Tom Uttech greets me in Saukville, Wisconsin and leads me to his studio carrying a tall walking stick. Uttech lives and works on a former farm, and is an advocate of prairie restoration and an avid bird watcher. He has reestablished hundreds of native plants to the fields around his home, and reported sightings of record numbers of bird species to Wisconsin ornithological groups. The studio — a converted barn — is a workshop for these multiple interests: containing not only major paintings in progress along with his own black-and-white landscape photographs, but also animal skulls and antlers, lengths of bark, old tools, bird nests, vintage Native American canoes hanging from rafters, binoculars, and well-thumbed bird guides on sturdy drafting tables. He is curious to know what a New York writer is going to make of it all, and conscious that his work is anomalous.
As beautiful as the fields and old stone walls around his home are, his paintings are actually studio inventions, based on memories of canoeing and camping in the northern reaches of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada — a true wilderness. They are both highly fictionalized and hyper-real: invoking sublime American landscape painting and magic realism, with a dreamy but tightly realized rhythm of compositional organization. The landscapes are populated by dozens of intricately rendered creatures: wolves, bears, moose, and birds — running or flying from right to left, or facing us head-on and unflinching. His wide, flat, pine molding frames are part of the work: stained and decorated with painted images of animals, tracks, canoes, and fish.
We decide to sit outside so that Uttech can give me a lesson in birdcalls while we talk about art. Our conversation is punctuated by his observations; he pauses to point out the sounds of house wrens, a red-bellied woodpecker, a Great crested flycatcher, a hummingbird, an Eastern wood peewee, and a red-winged blackbird. The awe and reverie in his paintings is matched by his pragmatic directness. In the newest paintings, this quality is even more present. They have frontal symmetry of organization: it is a maximalist vision of nature, both orderly and untamed.
Uttech was born in 1942 near Wausau, Wisconsin. He studied at the Layton School of Art and University of Cincinnati, and he was a professor of art at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, until 1998. Since the inclusion of his paintings in the 1975 Whitney Biennial, his work has been the subject of more than 40 one-person exhibitions. Examples of his work can be found in the collections of the Chazen Museum of Art, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Georgia; the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., among many others. His work is represented by Alexandre Gallery, New York, where a solo exhibition of his paintings is currently on view.
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Jennifer Samet: Do you have any memories of drawing or art-making from childhood that stay with you?
Tom Uttech: According to my mother, I was never unhappy if I had a piece of paper and a crayon in front of me. That started when I was still sitting in a high chair. The two things that brought me pleasure were art and birds.
My first memory is from before I was three years old. I was living with my grandparents, since my father was in the Navy at the time. My grandfather had a cheese factory and a farm, and it was a beautiful spring day, when the grasses were very green. As I was looking out across the field, a red-winged blackbird coasted through. They perform a certain type of a flight when they are about to land — singing and proclaiming territory. So I saw this absolutely black bird, with a red epaulet, fringed by yellow, against the green field. I’ve always wanted to replicate that experience, but of course that can’t happen.
When my dad returned, we moved to town, to Wausau, and I’d go out and watch the nighthawks. Most kids would be doing other sorts of things. My interest in art and birds were two strikes against me as far as normalcy.
JS: You did your undergraduate work in Milwaukee and then went to the University of Cincinnati for your MFA. Who were some of your influential teachers there?
TU: My experience at Layton School of Art in Milwaukee was very positive. I was lucky to have teachers who let me follow my own path, including Guido Brink, a German immigrant from the Bauhaus, from Düsseldorf. He had been in the Nazi army. He understood that my interest was to replicate the feeling of an experience, rather than describing the appearance of it. In two years, he hardly said a word, but I remember one thing he did say. If a painting was not working, no matter what the problem was, he would say, “Paint a tree yellow.” It’s a way of jarring reality. I still don’t follow that advice, but it’s a great attitude.
