Tom Ut­tech: Into the Woods

West Bend, WI

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS -

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.

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