Gary Sohrweid has worn many hats over the years both literally and figuratively. The 82-year-old — known for his Western attire, especially his cowboy hats and boots — was an art teacher at …
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Gary Sohrweid has worn many hats over the years both literally and figuratively.
The 82-year-old — known for his Western attire, especially his cowboy hats and boots — was an art teacher at Evergreen High School for 30 years, has been a member of Evergreen Lutheran Church for 55 years and instrumental in organizing its annual Grove Sale, volunteered at the National Western Stock Show for more than 20 years, is involved in area theater groups, and has taken and taught art classes at Center of the Arts Evergreen.
Sohrweid crossed something off his bucket list Nov. 12-14: having a one-man art show. The gallery at Center for the Arts Evergreen was filled with 100 of his paintings, showing his versatility, imagination, love of the West and more. Friends from the many areas of his life came to the gallery to view his artwork, many in awe of his artistry.
“I didn’t want to wait around for a sympathy art show,” he said, noting that he wanted an art show while he was still healthy and could enjoy watching others view his work. “It’s been great because most people have only seen four to five of my paintings. They haven’t seen the scope of what I can do or what I have done. My dream has been realized: letting people know what I have done in my career as an artist.”
Sara Miller, CAE’s senior director of exhibitions, education & outreach, said Gary was special to the organization and to Evergreen.
“He’s a student and teacher here,” Miller said. “He’s such a beloved person in Evergreen because he taught (at Evergreen High School) for so long. We were happy to give him the opportunity to show his life’s work.”
She called him a prolific artist with amazing diversity in his subjects and styles.
“We’re happy to give back to someone beloved in Evergreen,” she noted.
Gary’s daughter Tiffany Nayar, a 1989 Evergreen High School graduate, called her dad a fixture in Evergreen.
“For him to have this art show is so exciting,” she said. As a daughter, “you don’t always get to celebrate your parents’ accomplishments with your parents. It’s a huge deal for him and a big honor to celebrate with him.”
Nayar said her dad had more integrity than anyone she has ever known.
“He is the most generous and caring human being,” she said. “You can see by how many people are coming to support him. I’m very proud of him.”
Daughter Michele O’Dell, EHS class of 1991, called her dad vivacious with a great sense of humor.
“He wanted to have his own show his whole life,” O’Dell said. “This is a pinnacle for him.”
Early years and cowboy attire
Gary, originally raised on a farm in Nebraska, got an art teaching job at the newly opened Wilmot Elementary School in 1962. Without an art room, Gary had a cart that he wheeled to classes. In 1964, he moved to Evergreen High School, where he spent 30 years educating students about art.
Gary’s identical twin brother, Larry, taught art at Marshdale Elementary School, and people often confused the brothers. They dressed the same through teachers college in Kearney, Nebraska, with Gary noting that it was comfortable since their mom dressed them alike as children.
Gary grew to love Western clothing after his move to Evergreen when the Wilmot faculty went on a camping trip in the mountains, and he bought a pair of cowboy boots to wear.
“Then I started wearing them and enjoyed it,” he said, explaining that he traveled to art shows in Arizona and Nevada, and he became even more intrigued by Western clothing.
“I picked up guidelines and ideas,” he said, “and I would dress my version of it. … It became more and more a part of me. I probably don’t go out without a hat and boots.”
Gary says he still has 30 pairs of cowboy boots, though he used to have more. Some he’s given away and others don’t fit quite the way they used to. He still has the matching scarves, called wild rags in the Western wear vernacular.
And he figures he still has 20 cowboy hats.
His friends talked about how he was always impeccably dressed in color coordinated Western wear.
“When I see him, I feel I am underdressed,” retired teacher Ann Fremgen said.
An artist’s life
Gary found that spending a lot of time on his own art was difficult when he was teaching, so he kicked painting into high gear upon retirement. He began plein air painting with a group of retired art teachers, which he enjoyed because they critiqued each other’s work.
“I started looking at my paintings more closely,” he said, “and I didn’t have the consistency that I’d like.”
He began taking painting classes at CAE to, as he put it, try to overcome bad habits.
“I wasn’t always terribly comfortable about seeing my own work,” he said. “(Evergreen artist) Pem (Dunn) really helped my approach and looking critically at my own work. When you’re in your (home) studio, you can’t raise your hand and ask for help.”
Gary says he becomes bored easily.
“I’m always searching for something I haven’t tried before and seeing how it’s going to work,” he said.
For example, he painted a sunset, but something didn’t seem right, so he turned the painting on its side and created cows out of the clouds, still keeping the purple, blue and orange hues from the sunset.
Gary called painting like being a magician.
“You give the illusion of depth, the illusion of water, of clouds, of everything,” he said. “For some people, it’s like magic. They say, `I don’t know how you do that.’”
Gary has worked using brushes, palette knives and even cardboard, noting that cardboard adds different effects on the paintings.
“I looked at some of my paintings and decided something wasn’t working,” he said, “so I used the cardboard and added layers of paint to the (original) painting. I didn’t change anything, but I let the colors work for me.”
He enjoys being in his home studio on Lookout Mountain.
“The art that I’m doing now has been a life-saver,” he said because his wife of 52 years, Nancy, is living in a memory-care facility.
“The art is a place where I can go and get my mind on a different track,” he explained. “It gave me some feeling of moving forward and learning and doing something for myself.”
Gary said he’s attracted to reflections and running water, which is a theme of many of his more recent paintings.
“It has that movement,” he explained. “Rocks can’t move, but the water can move around them. That intrigues me a lot or the reflections on quiet water because of the way that you can have a reflection that is really smooth.”
While he says he’s not good at painting animals “because their eyes have to be right,” he gave Larry and his wife Elaine a painting of elk for their 50th anniversary. It was hanging in the gallery for his one-man show.
Reacting to the show
Sue Queen, a longtime Evergreen educator, said she loved the variety in Gary’s work from abstract to Renaissance to Western to landscapes.
Kathleen Davis, vice-president of the Evergreen Players board, who donned a cowboy hat in Gary’s honor, called Gary endlessly creative, pointing to the number of sets Gary had designed and painted over the years. He helped paint the sets for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which Evergreen Chorale performed in October. She was partial to his paintings of trucks.
Cathy Taylor, who knew Gary from church, called all of his work wonderful.
Retired teacher Ann Fremgen said the art show was “so Gary,” noting she really liked his Western pieces especially the cutouts. She said some painters frame their work, but Gary’s cutouts had nothing extraneous to take the viewer’s eye from the focal point.
Gary explained that he can paint portraits and realistic paintings, but he doesn’t really enjoy it.
“I’m an impressionist in my soul,” he said. “I enjoy what I’m doing now.”
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