His determination to bring his ideas to life has been a consistent personality trait throughout his 81 years. Who knows what he’ll come up with next.