Authors, Artists and Makers Volume 1: James Sampsel
Updated: Feb 1
I first came to know of James Sampsel in May of 2018 through a podcast put out by my friend, Drew De Vries, entitled Adventure Deficit. On this episode Drew was interviewing James, whom he had spent a summer with as a rafting guide in Oregon, and I was blown away by the story. From there I began following James on social media, engaging in his journey, and becoming a great admirer of his work.
James is a talented artist, a successful steelhead guide, a devoted husband and loving father, a conservationist and an educator. He embraces a life philosophy of "passionism" and it is contagious. I'm honored to tell a little bit of his story in what will be my first volume of "Authors, Artists and Makers" - a series in which I will interview and feature twelve creators who also have a binding passion for fishing, hunting or hiking.
To take a listen to the original podcast (highly recommended), you can follow this link:
Q: Can you give me a little of your background? Let's start with your early childhood growing up in Missoula:
A: "My full name is James Robert Hopni Sampsel. I was born in Missoula Montana where I spent my first 16 years of life. I was brother to my sisters Elaina and Charla and the youngest of the lot. My parents came from very different backgrounds. My mother was born in Brooklyn and raised in Ponce Puerto Rico. My father, the son of German immigrants who made home in Middleburg Pennsylvania. He was raised in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture and later moved to Orange County California as a teen."
"I went to a private college prep school for most of my formative years where I spent my school days with virtually the same group of friends from the age of 5 to 16. We were a tight knit bunch that I really had no problem saying goodbye to during the summer months to chase rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout in the streams and rivers in Western Montana. For as long as I can remember my Grampa Jimmy (My dad’s dad) would spend at least one month a summer fishing with my dad and I in Montana. I started to fish at age five, but only after I learned my knots. I guess my dad didn’t want to spend half his day on the water retying hooks on to my line. Once I could confidently rig my own setup, I finally learned to cast. The first one being in a tree over a dirt road in a campground on trout creek outside of Superior Montana."
Q: Q: How did you first fall in love with fishing?
A: "My great grandfather was a fly angler, and my father and grandpa Jimmy, whom I was named after, were bait anglers. Even using bait, the fished flyrods and it was a deadly technique I was taught. The overall assumption was that fly anglers never caught large fish. And many of us fly anglers can agree that is complete hogwash. A word Jimmy used on the regular. My grandpa didn’t learn to fly fish because his dad said he’d be no good at it. So, he taught my dad the same techniques that where then passed to me. That mold was changed when I was 10. After reading regulations and realizing all the missed waters we could be fishing I decided I wanted to turn my Fenwick Eagle into a proper fly-fishing rig and fish the waters we once couldn’t. My dad agreed and I was gifted a new reel and line to begin my self-taught future into the fly world. I vividly remember not understanding what WF and leader and tippet was. The most memorable failure was when I lost the biggest fish of my life on the St. Regis River on a Dave’s Hopper due to a failed knot. That’s when magazines and books became friends to me. Very backwards from how I learned but it was my only option, having no fly fishing mentors."
"The first fish I caught was a northern Pike minnow, followed by a 16-inch rainbow that surprised the hell out of my dad. Later he admitted he had no confidence in the spot -- it was just an easy place for me to learn. From that moment on fishing became an absolute passion. It was my everything. I would continually daydream about fishing when I should have been paying attention in school. The experiences grew, and my passion to pursue wild fish and release them turned fly fishing into my first true love."
Q: What were some of your early influences?
A: "One of my most vivid memories comes from when I was five, or even younger, watching my dad create shape and form with a graphite pencil. His influence instilled the idea of creating from nothing and a fondness for art. This is another reason why I wasn’t the top student in my class -- aside from being the class clown. I drew religiously. I was quickly discovered by teachers for having a talent to create art and was recognized for these talents at a young age. Art came easier to me than others, but I was, and still am, never satisfied with what I create."
"At the age of 10 my family moved to the outskirts of Missoula and I had no neighbor friends to speak of. Many days I was left to my own devices to wander the banks of the Clarks Fork or sit and watch episodes of Bob Ross on PBS. On my tenth birthday my sister Charla gifted me a paint set. It was foreign to me as I primarily used pencils and had no interest in color. This was a drastic change -- and difficult. But, little by little, I continued to paint and could paint a Bob Ross like the rest of them. Still, I missed the mark in that I wasn’t painting my true self. I was mimicking another artist. Not until I met Davis Kinker (my first art mentor) in Shantyville in Maupin Oregon did I begin to see the possibility to be a true working artist. Dave taught me and a dear friend Ryan Gossett how to “see” and paint outside in a plein air method on location. I now had the tools I needed to really discover who I was and who I could become as an artist."
