A day after Drummond artist Bill Ohrmann passed away, his son John typed a poignant post on the Facebook page he operates for his father.

Within five days, some 15,000 people had seen the post.

John printed out the 14 to 15 pages of comments, some short and some lengthy, to share with his mother, Phyllis. It was a hefty stack along with the more than 100 cards they've received since Ohrmann passed away on Nov. 19 from heart problems.

"It's kind of overwhelming but it's very welcome," Phyllis said in a phone interview. The "multitude" of cards have come from all over the country, some from people she hadn’t heard from in years.

Naturally, numbers aren't any way to quantify the 95-year-old's impact on other artists, viewers and environmental groups he supported.


Kate Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, for one, says Ohrmann changed her life.

After he made a donation to Davis' organization, which advocates for and educates the public on birds, she went to visit him at one of the museum and gallery open houses.

For the first of a month's worth of all-day Tuesday workshops, she'd brought some of her hawks and a peregrine falcon to his place, along with a small clay bird sculpture as an example of what she wanted to create.

But when she stepped onto the property, she saw the 11 1/2-foot tall metal sculpture of a woolly mammoth in full stride and thought, "That's the greatest art piece in the history of the world."

Ohrmann originally started to teach the fellow 2-D artist to paint, but they soon switched to sculpture. More specifically, the art of welding metal animal sculptures.

She quickly found that Ohrmann was a "learn-by-doing" sort of instructor.

That is to say, there was no safety seminar. One minute after setting foot in his shop, they were working on a sculpture.

On her drive home from the third session, Davis stopped at Norco with a shopping list.

"I said, 'Bill Ohrmann said buy this and buy this and buy this,' " Davis recalled.

Her husband, Tom, said she'd found her medium, and converted their garage into a welding shop similar to Ohrmann's.

She set to work on a passion that continues to this day.

Ohrmann did thorough research on the anatomy of the animals before he would sculpt them, a process Davis adopted as well – building a skeleton first and then a skin.

She says her welds were never as smooth as his, so she began to hide them on the interior, the opposite of Orhmann's technique.

After the lessons were complete, Davis made regular trips out to the property to show him the sculptures she'd been working on and have lunch with the family.

Once, he was looking at an owl she'd made, and asked her how long it took to make.

She took out a sheet of paper where she'd logged the time and replied that it was 32 hours of work.

He told her: Don't ever keep track of the time spent.

They even developed a running joke based on that common query from visitors:

"How many hours did that take?"

"How much does that weigh?"

"Watcha gonna make next?"

Some visitors would ask how much a sculpture cost, and the two would always reply that they're not for sale.

"People didn't get it," Davis said. The sculptures were something they did for fun, not money.

(John Ohrmann notes that his father did sell a few over the years, although none of the ones at the property are for sale currently.)

Davis also received lessons in polymer sculpture and in oil painting. While she concedes she was just starting out and copying his style, he was always encouraging. He'd ask, "How'd you do that?"

A decade after meeting Ohrmann, Davis' yard is filled with animal sculptures, and the interior of her house is decorated with his art as well – including a particularly graphic painting involving a hanging woman and environmental apocalypse that Davis treasures.

“He was family,” she said. “They are family. I've gained a lot other than just the skill of being a sculptor – a lot more insight from Bill than meets the eye."


His work and life also inspired local metal sculptor George Ybarra, who organizes the annual metal sculpture show at Caras Nursery on South Third Street West, which Ohrmann participated in.

“Those who attended the Caras sculpture event also loved seeing his work,” Ybarra said.

Davis wasn’t the only person to whom he shared his artistic knowledge. John Ohrmann said his father gave many classes in woodcarving and polymer sculpture over the years.

He organized some weekly sessions for community members in the Flint Creek Valley that lasted more than a decade.

John said Bill started off as a teacher, but soon his students sharpened their skills, brought in their own ideas and it became something of a "mutual seminar."

There were eight to 10 of them, and a handful came all the way from Deer Lodge.

Even passers-by could expect a polite answer to questions. Phyllis said that visitors to the gallery and museum would ask questions about painting or sculpture and he was happy to offer tips.

"He just wanted other people to enjoy it as much as he was," she said.


Ohrmann wasn’t shy about expressing his views on the environment and trapping, and when groups reached out requesting donations, he lent his work and name to the cause.

Phyllis said the causes ranged from spay-and-neuter clinics, the Backcountry Horsemen, Trout Unlimited and more.

He lent his support to anti-trapping group Footloose Montana from the nonprofit’s earliest days.

"When we first were getting going, he gave us legitimacy," said Connie Poten, a founding board member and secretary for the nonprofit, which advocates for trap-free public lands. "We thought, 'This isn't going to be impossible to get trap-free public lands.' "

Ohrmann offered his paintings as a means to spread the message.

"He said we can use any of his art any time for our causes, and we have," Poten said. They've used images of his work for advertising, cards and more.

He also donated the group an original painting – which was naturally one of his many anti-trapping canvases.

"It was a really sad painting of a rabbit in a trap with blood on the snow," Poten said. The animal is curled in a ball on a dark starry night, perhaps an allusion to Ohrmann's hero, Vincent van Gogh. Breaking up the darkness is a small anthropomorphic star, casting light on the animal's face.

Ohrmann paired the imagery with "Pillow of Snow," by Missoula poet John Haines, a longtime practice of his. It reads:

"There is a small soft thing in the snow,

and its ears are beginning to freeze

its eyes are bright

but what it sees are not of this world"

Poten said Ohrmann’s anti-trapping stance was a brave one for him to take, as he was a rancher in a community of fellow ranchers – not a place a message of environmentalism would find easy sympathy.


Missoula Art Museum curator Steve Glueckert, who knew Ohrmann since the 1990s, said his content and approach set him apart, whether in sculpture or on canvas.

"People of all ages had a great deal of respect for him because of the way he worked," Glueckert said.

He remained something of a curiosity to many, though, because of the criticism of society and spiritual messages in his work.

He said Ohrmann started out participating in the C.M. Russell Western Art Auction and other more traditional Western art venues, but his work became too contemporary and the invitations dried up.

"His romanticism was basically rooted in the way he was putting paint down and constructing things," Glueckert said. "The techniques, not in the content."

There was nothing romantic about any of his content, Glueckert said.

Even among artists who welded steel sculptures, Glueckert said Ohrmann stood apart. When minimalist metal sculpture was the style du jour, the Drummond rancher opted to assemble massive bears, rhinos and other endangered species.

Ohrmann found a natural audience at the MAM, which he supported from the beginning and was the subject of multiple solo exhibitions over the years.

In 1972, one of his works was the first sold at the MAM's inaugural Benefit Art Auction.

In 2012, in recognition of that support, two of his works started and finished off the live auction, held in a packed University Center Ballroom.

In honor of 40 years of support, the reserved Drummond rancher/artist was given a standing ovation.

The MAM, too, published a book examining his art, "Tainted Revelations," by Joe Nickell, and hosted a career survey in Ohrmann's final year.

While the period was marked by health problems, Phyllis said the attention to his art was "wonderful."

"While he was still here, he enjoyed that of course," she said.

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