My experience at the University of Cincinnati was unpleasant, and I was in an environment that was not supportive of the kinds of unusual interests that I had. After graduating and teaching for a few years, I became disillusioned. There was a big discrepancy between what the art world was supporting and what I wanted to do. I tried to adjust. Over time, I realized the work I was making was a compromise, between who I was as a person and who I was as an artist. I reached a point where I decided, “If this is art, I’m not an artist.”
But when my daughter was two or three years old, I would sit with her while she was watching Sesame Street, and I would draw. Since I had made the decision that I wasn’t an artist, none of it meant anything or was important. So I could do anything. I drew things until I got sick of them and then tried other things. I expelled the compromised ideas I had been working with, and in the process, a new set of images emerged. They returned to my appreciation of the northern landscape. Images came to me from reading Finnish mythology. I was led to that through the music of Jean Sibelius. I made a series of paintings of with biomorphic images, such as landscapes populated by women with deer heads. It was 10 years of real weirdness, and during that period I was teaching in the art department of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with students following current interests such as highly minimalist paintings and conceptual work.
JS: How does drawing fit into your process now? Do you plan the paintings by drawing them out?
TU: They are not at all pre-planned in the drawing stage. I like to start without any idea of how it’s going to end up. I invent a place where I’d like to be, or a place where I can create this unified experience. It is like starting out on a canoe trip and not knowing what is going to happen. That is wonderful as an experience. The drawing of the painting becomes the most enjoyable part of the whole painting process, because I’m able to spend my time finding things.
JS: I know that your paintings refer not to this landscape, where we are now in Wisconsin, but to an area farther north. How is specificity of place significant to you, even though you work from memory in your studio?
TU: There are places I feel a spiritual affinity for. They are found in an area of the North Woods geologically known as the Canadian Shield, which stretches from central Canada all the way out to Newfoundland, and which dips into the extreme north of the northern US. It is a land of glacial lakes, boreal plants and animals, and few human inhabitants. When I am there, I feel at home, complete, and invisible. I try to have my paintings contain and communicate that feeling.
JS: Are there experiences in the wilderness that have been particularly spectacular and have informed your work in some way?
TU: There are many, like the time I was camping on a small island with a group of friends. We were sitting around a fire late at night. We didn’t know it, but there was a wolf on the island with us, and he started howling. There is something about the transmission of that voice and the sound waves that I could feel in my body, rather than hear.
JS: Why are the birds in your paintings all flying from right to left?
TU: It is not about anything you might imagine. I was making a landscape painting that was not looking interesting. I figured I had nothing to lose; I couldn’t ruin a painting that was already ruined. So, I decided it might be more interesting if I added two or three wolves in it. Then I thought it would be more interesting yet if they were running. For no particular reason, they went through in that direction.
It did make the painting more interesting, so I added even more. They were all moving in one direction. Something was born. After doing it accidentally, I had to do it again. I’ve tried paintings where they go in different directions, and the paintings never feel right.
I often think it’s easier to draw a creature if you start at the nose. I’m right-handed so it works that way. Drawing it from the tail to the head for a right-hander feels like doing everything backwards. On the surface it is totally superficial, but, sometimes, decisions like that may reveal more — a deeper quality of some sort.
JS: Although you are working from memory, photography must play a role in these paintings. How do you paint the specific species of birds that are represented?
TU: I use the illustrations in David Allen Sibley’s book, The Sibley Guide to Birds, because it is only when birds are flying that they expose the patterns and shapes of their wings. However, when they are flying, it is all a big blur. We would never be able to see those details. In that sense, one of the crazy things is that the paintings are so wrong. We are able to see all that, as if I was capturing a 100th of a second.
JS: Can you tell me about the painted frames, which are a significant element of your work?
TU: While I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, I was exposed to several influential and politically important professors who followed strict formalist theories. It was not correct to refer to the image of a tree and call it a tree. It was necessary to call it a green vertical shape. When I berated the limiting characteristics of that practice to a faculty member, he sarcastically asked, “Well, do you want us to start teaching rosemåling?” I walked away thinking, “Why not? That stuff is pretty interesting.”
At the time I had begun to use wide frames, and I thought adding decorations to them would bug him. So of course I had to do it. The decorations started with northern themes, like moose tracks, and gradually grew into images that complimented and augmented the information in the painting itself. They could tell a different story, and therefore make the whole story more complex and interesting. I was hooked.