"Maupin Oregon is where I cut my teeth as a guide in both the whitewater world flyfishing world. I was given an opportunity to guide whitewater for Allstar Rafting after befriending Abe Blair, a guide, photographer, and all-around adventurer. Abe shot action photos of snow athletes at the time and we both worked for the same company. We befriended each other recognizing a mutual work ethic and a shared passion for chasing fish on flies. Abe became my ticket to respecting a river through running watercraft, swimming big waters, and the art of communicating with people in a boat. I now have countless boating and fishing mentors, but Abe was my first. Very little time passes in which I don’t experience a deep gratitude for him and David both. They set a foundation in me that has developed my entire world. And really the biggest influencer of all is my dad. I am forever grateful for my upbringing and his willingness to bring me along."
Q: Would you be willing to talk about your sister’s death and the influence that had on your life?
A: "It was in Maupin my first year guiding and second week into training that I heard the news of my sister Charla’s death. It made national headlines and my family’s life would never be the same. This event most likely started the trauma that developed future events in my life, namely a diagnosis of Bipolar 1, nine years after her death. It was a difficult day in the Dalles and many of my fellow guides still remember that moment when we all heard the news. That was the first instance that I knew I had a family outside of my immediate family. The comradery and understanding of the business owners and my teammates helped me through a difficult season and gave me the focus to excel and turn guiding into a lifelong pursuit. That also happened to be the summer I had my first encounter with a steelhead on a fly. There is an organic trend in my life of the big and small. Nothing big ever happens unless multiple big things occur. The death of my sister and experiencing my first steelhead both held powerful and trong emotional significance. The loss of one of best and most beautiful people I knew countered the start of my lifelong pursuit to chase the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever been graced by. Somehow for me the two events became interconnected -- similar. You spend all this time working on a relation to be closer to this person or fish. You offer gifts of kindness. You get upset and frustrated at them. You are graced by their elegance each time you see them. All of this built-up time for a small moment. A moment that seems to last not long enough, leaving you wanting more, and in the end so profound you will never forget it. My sister was the most beautiful steelhead you ever saw. Her loss has required continual healing and led to the difficult but necessary personal growth that propels me forward."
"The death of my sister and my growth in connection with the river seemed all too fitting for me in the spiritual sense. I grew up catholic but early on was given the choice to go to church or not. I always liked the idea of prayers and connecting with God and have always believed, but I knew the best stuff came to me in nature. Nature was my church. Moving water against my legs, pushing the past away. Cleansing. God’s creatures speaking to me; telling me where to go next and that everything will be okay. Nature is where I go to reset, and I became a minister of sorts after these events --teaching people in my boat these ways. My sister taught me so much in life, and in her death she continues to help me grow."
Q: Can you share a little about your spiritual side and the journey you have taken?
A: "Spirituality was discussed in my household regularly. It was an odd thing. My mom Catholic. My dad an atheist. My grandma Santia, my mom’s mom, a Catholic and spiritual guru. She was given gifts as a small child and molded them into her special talent for connecting with her community, the spirits around us, and those who have passed. She’s a clairvoyant and for many years has been my spiritual guru. The gifts she has are not for the faint of heart and not everyone is willing to be a part, experience, or even understand what she sees and knows. I think because at such a young age this has been such a large part of my culture that I learned to embrace it and have been open to sharing my gifts and receiving them from others. I saw and experienced so much spiritually growing up that I am confident that I could write a book about my experiences if I was a stronger writer. But, there is one experience that was bigger than all the rest."
"In February of 2015 I was on a business trip selling steelhead trips for a lodge that I worked for at the time. My friend/co-worker, Brent, and I where giving a fly-fishing presentation at a fly club in Houston Texas. The energy was alive, and the crowd was fired up. But something was changing. For days now we had been driving to shops, stores, and outdoors shows selling trips. But what was about to happen was bigger than either of us could have ever imagined or have experienced in our lives."
"I had been telling my Brent about my spirituality and the experiences I have been through. It was a lot of information, and certainly overwhelming for Brent, but he continued to show interest in what was next. After that talk in Houston, I spent the night creating a list of the 13 of my friends most connected to me, knowing that I was to travel to Oklahoma and visit the grave of my main spirit guide Geronimo. Brent was on board and the events that took transpired in that place brought me to a whole other dimension and out of body experience that really is not fathomable. It was the most heightened and beautiful experience of my life and began a month-long manic episode that was amazing and necessary to myself discovery, but in the end, when all was finished, was followed by the most depressive state of my life. Leading to a losses of friendship, losses of trust, and ultimately a rebuilding from those losses."
