The surest way to have a high school student do something is to tell him it can’t be done.
When aspiring artist David Ohm started work on his first sculpture, he was advised against pursuing his chosen subject matter of two individuals greeting one another.
“They said the elbow would break off,” recalls Ohm. “But being a teenager, I wanted to do my own thing and went ahead and did it.”
More than three decades later, the intact piece is on display in the living room of his Upper St. Clair home.
Better yet, when he entered the sculpture in a statewide art show in his native Ohio, he ended up winning a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design.
That can-do attitude still runs deep for Ohm, who has combined his own pursuits as an artist with innovative methods in his career as a creative expressive art therapist.
For example, a current project is creating a mural at a group home, which has become a participatory exercise with the residents.
“Before the mural was started, all the walls were tan, the frames and doors were blue, and it was kind of a sterile environment,” he explains. “My idea was to try to involve the clients in choosing the imagery that we paint. Initially I started painting on my own, but as the project continued, other people painted. That way, the clients are creating part of the environment they’re living in.”
His interest in art therapy began in Columbus, and he studied the field further while pursuing his master’s degree at Lesley University in Massachusetts. This summer, he began working on his doctorate through Milwaukee’s Mount Mary College.
“It’s early in the process, but I’m looking at my dissertation being using group art therapy or mural painting as a way to build a sense of community,” he says. “And that’s part of what I’m doing at work. I’m on my third mural there, probably my 10th mural at all the different places I’ve worked over the past 20 years or so.”
While looking at career possibilities, Ohm was well aware of the “starving” adjective often attached to artists. Taking his talents to advertising was an option, but not one that appealed to him.
“I kind of saw advertising as making images to make a product look a certain way, maybe better than it is,” he recalls. “Being an idealistic young man at that time, I thought being a painter or using art to better people’s lives might have been a better way to go.”
He continues to be a prolific artist in his own right, periodically having his work displayed at shows, such as a well-attended April exhibit at the Image Box studio in Pittsburgh.
“My work is somewhat abstract,” says Ohm. “You can usually tell what it is, but I tend not to get hung up in details. It’s more about the process of painting and the color and the feel, more than detailed realism.”
A favorite theme is good old rock ’n’ roll.
“I’ve always loved music, although I’ve never been much of a musician,” he admits. “I kind of use musicians as a metaphor as figures in my artwork.”
Some of his preferred subjects are the late Kurt Cobain, King’s X bass player Doug Pinnick, and Ritchie Blackmore, best known as lead guitarist for Deep Purple. One of his more ambitious paintings features Blackmore’s wife, singer Candice Night.
“He was doing his own thing and looking for people to do his album covers, so I was trying to do a CD cover and send it in,” he explains. “I never actually got it digitized, so I have this big painting.”
The Night painting is one of many works that fill his house, which has come to somewhat resemble an art gallery.
“It makes me feel good to be in this living space,” says Ohm, “and that’s kind of what I’m doing at work, trying to make people feel good to be walking down the halls or feel good about being in that place.”
Many of the materials he uses should be encouraging to environmentalists.
“Anything you can paint on,” he says. “Instead of buying new supplies, I try to reuse things to give it a fresh start. They used to print newspapers on metal plates, and they’d just throw the plates today. I’d take them and rough them up a little bit so they’d accept paint.
“A lot of my frames are recycled stuff, too, like pieces of fence.”
Whether he uses it for creative expression or therapeutic purposes, Ohm does not take his talent for granted.
“As far as becoming an actual artist, it’s really a lot of hard work,” he says. “At least, it was for me.”