Tom Uttech, in Wisconsin's Northwoods, "absorb and observe"

Tom Uttech is among the most admired art teachers, painters and photographers in Wisconsin. Having learned a little about him, however, I am overwhelmed by his understanding of going into the wilds of the state and its near environs, and connecting emotionally with Nature. He talks of "the power of the place," of using your eyes to "absorb and observe" what's there. Most important, I think, he has this advice for us: "Get up out of your chair, lock up your doors and go out into the woods and see it afresh and join the adventure." I think he's a terrific philosopher.

By Ed Marek, editor

October 8, 2009: The Alexandre Gallery in New York is presenting the exhibition "Tom Uttech: New Paintings," on view September 24 through November 14, 2009. Here is a sample of one that is on exhibition.


Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian, 2009, oil on linen, 103 x 112 inches (framed dimensions), Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York. The entire of exhibition of Uttech's work can be seen at this page of the Alexandre Gallery.

November 24, 2008

Tom Uttech is an art teacher, painter and photographer, originally from near Wausau, now living in Saukville outside Milwaukee. I understand he does not view himself as an artist, because he feels he works outside the expectations of the "Art World." He prefers to be called a painter if you have to call him something.

He is certainly a teacher. He taught in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art department for 30 years. And I can tell you, that spending even a little time reading what he has had to say has taught me a lot. I see him as an important philosopher.

I came across him as the result of my wife, Marcia, an art teacher, attending a lecture by him in Wausau recently. I am not very good at art, I'm not even sure I appreciate it the way I should, and I'm certainly no art critic.

The materials my wife brought home from his lecture intrigued me, however, not so much because I understood his art, but rather because he expressed emotions about being in Wisconsin's wilderness and wilds that reflect the way I feel but am not good enough at expressing.

Barbara Joosse got to meet and interview him and published an article, "Tom Uttech: retreat to Reality" in the Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine. I commend this article to you, and all the others I cite here. The opening photo of him was taken from this article, and is credited to Sarah McEneany. Mrs. Joosse lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and is an author, mainly of picture books for children, though she has also written poetry and articles for magazines.

Her article about Tom Uttech provides a lot of background about him, his family, his life's experiences, and outlook, as well as introducing you to a few pieces of his art. In the article, Uttech said something sufficiently prescient to get me hunting for more of his views:

"The role of observer is very critical to us as artists ... There’s no connection to religion in my paintings, although I’m magnificently aware of something that’s beyond what is here. I’m in constant awe of it. I’m trying desperately to reveal what that is in my paintings ... When you get into a detailed study of what’s in the world, it’s magic beyond belief. ... If it took God to do all this, the complication and completeness dwarfs anything that’s in the bible. If my paintings can allude to that, it gives them truth. That’s what I want.”

Tom Uttech gives voice to much of what I am trying to do with this web site, and, I think, what many others do when they venture into the wilderness. In my case, I go "out yonder"in my Jeep, frequently without design, on "get lost rides," and quickly I am overtaken by things I see in the land, the architecture, and the people. So I rattle off a bunch of photos hoping I can preserve the memory for life; he might say, preserve the "vision" for life.

Debra Brehmer, an art historian who is on the faculty of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and involved in all kinds of art-related activities in Milwaukee, wrote an article about him which was published in the March 1, 2000 edition of Milwaukee Magazine, "Echoes of Longing." She quoted Uttech remarking:

“Painting is not at all pleasant. It’s very, very hard work and it’s frustrating and it really grinds you down. It is not easy because you show yourself so often how bad you are and how little you know.”

His comment, "how little you know," strikes a strong chord with me, though I come at it a little differently. Every time I go out on the prowl in Wisconsin, I often see something that looks very interesting to me, but I am not sure why. I return home, study the photographs, research what I photographed, and then --- Boom --- I start to realize how little I knew about what I did and what I saw. After learning about Uttech, I might now say that I saw something very interesting, something that struck my inner emotions --- Let's take a look at how would express that.


In the 1960s, Uttech started traveling a lot through the boundary waters of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin to Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario. Quetico is about 100 miles west of Thunder Bay on the northwest side of Lake Superior, south of the Ontario town of Atikokan on Hwy 11. It's described by some as "primeval wilderness." He has said, "This was home. This was where my spirit resides." He added:

"(The visits to Quetico is) a real coming to terms with your own self. When you’re alone, after a few days, the internal conversations gradually wear out and you are able to really accept the little things happening around you and the spirits of those things.