"When I was being raised in Montana, my family would often go to powwows. I have many friends who are Blackfeet and I grew up with a respect for their culture and their ways. My grandma was always interested and also had a strong connection. In our blood and more importantly through spirit. We believe that we have spirit guides. Ones who once lived here who are guiding us through our journey -- through their journey to grow higher in the spirit world. Some may call it a conscience or your gut feeling or guardian angels. They help guide us on life’s difficult journey. All my life I watched my grandma connect, interact, and channel our families guides. Some would come and go for various purposes. And others stayed with us for all the time I can remember. Some of our guides had past lives in the church, others slaves on plantations. But most of our guides are native Americans. The most powerful and strong-willed is Geronimo. When he spoke, it was different -- mostly seriousness and straight business. He kept order and had a difficult job watching over all of us. These gifts and knowledge to interact with our guides is meant to be passed down. My mom was always frightened by it and my sister Elaina was willing, but not always able, I suppose, to take on so much. Her present state is saintly in that she takes on so much for others. I could never hold a stick to how she helps others. I myself wanted these spiritual gifts from a very young age and was willing to accept them and learn."
"My grandmother Santia, now 95, has, in the last 10 years, grown tired and too weak to be able to carry these gifts with any great capacity and has been passing them on to my sister and me. One night, some eight years ago in an apartment in Puerto Rico, in a spirit circle with my mom, Jackie, and Santia, I was given Geronimo. Our spiritual leader. It was an unbelievable experience I will never forget and ultimately led to that day with Brent in Oklahoma. Us, high on that hill watching the sun hover in space and time, feeling the thunder shake the earth with no clouds in sight, so I could “release” Geronimo where his body rests and his soul had ascended. I still don’t understand why we were there. Perhaps a healing for Geronimo, or maybe the beginning of my next chapter. I don’t believe I will ever experience such an explosively charged, dramatic, and, at the same time, calm experience again before my death."
Q: After this experience, things were pretty dark and you essentially had to "start over". Can you talk about that time?
A: "The events that took place in 2015 are so unbelievable that even I questioned their validity. After it all happened and I returned to my body, that same night I was checked into a hospital, after being arrested outside a Holiday Inn. I was to the point where I had almost taken my life, believing there was no more left for me here. That maybe perhaps I was in heaven and wanted to be there. Throughout that month-long experience, I spent time in two hospitals, was arrested three times and even kidnapped. It was the most significant time in my life and the most difficult."
"I grew so much spiritually and came to understandings I may not have if I had played the game and fallen in line with the masses. I was against the grain and so misunderstood. The mental health system was harsh and not understanding. My family and peers had a difficult time coping with what I was doing and saying. I had lost my home, my tools to create, my fly rods to fish and guide, my boat and my license to drive. My freedoms to be me and heal were all gone. I had to start over."
"I walked to my therapist’s office five times a week. For both group and one-on-one sessions and the AA and NA classes I was sentenced to go through by the courts. And I walked to work building fishing and hunting waders for nine dollars an hour. I went from being at what I thought was the peak of my careers to absolute rock bottom. I did this for over a year before I gained traction. My therapist became my savior and life guru. He listened to me, understood me and gave me the tools to continue to be myself, unchanged but in a safe manner that would allow me to exist in society and still honor the gifts that make me who I am. It took a tremendous amount of courage and work but each day I learned, applied, and became the best version of me I could for that day. What gave me the most hope was my therapist validating my experiences. He never called me crazy. We respect each other -- in fact, I almost changed my career path to become a therapist due to his impact on my life."
"But fate and life have a way directing you. In May of 2016, I received phone calls from two different friends. One friend, Darrell, giving me my job back guiding steelhead on the Rogue River, and the other a best friend, who I’ve guided with for many years, inviting me to join in on a fun multi-day trip down the wild and scenic Rogue, or what I call the gateway to heaven. In my most brilliant and profound times, and in my most depressed and desperate times, the thought of the Rogue and all she is brought me hope. My center. My home. My church."
"This is where I circle around, and my fear of delusion and reality hits. I had not connected with Brent since Oklahoma. Brent is a 30-year guide on the Rogue, and I was sure I would run into him. I wanted to see him, but was also terrified of what he thought of me after that day on the mountain of thunder and sun. As fate would have it, on our last afternoon of the training trip, while we were setting up a team photograph, Brent rounded the upriver bend. I dropped what I was doing and sat there, heart racing. Would he acknowledge me? Is he afraid of me? I had so much emotion radiating through me. Brent waved and greeted the group and saw me. He took three hard oar strokes towards the bank yelling my name and hopped out of his boat, before even parking it, to run to me and pick me up in the air telling me that he loved me. It was the greatest relief of my life. The one person who experienced my most life-altering moment was embracing me with no judgment. Not long after, we shared the same guide room and Brent addressed the elephant in the room. “So, James, tell me exactly how that day went down in Oklahoma as you saw it.” I told him every detail from start to finish. My truth. What I saw, felt, and believe, to this day, happened. He looked at me smiled, snickered and said, “That’s exactly how I experienced it.” It was validating. Not needed, but so helpful to my growth in believing who I am."
