Tom Uttech: Into the Woods
West Bend, WI
When Laurie Winters, executive director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, told Tom Uttech she wanted to put together a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, he invited her to his studio in a converted barn. “We pulled out old paintings,” he recalled, “and many of them were full of barn dirt. I was stunned, though. They were better than I remembered!”
Tom Uttech: Into the Woods, his first fullcareer retrospective, recently completed its run at the museum in West Bend, Wisconsin. One of the early paintings, A Painting for Jean Sibelius, 1963-65, has the frontality and heightened color that continues to animate his work today. Uttech had discovered the music of the Finnish composer that was “absolutely the soundtrack to my life up north.” For decades, he would travel to northern Minnesota and the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, absorbing its sights, sounds and moods and becoming one with its mystical qualities. He has brought his memories to his canvases, inventing scenes as Sibelius composed his ethereal tone poems.
He photographed in the woods, but the images are works of art in themselves rather than references. A collection of them has recently been given to the museum and many appeared in the exhibition.
When he is in the woods, he says, “I feel at home, complete and invisible. I try to have my paintings contain and communicate that feeling.”
He was born near Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1942, and now lives north of Saukville, Wisconsin, on 60 acres. He recalls his mother telling him he was drawing when he was still in a highchair. He attended art school and taught at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, until 1998. In 1975, Marcia Tucker chose his work for the prestigious Whitney Biennial.
One of the recent paintings in the exhibition is Nin Gassinsibingwe, 2019, a 91-by-102inch canvas swarming with wildlife. The Ojibwe title translates as: “I Wipe My Tears.” His highly-populated paintings didn’t start intentionally. He was contemplating a painting that wasn’t quite working and began to play with it. “I decided to try doing some goofy stuff and painted a couple of wolves running through it,” he recalls. “Then I thought more of them would make it more interesting. Why not a bear? Why not birds?”
The museum notes, “Part fantasy, part natural science, these migration paintings are compelling not only for their settings but for the hundreds of species of animals flying, swarming, and bolting across his paintings on a timeless mission and in a perpetual state of reenactment. Uttech does not identify as an environmental artist, but his treatment of the migration subject has become synonymous with encroaching dangers that finds resonance in contemporary issues of wildlife preservation.”
Untitled, 2019, digital print from original negative
Nin Gassinsibingwe, 2019, oil on canvas, 911/8 x 1027/8”. Gift of the Art Ball Raise the Paddle 2019, Museum of Wisconsin Art.
A Painting for Jean Sibelius, 1963-65, oil on canvas, 61 x 71”. Lent by Dennis Rocheleau.
Kitchi Kokoko, 1983, oil on linen, 52 x 54”. Lent by Reed Dohmen.