Critters, Flitters & Spitters
is about Buckeye-state animals, from the lowly but fascinating trilobites of the ancient seas to the dashing Rienzi, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s famous Civil War horse. Ripsnorting Whoppers!: A Book of Ohio Tall Tales
recasts the stories told back in the 1920s and ’30s by a folklorist named Cyrus Gatton, who lived near Sowash’s native Mansfield.
Sowash says he’s sold about 40,000 copies over the last 10 years of his most popular book, Heroes of Ohio
. It describes the accomplishments of some figures you know, such as
Tecumseh, Toni Morrison and Thomas Edison, and also those of some you might not — such as John Parker, a rescuer of slaves, or famed Civil War nurse Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Or Granville Woods, a 19th-century African-American inventor who got patents for everything from air brakes to telephone transmitters, and represented something ofa competitive threat to the better-known Edison.
“It’s 23 heroes to represent 23 different ways of being a hero — it’s not all white guys with swords. In fact, Ulysses S. Grant is in there not for being a general, but for his last battle with throat cancer, when he was struggling to complete his memoirs,” Sowash says. “It’s a great story.”
The story he likes best is that of Emma Gatewood, “the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, in 1955. She was 67 years old, she had never camped or hiked, and only a few people had hiked the trail straight through, all men. She dealt with growing older by still doing cool stuff, which is what I aspire to.”
His favorite character, however, is Johnny Appleseed, whose story he revisits often. The wandering planter not only shows up inHeroes of Ohio, but is the subject of a new 30-minute educational film Sowash wrote and produced with filmmaker Tom Dallis of Huber Heights. Sowash stars, with his trim beard and bright red suspenders, and narrates in simple, entertaining fashion exactly how John Chapman helped open the frontier to pioneers with his apple orchards, and how they likely would have starved without him.
“Johnny Appleseed is our only nonviolent folk hero,” Sowash says, explaining his hero’s enduring appeal. “And he’s the recurring motif of my life, the inspiring myth of my life. I like the idea of planting seeds, nurturing. I like it as a theme for my life.”
That’s apparent when he talks about the visits he’s made to schools to talk to kids about history, and the way it reaches forward from the past into the present day. He’s done 1,500 school visits over the last two
decades, all over the state. The daylong sessions include assemblies and classroom work, and he gets students into costume and character as each of the 23 heroes in his book. “If you average 500 kids per school over 20 years, I’ve worked with 750,000 Ohio schoolchildren,” Sowash says proudly. “I feel I have had an impact.”
But a conversation with Sowash will always return eventually to his music. “All the rest of this stuff is a lot of fun,” he says, “but music has by far generated the most satisfaction in my life, even though it has generated the least amount of money. My greatest joy is to create music that affects people.”
The same do-it-himself, self-employed-artist aesthetic he’s brought to his other projects informs his musical life. Sowash calls himself an “outsider composer,” and writes music that he feels falls squarely within the very listenable, modern American tradition of Gershwin, Ives and Copland.
“I’m outside the mainstream in the sense that most composers are professors somewhere, and I have never, ever wanted to do that,” he says, stressing that he doesn’t even like people to know where he studied music in college, he disliked the place so much. “I’m completely independent, and that’s the way I like it ...
“My music is very American, but with some influence from my ancestral heritage. My father was French, and I have a French accent in my classical music, but my mother was from what is today known as Serbia, and so I have an affinity for Eastern European music.”
Two years ago, he heard his cello concerto performed at Carnegie Hall, but he’s proudest of his “Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra,” which, like most of his works, was written for a friend, Angelo Santoro, who recorded it with the Clermont Philharmonic at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church in April 2008 as part of what the composer happily calls an “all-Sowash orchestral program.” You can download it for free on Sowash’s Web site, www.sowash.com
, from which he sells all his work: books, sheet music and CDs.
The CDs barely scratch the surface of the more than 400 orchestral, choral, solo and chamber works Sowash has written, along with the film score to “Ohio: 200 Years,” which came out on PBS during the state’s bicentennial. He knows there is no way he could ever get it all recorded — which doesn’t keep him from trying. Since he pays for the production and recording himself, he’s currently started trying to raise money by returning to an earlier trade, house painting. “My motto is, ‘Hire a local composer to paint your bedroom,’” he says with a laugh. “I painted houses in my 20s, and it’s actually very satisfying — taking a drab surface and making it beautiful again. I love it. It’s kind of like making music, actually.”
If you’re keeping track of the number of things Sowash has done over nearly six decades, there’s more. Born in Richland County in 1950, he married his wife, Jo, a nurse, in 1972. He worked as a radio broadcaster, was a church musician for a while, and then led the restoration effort for the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield. He’s even been in politics — in 1987 he was elected a Richland County Commissioner, and held the post until 1990. “I’m a strong believer in term limits,” he says.
He and Jo decided they needed to make sure their children — daughter Shenandoah and son John Chapman — got the best arts education they could have. They investigated the options and chose Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts, moving to Cincinnati in 1994. Today, Shenandoah is 27, married and a graduate student studying poetry. Chap is 24 and a trombonist who has played in several ska bands.
Meanwhile, he and Jo co-manage the Sowash brand and business from their remodeled 1860s townhouse in Cincinnati’s Mt. Auburn neighborhood. Sowash doesn’t come across as one of those people who can’t believe his good fortune — more like the kind who thinks it’s better to look around, decide what you really want to do and construct your own luck. “I didn’t really become self-employed until I was 40. All these threads gradually grew into a full-time living.”
And he knows, too, that the love he has for the place he lives plays a strong part in his success; he isn’t just passionate about his art — he’s nearly as passionate about his home.
“To me, Ohio is vast. Boundless. You never get to the end of the stories in the state, and there are times I feel right at the limit of what I can absorb and express. Sometimes people will say, ‘Why not do a heroes book about all 50 states?’ But I feel like there’s enough right here.
“I’ve been all over the world. Ohio is my home, the land I know best. Being an Ohioan, you truly have your finger on the pulse of the country; as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, in so many ways.”