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your diagnosis of “Bipolar 1”?
A: "I was failed by our country’s mental health programs. And also saved by one person in the field who saw things on a person-to-person basis. Who was not biased and one-sided. What people didn’t realize about the experience I had is that what they were seeing was the purest version of myself. I just didn’t have the tools to walk in society as my true self."
"Being diagnosed Bipolar 1 can be frightening the first time you hear it. Now all I feel is brilliance. I see and feel the world in a different way than many others. In reality we all are bipolar. We all deal with life differently and we all have different and similar tools and ways to deal with it. The emotional swings that I encountered were at an all-time extreme because I gave too much of myself to others and cracked. I can still see the world glitter. I can still feel depressed. And that’s beautiful. The difference now is that I now understand myself and have the ability to work with it and embrace what I am. I am more confident and prouder of who I am today. Not every day is roses, and not all are gloomy. I have wonderful boundaries and can apply self-care in a way that I can be helpful to others and myself with no harsh compromise. A diagnosis with a loose stigma that gets thrown around all the time doesn’t control me. I control it and really, it’s a gift. I love who I am and if those who know me can’t understand it, they don’t have to. We have freedoms in choice. Most of all, those of us who struggle with mental illness are not broken. That is the most important to remember. That and that we are all beautiful."
Q: You are a fishing guide and a fine artist. How are the two similar? Is there a common thread in those activities that attracts you to them?
A: "Being a guide and artist really is an advantage in both avenues. Steelhead live in the most beautiful places which is so important as a visual artist. The biggest struggle is painting and fishing at the same time! I’ve tried unsuccessfully. But the commonality is the art in the process and the life metaphor. In our society we focus far too much on the end result. The fish on the end of the line or the sale of a work you put your soul into. The journey is the magic. That’s the growth we experience and the memories we hold on too. It’s the connection between souls that counts. It’s the lessons taught and those “ah ha” moments that impact us the most. Of course, the fish photo and sales are wonderful, but it’s the life journey. These mediums remind me to enjoy the process of growth and are two passions of mine that I will never reach the end of. That’s the most beautiful part. We must always work on ourselves. It should never end. We should always try to be the best version of ourselves each day. Some days we are running at 99% and some days 10%. Just make sure the 10% we have is the best 10 we can be."
Q: You the term “Passionism” for your work (which I LOVE) – can you explain that a little bit?
A: "I believe everyone is an artist. Basically, Passionism is the belief in doing your best whatever it may be. I have respect for all people and their abilities. Much like being in a small indigenous tribe, there is no one person greater than the other. The basket weaver and the warrior sit side by side and the tribe fails without each element. It is so much fun to watch someone who is great at a skill. Watching somebody bag groceries that is having fun and cares, to me, is as beautiful as someone creating art or elegantly casting a fly line."
Q: Your painting style is impressionistic, and most often plein air, landscapes, and fly fishing. What drew you to that style and those environments?
A: "I think the impressionists had it right. They brought life, light and emotion to their work. I believe the environment and painting live gives more feeling and emotion to your work. I love loose brushstrokes. These are our personal marks, our footprints. It’s our life’s journal in color. I paint those who affect me in my life. My peers, family, and influencers. Flyfishers are my people. So, I paint them. Plus, fly line is so sexy."
Q: James, I’m not great with the language used to describe artwork, but I know I am drawn to certain works, like yours. For me one of the qualities of your painting that pulls me in is how you capture light. It’s almost as though your work has an innate glow from the light. This is going to sound extremely elementary, but there is also something about your work that feels, for lack of a better word, cheerful. How would YOU describe your work?
A: "Allen, join the club! Artwork is personal to the artist and the onlooker. What is most important is how it makes you feel. Painting for me is an emotional rollercoaster which is fitting for my life. In the beginning, courage to start is the hardest. Then the ugly phases. But the more you push paint the more the light fills within. My paintings are for others. This is something that took my wife Kait time to understand. As much as it is therapy, my time to hash out myself, it is also work. My life’s work to brighten the world."
