Painting the forest for the trees

Like the giant canvases painted by nationally renown artist Tom Uttech of the Town of Saukville, exhibit illustrates the grand scale of a life’s work dedicated to nature

TOWN OF SAUKVILLE artist Tom Uttech sat in his studio in front of “Nin Gassinsibingwe,” a piece commissioned by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

To see Tom Uttech’s paintings is to experience not just the beauty of forests and wildlife but the mystical world of nature.

His canvasses are large, enveloping viewers in the landscapes Uttech creates, and the themes within the paintings are just as large and magical, drawing people into a world that at first glance seems real but then reveals itself to be something just a little bit different.

“People often think, ‘I love Tom Uttech’s works. They’re beautiful landscapes,’” Laurie Winters, executive director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, said. “But they’re not landscapes in a traditional sense. There’s so much more going on. They’re a type of vision.”

Uttech, whose works are part of the collections at such respected institutions as the Smithsonian, has been creating these worlds for more than 60 years, and his career is the subject of a retrospective exhibit at MOWA.

“Into the Woods” shows the renown Town of Saukville artist’s evolution and includes not just the large-scale paintings he is known for but also drawings and photographs — Uttech recently gifted the museum with a collection of almost 200 of his photos. Many of the works are from private collections and haven’t been seen before.

“It just seemed like it is time to do a retrospective,” Winters, who curated the show and is writing Uttech’s biography, said. “There was never a cohesive look at his career that encompassed the breadth of his work. 

“This is the moment we need to start capturing Tom’s story as an artist.”

The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 12 and includes “Nin Gassinsibingwe,” a piece commissioned by the museum,  is supplemented by a display of beautifully handcrafted kayaks, canoes and Winnebago paddles by Wisconsin artists.

Uttech, who paints in a studio in a renovated barn at his rural Saukville farm, had been scheduled to give several gallery talks during the exhibit, but has been hospitalized recently so the talks have been postponed. 

The exhibit demonstrates how Uttech’s vision and techniques have evolved over six decades. His early works included figures and creatures that often combined human and animal forms, while his more recent pieces have focused on animal migrations that combine myriad animals and birds bolting across canvasses. 

“The sky’s become his way of showing the magic of nature,” Winters said.  

Uttech, 77, has been drawing and painting since he was a child, his love of nature inspired by the woods behind his parents’ home in Merrill.

“He’s got a connection to nature that few people have,” Winters said. Uttech’s earliest memory was of standing in the back yard of his home when a red-wing blackbird flew by, its wing brushing his face.

“He became fascinated with birds, the idea of becoming close to nature,” she said, noting Uttech is an avid birder.

While a student at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Uttech discovered surrealist works of Wisconsin painter John Wilde and the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius that inspired him.

Many of Uttech’s earliest works were destroyed in a 1969 fire at his Milwaukee apartment. 

The earliest works in the museum show is “A Painting for Jean Sibelius,” a 1965 painting that draws on the forest spirits of Finnish folklore to show the spirit Tapio, depicted as a shadow, and a grey owl guiding a woodsman through the forest at nightfall.

“I love this work,” Winters said. “Everything you see here, this animated spirit, this magical quality to the forest, continues throughout his career.”

Uttech, who earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Cincinnati, became a tenure-track art professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1968, the same year he took his first trip to Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, a four-million-acre parcel of pristine wilderness whose rock formations, lakes, trees and wildlife would inform his works throughout his career.

By the mid 1970s, however, Uttech felt out of place in the art world, which had embraced minimal, conceptual and psychedelic forms, Winters said. 

“He was at the point he was going to give this all up. His work didn’t seem to gel in the current art world.”

But in 1974, Uttech painted a diptych that would change his life. It incorporated all the themes that he was interested in, one panel each embracing male and female aspects in a forest filled with tree forms, mythical figures and eyes in the trees that suggest that nature is alive and inhabited by spirits.

A curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art saw the diptych and included it in the 1975 Whitney Biennial in New York, bringing Uttech national recognition and offering him the support he needed to stay in the art world.

“It affirmed that what he was doing had value,” Winters said.

Uttech decided in the late 1970s that his previous works failed to show the destructive forces of nature. His colors turned darker and the mood somber. Skulls and beaver-cut forests are common images.

And in the 1980s, Uttech determined the spiritual, mystical elements of nature were best represented not by the hybrid creatures he had previously depicted but instead by nature itself. Moose, wolves, bears and owls took center stage in the forest.

Bears, which recur in many of Uttech’s paintings, have evolved through time, Winters said. Initially they appeared much like Winnie the Pooh, peering over rocks, while in later depictions they are more like Kodiaks.

“He regards bears as the most noble of creatures,” Winters said. “Sometimes the bears are sentinels. It’s not clear if they’re keeping you in or keeping you out of the scene.”

But there are few creatures in “The Rock,” a 1983 painting Uttech considers the most important painting of his career. 

“It was transformational for him,” Winters said. “He realized he didn’t need the mythical figures to capture the magic in nature.”

The centerpiece of the painting is a huge boulder partially covered by lichen and surrounded by old trees. The rock seems to be illuminated by an internal light force, Winters said.

Perhaps Uttech’s most iconic painting, “Dream Net,” centers on a white moose in the forest. Winters said many people believe it is an albino, but instead it is a ghost. It has antlers like a male but its reflection in the water is of a doe, and fallen timbers under the water recall Native American dreamcatchers.

“Reflections are important to him,” Winters said. “They carry this kind of power. They replicate things, but they also change things.”

In Uttech’s recent migration series, the animals and birds don’t cast shadows but are reflected in the waters. While many look ahead, others look out at the viewer, and they travel right to left — opposite the way our eyes travel.

“They’re these kinds of magical creatures,” Winters said. 

Uttech is a prolific painter, often working on three or four pieces. He told Ozaukee Press in 1988 that painting is an essential part of his life.

“If I don’t paint, I feel pretty weird. I’m a compulsive painter. It’s just the best thing to do. It’s the center of everything.”

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