"You can find your own self.… You’re out of place with the ordinary and in place with something eternal. That’s real transcendent, a godly experience ...

"I go just to be there, to soak it up, to let it flow in."

Uttech talks in terms of "the power of the place."

Since those days, he has concentrated on landscape and has commented that the art world considers landscapes to be unworthy, to which he responds:

“Who are these turds telling me what I’m supposed to be doing ... I sit down, stare at the blank canvas and start to draw a place where I’d like to be.”

John Yau's essay about Uttech quotes him saying this:

“(Uttech) wants them (his paintings) to persuade you to get up out of your chair, lock up your doors and go out into the woods and see it afresh and join the adventure.”

John Yau is an art critic, essayist, poet, and prose writer.

John Arthur quoted Uttech saying:

“The best response to my paintings would be for you to march right out of the gallery and go straight to the wildest piece of land you can find and sit down and let it wash over you and tell you secrets.”

Yau goes on to say about Uttech, "Uttech’s determination to submerge himself in the particulars of his world sets him apart from other landscape artists ... He believes that in order to paint the mountain, one must become one with it."

In his interview with Ms. Brehmer, Uttech noted:

"I was driving home from Tomahawk (Wisconsin) and
I kept seeing things in the landscape that would create a very strong feeling, like an aching, a yearning or longing for something, but I didn’t know what. But what I think I’m yearning for is to be the thing, to stop being myself in this body and stop being aware of my life and just be that thing… the tree, the landscape, all of it. That’s why I paint the stuff. When I’m painting it, I can actually be it, because it’s my own product. I think that’s the closest I’ll ever come in my life to being that place.

He has talked of Wisconsin's north woods like this:

"When I enter the north woods of Wisconsin, I try not to be present as a person. I try not to be conscious of myself, but rather just absorb and observe --- to be a pair of eyes in the woods instead of a body."

I found another neat article about Uttech, this one an essay by Lucy Lippard where she writes:

"The artist reestablishes the wilderness as a mystical and magical place where the animal kingdom reigns, the colors of nature flourish, and the forces of the wild are played out. Uttech is inspired by his treks through Wisconsin prairies and woodlands and his camping and canoeing trips to northern Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada."

Lippard is an internationally known writer, activist, curator and art critic.

Margaret Hawkins commented like this from Chicago:

"We, the urban, assume that the highest form of life is human and that the highest concentration of our own kind is where life is lived most intensely. Uttech's paintings suggest otherwise and they don't use human language to say so."

Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee has had a long-standing relationship with Tom Uttech. It is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is one of Wisconsin's leading galleries in contemporary art. I commend its website to you. In the introduction to this web site, Uttech said this:

"Since these pictures are about nature and our role in it, the knowledge gained might grow into love of nature, and thus into concern for its well being. The best response to my paintings would be for you to…go straight to the wildest piece of land you can find and sit down to let it wash over you and tell you secrets."

I agree. Do it and have fun! Look for the invisible obvious.

Please excuse me as I do something a little silly. I have looked at some of Uttech's art. I am certainly no art critic. But incredibly, almost every one of the ones I saw reminded me of some photos I have taken. I say this is silly, because Uttech is a professional admired throughout the world, and now admired by me. I am not trying to say that I am like him. But I say it's only a little silly, because I believe what he has said --- each of us can see marvelous things in the wilderness, each of us can feel the emotions involved, and each of us can grasp that we are seeing and absorbing something special while in the wilderness. What I mean is, if I can do it, you can do it. That ought to strike you as reassuring, refreshing, invigorating, and appealing.

The thing is, many of you go out there, you see it, you feel it, but perhaps you then just let it go, without doing something about it. What that something might be, well, that's your call.

Well, here are a few examples of my seeing in Uttech's art something that reminded me of something I have seen "out there."


First snow on Siskadinna Lake, 1988, Oil on canvas. Tom Uttech. Represented by Tory Folliard Gallery


Eau Claire Dells, Marathon County, March 2006.


Wawiyatjiwim, Oil on Linen. Tom Uttech. Represented by Tory Folliard Gallery


Cedar Falls Creek, Oneida, July 2006.


Senassamish Kinji Gwejan, Oil on Linen. Represented by Tory Folliard Gallery


Bass lake at Timm's Hill, December 31, 2006

Let's get on out there and let it wash all over you!

Uttech, a philosopher to whom we should all pay attention, a Wisconsin boy! Bravo!