Q: Some of my favorite pieces of yours include: Applegate, Enchanted, Mild Muir Creek, Lifting Fog on the Rogue, Taylor Creek Gorge, Gary, Hooked Brook, Upper Rogue Sunset and Lifting Fog on Matson. Do you have some favorite pieces (I’m sure this is much like asking a parent about a favorite child) and why?
A: "There are very few paintings that stand out for me. Most impactful for me are some of my Native American works. It's more than painting to me. It’s a tribute to those I respect -- that once did, and still continue to, respect the earth and others for exactly who they are. But typically, my last painting is my favorite. I start and finish in one session and leave it alone. That way there is a recording to match my sense of place for the day. If I go back my hand and heart space is in a different place and conflicts with the first session. I study my recent work and favorite at the moment and move on. The present moving forward is my best way to be. No need to dwell on the past. But I do appreciate where I came from in contrast to where I am now. Progression is satisfying but I will never be fully content with my work. That’s me knocking down my ego."
Q: In addition to being a fishing guide and painter, you are also a musician. Can you talk a little about that?
A: "I am no professional by any means, but music is a huge passion. I love to dance, play guitar, and when the mood strikes, write. Music comes best when I am sad. Though music makes me happy. I have ambition to one day record my music. But I’ll have to get over my stage fright first."
Q: What primal need to you think fishing stirs in us and why is that important? Is art the same – some primal need to express ourselves?
A: "Fishing and painting are primal expressions. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s the desire to connect with our ancestors and an opportunity to leave something about ourselves behind. Fishing brings a connection to my past, though I must be present in the moment to catch a steelhead. And painting is certainly in the now, eliminating the past. A future endeavor. We all want to be seen. Nature sees us. We just have to learn to be a part of it, in harmony, and not just use it. Catching a trophy fish to some is being on top of the food chain and tricking a fish. I believe fish choose us when the time is right. When we are right. They are teaching us. We must respect what we’ve been provided. I personally think fish are smarter than us!"
Q: You talk a lot about finding your tribe (including your wife) – can you explain what you mean by that and why it is so important?
A: "Your tribe or community is so important. You need like-minded people to help you on your journey that won’t judge you and help grow. Vice versa. We are certainly not in this alone. It would be impossible to live life on our own. We all need to give and get support."
Q: I’ve also heard you say “nature is my church” – that really resonates with me. Can you dig a little deeper into that and explain what that means for you?
A: "Nature is where I hear and see God. It’s where I feel most calm and connected. No judgment. Just emerged in the now filled with gratitude."
Q. Favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc) and why?
A: "I’m terrible with names. There are so many influential artists. I bounce around all the time from classic folk to the 80’s, and from modern painters to the impressionists. I’m never really locked into a set few. I find my favorites daily."
Q: You seem very focused on education with your current work, including efforts to save the natural world for the next generation. What are a few keys to that?
A: "I think the key to that is having a heart for people, animals, and nature. You really have to care about something for it to impact you and for you to want to care. Guiding is my chance to facilitate a connection with my guests and my guest’s connection to the natural environment. And my paintings can take some of that and put it on their walls. A reminder that life is precious and beautiful. I really do hope that my three-year-old daughter, Juniper, has the opportunities to experience the natural world as I have. And hopefully many generations after. It’s hugely important that we make conscious choices and try our best to help our local resources out."
A: "Yes, you are correct these are the places to find us. You can also find us on social media. Facebook and Instagram. Of course, my favorite way to connect is through a conversation. Feel free to give me a call anytime."
Q: What’s next? You’ve obviously lived a hell of a life and have an amazing career, a multitude of talent, and a young family…so anything on the horizon you can share with us?
A. "Well, I appreciate the compliment. My life has gone in the directions as doors have opened for me. I just have to step through and see what they are all about. I think the next big endeavors are community based. We have some ideas brewing that are in the beginning phases, so I won’t share too much. But we are focused on community betterment. One exciting project is coming to a close. I had the opportunity to share what I have with you in this interview in a film that Olive Sutro and I have been working on for the past year. It’s my story through art and fishing but more importantly it is a film that hopefully will help those who are personally struggling with mental illness and their loved ones who are in it with them. Orvis has sponsored the effort and it will most likely be touring through film festivals and will eventually be available to the public. It’s a powerful film and one of Oliver’s most proud works. I lay it all out and it is very emotional. So, look for that and share it with who you can. It’s for everyone and hopefully will help break down stigmas especially in a time where lots of us are struggling mentally."
"Lastly Allen, thank you for taking the time to know me and hear my story. It’s one journey in billions of just as interesting and more interesting lives. I appreciate your commitment to the outdoors and for sharing passion with all."