Bill Ohrmann has been an artist all of his life, and has created a wealth of oil and water color paintings, and wood, bronze and welded steel sculptures. Beginning with simple themes of wildlife in both his paintings and sculptures, he took the wood carvings to new styles that can be seen in no other art. His current series of paintings are also a demonstration of his ability to create an entirely new way to express ideas.
Bill has also been a Montana rancher all of his life, being born on a ranch outside of Philipsburg in 1919, and living in the Philipsburg and Ovando area before the family moved to the present ranch south of Drummond in 1934. Living on and working the ranches gave him an appreciation for nature and a love of animals. He was always a good steward of the land and treated his stock with care.
In the 1960’s Bill started to let the world know of his talent. He entered art shows around the state and
Northwest, garnering many accolades and awards. As interest in his art, primarily his wood carvings, grew, he began to see not just personal satisfaction from his work, but also the more tangible benefit of selling some pieces. His work was soon in personal collections throughout the Northwest and beyond. After seeing his wood carvings of the Four Winds at a show in Knoxville, Tennessee, a family planned their summer vacation as a trip to Drummond to meet Bill and commission him to do a wood carving. Many of his carvings were still of fairly simple subjects—a standing bull elk or a pair of pronghorn antelope—but his style developed into remarkably detailed and complex subjects. He let his imagination run in his ‘Allegorical’ sculptures illustrating the months of the year and the four seasons. ‘Earth Diety’ on the upper level shows a young girl holding flowers standing by a reclining lion surrounded by mushrooms, while in the lower level one sees that the mushroom caps are actually the tops of pointed hats worn by gnomes surrounded by a number of under-ground creatures. Multiple subject wood carvings are rarely seen because of the difficulty in sculpting them, but Bill developed techniques to create amazing pieces.
While creating his many wood carvings, and still operating the Registered Angus cattle ranch, Bill occasionally would paint a picture. Although a very good wildlife painter, he concentrated his time on his wood carvings. As he said once, “There are hundreds of good painters, but very few wood carvers.” And the idea of painting another elk cow and calf on a verdant mountain side just didn’t excite him like the challenge of illustrating not just a figure like an elk, but a concept, such as the month of June, in three dimensions, where all parts have to be properly supported, the grain of the wood needs to be taken into account, and all the other considerations that enter in. However, after creating many dozens of wood carvings, Bill was ready for a change. About this time, in the early 1990’s, several things happened. Bill was in his 80’s, and ready to retire. His daughter and son-in-law were happy to take over the ranch. He read a book on the life of Vincent Van Gogh which helped him out of the ‘box’ of thinking that a good painting has to have photographic realism. And he reached a point in his life, as most people do, that he started to be less concerned whether or not his words and actions would offend other people. Having been an environmentalist since long before anyone had used the word ‘green’ in its present context, he was ready to let the world know how he felt about over-population, pollution, and species extinction. And while he was at it, he had some potentially offensive thoughts about organized religion, war, technology, and cruelty to animals. With the ranch not occupying his time, he started painting. His first transition piece, Coyote, has the older style foreground, with a coyote standing by a cottonwood tree in fall colors, but the sky is a swirl of colors that would foretell his new style. By 1997 he was spending many hours a day in his studio, and that year he produced 30 paintings. The next year was almost as prolific. The forcefulness of his concepts and vivid colors, combined with the realism of his subjects, soon got the public’s attention. The Montana Arts Council selected 40 of his paintings for a two year, ten gallery show across the state of Montana, from the Hockaday Center in Kalispell to the in Billings. As a tongue-in-cheek warning to the viewers, the show was titled, “Something To Offend Everyone”. Many people did find something in one or another of the paintings that they were offended at, but most were thrilled to see a visual representation of social ills that are the true offense.
Another art form that captured Bill’s imagination was large steel sculpture. In 1998 he tried his hand at creating a standing grizzly bear, constructed of welded steel plate. Using a 1948 P&H stick welder, and an oxy-acetylene torch of the same vintage, he created a very realistic animal. It is now standing in a city park in Philipsburg. The torch and stick welder were soon replaced with a plasma cutter and a MIG welder. Since that time, at least one large animal has come out of the shop/studio every summer. Life sized elk, buffalo, eagle, and a wooly mammoth grace the yard.
By the year 2001, Bill had created more paintings than the house could hold. A proper space to display them that the public could easily access was needed. So, the Ohrmann Museum & Gallery was conceived. Construction was begun in the spring of 2002, and it was completed in November of that year. Since that time, several thousand people a year have seen Bill’s paintings at the Museum, along with wood carvings, bronzes, and the steel sculptures outside.
Bill continues to paint, although not at the rate of the first few years. He also continues to create steel sculptures, with increasing assistance from his son John. The latest sculpture is a life sized Kodiak bear, built with stainless and mild steel, standing by the corner of the garden. He and his wife Phyllis man the museum. Visitors are welcome all year.