I spent two weeks in August traveling around Montana. My friend Elizabeth and I hiked to hot springs in the Bitterroot Wilderness, counted Golden Eagles and Nighthawks in the Paradise Valley, and watched the beetle-killed mountains burn. On our way back to Missoula we took an alternate route through the town of Anaconda, heading north on State Highway 1. Just outside the town of Drummond, we passed a small ranch-house with a yard full of impressive metal sculpture- a bear, a rhino, and was that a mammoth? A big hand-painted sign on the fence said “Usually Open”. We turned back to check it out.
As we pulled into the yard, a man was leaving the building marked “Museum”, moving slowly, tall and thin, bent slightly over a walker. He noticed us, waved and approached. “I just closed, but I can open up again. No, it’s no problem.” He swung open the door and we went in.
The interior was a big white space full of paintings and wood-carvings, lit by big windows. “This is all my work,” said the tall man, who introduced himself as Bill Ohrmann. “Stay as long as you like.”
We started over to the walls and began a cursory ogle of the hanging work. It became immediately obvious that we had found something absolutely amazing. Our jaws dropped as we moved from piece to piece. We were in the presence of greatness.
“Our Turn Again”
The paintings were bright, naturalistic, full of color and movement, full of joy and rage and humor. They showed the thoughts of a man who spent a lifetime ranching and tending the land in Montana,and whose thoughts about the world and our place in it paralleled ours to a substantial degree. After about twenty minutes of silent awe, we returned to Bill at his desk in the front and expressed our humble admiration for his work. He smiled a big, languid smile and said “Well, I’m glad you liked it. Not everybody does.”
“Celebration, Peru 1532”
Here’s a clip from Bill’s website that sums it up:
” 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. ”
What I really liked about Bill’s work is the depth of exploration he expresses- in “Our Turn Again”, above, he makes reference to humankind’s origin as a scavenging species, and uses that to illustrate the irony of our extermination of other scavengers, since we’ll presumably return to that birthright in the aftermath of what we wreak. He also made a wonderful painting about the extinction of the Thylacine (We Weep, below), a creature dear to me.
You can order prints of many of his paintings here.
I found a couple of short films about Bill and his works. They’re worth a watch.
“The ideas are the most important part of what I paint anyway.”
“A Robe For The Chief”