Seven years ago, Joe Nickell stepped into Bill Ohrmann’s art museum and realized he had found an artist about whom everyone needed to know. Ohrmann, a 95-year-old retired rancher, has created hundreds of colorful paintings with images depicting war, animal cruelty, environmental degradation, racism and other human follies with unapologetic, often satirical criticism. Despite their harsh themes, the paintings—inspired, in part, by Van Gogh—are beautifully vibrant. Some even reveal Ohrmann’s romantic vision of an ideal world, marked by harmonious images of animals or, in some cases of karma, mankind getting its comeuppance.
Nickell, a writer and former arts and entertainment editor at the Missoulian, compiled a collection of those paintings and other images of Ohrmann’s work for a coffee table book titled Tainted Revelations, named after one of Ohrmann’s pieces. It’s a striking tribute to a passionate artist, a Treasure State secret who lives outside of Drummond on a highway that feels like the middle of nowhere. The book includes an introduction by the Missoula Art Museum’s curator and longtime Ohrmann fan Steve Glueckert and a letter from Ohrmann to Nickell. Nickell’s biographical essay on Ohrmann doesn’t just give a timeline on the artist’s life, it also unveils the local legend surrounding the man—including the somewhat exaggerated story about how Ohrmann started painting when he was 76 years old. And the essay provides a peek into the psyche of an artist who began his life as a boy with little regard for the world, but who grew up to be passionate about how we should live.
How did you first get to know Bill Ohrmann and his artwork?
Joe Nickell: When I saw his show in ’99 at the [Missoula] Art Museum, I was pretty well blown away and then all of a sudden I realized that the person who had painted all this stuff was the cowboy in the corner with the cowboy hat and boots and the big smile across his face. It was so incongruous. I didn’t get a chance to meet him or talk with him then, but in 2007 [Missoulian photographer] Linda Thompson wanted to do a story about Bill, and so I went out there and did a story for the Territory section of the paper. It was at that point I realized somebody had to do a book about this guy.
What inspired you to take it on?
JN: What intrigued me, and what has always captured a lot of the media attention, is the idea of this guy who at 76 years old suddenly, out of nowhere, starts doing art. Well, that wasn’t really the story, as it turns out. He had painted before that, quite a bit. But as a rancher, he had such narrow windows—an hour here and an hour there—to do art and it bothered him that his paint would dry up on the palette in between sessions, so he did things that he could pick up and put down at a moment’s notice, like woodcarving. And so really it was because he was retired that he was able to focus on painting. A friend of his gave him a book of Van Gogh’s work and it kind of fired that specific inspiration of style for him, and so in 1996 it took off from there and that’s where there’s a core truth to the story.
I had one professional goal in mind that has carried through my entire adult life and that was to have a book published by the time I was 40. I’m 45 now so I’m 5 years late—and even 40, when I first planned that in my 20s, seemed like I was giving myself way too long. And so here, with Bill, is a story of somebody who completely reinvented himself at the age of 76 and has gone on to establish what I think will ultimately be an international reputation. I think he will be internationally significant someday. That’s a story that could inspire, really, everybody.
Why did you think it was important to get this book out into the world?
JN: I feel like this work is so hard to access. It’s in a little gallery in Drummond, Mont., and he has no real interest in selling any of it. It’s not like some dealer from New York is going to walk in and say, “I’ll sell these for you.” Bill would probably say “I want to keep them here.” This was, to me, about making it possible for a wider audience to really see his artwork in a form that will also hopefully give good context.
In your essay, you talk about Ohrmann as being mischievous. Can you talk about that aspect of his personality?
JN: I consider myself a self-deprecating person, not a good self-promoter, I don’t like taking praise—Bill is all of those characteristics times 10. He is not about to take credit for anything. And so his defense mechanism to any sense of pride or hubris is this combination of exaggeration and kind of jokingly not telling the truth, but in ways that you can obviously tell he’s not telling the truth. He is adamant that he doesn’t have a beat on truth, despite the fact that he is obviously very opinionated in his work. More than anything I think he wants people to come into his gallery and walk out with their heads swirling with their own ideas. And that to me is the best thing that an artist can do.
Does he talk about political and social issues or does he let his paintings do that for him?
JN: He will talk about the issues. He won’t talk about the paintings much. He wants viewers to take their own ideas from the paintings. But if you ask him about proselytizing preachers, he’ll sure tell you. He might not tell you the first time he meets you, but there are some things that will get him really animated. He has no sympathy for people who abuse the land or animals in any way. And people are just animals in his worldview. His blissful visions of the future always include some bear eating a human just as a human shoots a deer, because that’s the cycle.
What are the most striking pieces to you?
JN: I think maybe the painting that would likely become most emblematic of him and his style and his place in history 50 or 100 years from now would be “How Colonels Become Generals.” It’s these soldiers burning down a bunch of tipis and killing people and so it’s terribly dark, but it is such a skewering comment. And I have a very soft place in my heart for “Next Level of Civilization,” which is the painting of the aliens sitting in their living room with a bunch of human head trophies on the wall.
You mention that Ohrmann is inspired by the romantics like Emerson and Thoreau. How does their vision fit into the dark theme?
JN: It’s easy for me to talk a lot about the dark themes because I think I’m personally somewhat cynical about our civilization. I would even go so far as to say the challenging part for me was to make sure to include a representative sample of how often he paints things that are beautifully idyllic and hopeful. He’s very attracted to more romantic idealists and a lot of that viewpoint is even tucked into some of the darker paintings.
He has a magical feel to his works that makes me think they’re meant to evoke an idea rather than being taken literally.
JN: I think none of it can be taken completely literally, even though, because his paintings are very narrative, it’s tempting to do that. But if you look just beneath the surface of all of it there’s a message that is a lot more realistic than it might appear sometimes, and more hopeful even in the darkest paintings. I think in those paintings there’s the reflection of the fact that he knows we know better and can do better and he’s just asking us to do that.
Joe Nickell’s Tainted Revelations: The Art of Bill Ohrmann is available at local bookstores, the Ohrmann Museum in Drummond and at MAM. An exhibit of Ohrmann’s work opens at MAM for First Friday, June 6, and runs through Oct. 12. An opening reception for the book and exhibit Thu., June 19, from 5 to 8 PM includes a 7 PM reading.