JS: Many of your paintings utilize a deliberate symmetry of organization, and in your newest paintings there is a vertical symmetry. How do you think about symmetry and compositional organization?
TU: There is a lot of symmetry in life, of one kind or another. One of the neatest things about nature is that it is totally chaotic at all times, while it is simultaneously totally organized. And a lot of that organization has to do with symmetry. Symmetry is life; it’s reality. That is magic. Painting, hopefully, can do that too.
The symmetry of the reflections is a different story. In the far north, twilight lasts a long time. If you paddle at just the right pace on a calm day, you will see in the water a perfect reflection of the real world. This upside-down world exists just like the “real” world, although it’s not actually there. It becomes like a ghost; it seems to complete reality.
If the water is clear, it further complicates and completes the meaning of life. The things we see under the water — fallen trees, submerged plants and fish and such — are real, but they exist in a realm where we humans are denied entrance. So there is a combination of real, unreal, and also unavailable. That is mind altering. I want to generate that in my painting — not describe its appearance. So far I am not totally satisfied with my efforts.
JS: Although you are making representational painting, you seem also to have a real affinity for abstraction. Who are some of the artists you think about?
TU: Even though I rebelled against rigid formalism, I do know and love the necessary role that formal abstraction plays in visual communication. I love the way the early Abstract Expressionists were able to do so much without representing anything, and how older representational painters like Vermeer made paintings that are actually rigidly abstract. Joan Mitchell is one of my absolute favorite painters. I wish I had had the chance to get to know her. She must have been a dervish — all the work she did, and the energy. Her paintings are all so good; they never disappoint me.
The same is true of Willem de Kooning. The paintings say that you don’t need the representation to express the feeling. J.S. Bach, and a lot of music, does that. Instead, you are being transformed out of life into something else, which is undefinable. I’ve been very jealous of de Kooning. He was able to paint beautiful paintings that are some of the most abstract paintings ever. They are not about anything, and he gave them incredible, specific titles, like “Montauk Point.” What can I do? “Landscape with birds.”
JS: Can you tell me about your painting’s titles? I had assumed they were names of places.
TU: They used to be, but then I ran out of names of places I’ve been. They are words in the Anishinaabe or Ojibway language. I title them after the sound of the word, and then, secondarily, the meaning of that word. It is meaningful to me because I grew up surrounded by their words and came to love, respect, and appreciate both the language and my contacts with its speakers. I like the way that language can reflect the physical character of the North Woods and therefore further complete the experience of seeing my paintings.
JS: How do you think about the play between a symbolic or visionary depiction in your work, and the highly specific elements that are represented?
TU: I want to use the metaphoric possibilities of painterly technique to energize the stories the paintings are telling. For instance, when painting trees, I often try to use erosion as a method. Paint is applied in a very liquid consistency and allowed to freely run down the painting. I augment this by flooding the space with turpentine, which further erodes it. The painting process replicates the natural forces that cover the face of a tree or cliff, and I’m simultaneously representing its appearance. If a tree is painted this way, it will communicate differently than if it were painted with gooey impasto. This nearly uncontrolled erosion is contrasted with tightly rendered birds and animals. This is hard to do successfully. But that contrast is fun and adds a lot of spice.
Recently, I was sitting down by the creek on a chair of two rocks, made by the man who built this place, including all the stone walls. He had an uncanny relationship to rocks, like a Zen priest. It was an evening after there had been an inch of rain, and the creek was roaring like mad. It became a sensory experience like the wolf calling.
After a while it was no longer a literal experience, for my mind was lost in a reverie of complete peacefulness. I was no longer a hungry person with a bad knee. I was a consciousness that was a part of the creek, and rock, and the falling light of night approaching. I felt the same as the mosquito biting my face, and the breeze disturbing its meal. Attaining this state is important to me. I keep trying to use all the forces of painting to replicate that, so I can repeat it for myself — and, if I do it well enough, share it with viewers.