Tom Uttech’s focus: surreal wildlife scenes

The most interesting time of the day, to Tom Uttech, is around 3 a.m. to sunrise, when the natural world moves as most people sleep.

“It’s spectacular,” Uttech says. “Incredibly beautiful and incredibly active.”

The longtime and highly regarded artist can take you to places you’ve been but never seen. His goal is to stay true to nature, as well as his imagination, and the results are stunning.

“Magnetic North: The Landscapes of Tom Uttech,” in place at the Milwaukee Art Museum until Oct. 3, contains 60 paintings and 29 photos from the wilderness that the artist has both experienced and created. It is Northwoods Wisconsin and Canada’s Boundary Waters, Puchyan Marsh and Quetico Provincial Park.

Most of the photos haven’t been made public until now. Some are from canoe trips to Canada in the late 1960s, trips that inspired Uttech – then a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art professor – to take his students there.

“When we went into the bush, some people drew, some made photographs, some sat and watched the sky a lot,” he recalls, during a recent gallery talk with museum members. Uttech eventually would give up teaching to concentrate on painting the northern landscapes that he says he loves deeply.

How engulfed has he become in his work? When editors at The New Yorker magazine asked him for a self-portrait a few years ago, he sent a painting of a bear.

” ‘Watch out for the bears’ – I must have heard that 10 times a day as a kid,” Uttech says, of his upbringing in northern Wisconsin. His bear encounters have been “fascinatingly intense,” he says, but never bad experiences.

Many of Uttech’s paintings have exotic names: Wigimind Akaii, Nin Kabikawa, Bimawanidiwag Awessiiag. It is a hodge-podge of Native American syllables, put together to match the tone of the art – and, occasionally, to describe the content accurately.

“They sound better than ‘Landscape with Crooked Tree,’ ” he says.

Other titles are more straightforward, like “Have a Smoke Portage,” whose hazy, swirling water is dominant.

Most selections – paintings and photographs – are a combination of tension and balance, a deliberate method of artistic expression that Uttech seeks and executes. There are exaggerations of fog, mist, rain, lightning. There are mystical interpretations of animal reactions, interactions; many are bold, humanlike, uninhibited.

So a bear looms on its haunches, fully exposed and fearless in swampland, dwarfing the trees around it. There also is no camouflage for a calm-eyed moose, an albino in both hide and antlers; it radiates pureness and strength.

In another scene, a swirl of moonlight both brightens the sky and shadows the wildlife that look for water after dusk. Yet another canvas contains a sky full of many types of birds, each unique and in harmony, some flying low while others soar.

Uttech was born in Merrill, went to school in Wausau and for many years has worked in a barn studio that is on 60 acres of prairie near Saukville. He is the first person from Wisconsin to have the museum’s 2001 Calatrava addition devoted solely to his artwork.

Curator Margaret Andera is particularly glad to have the photos, presented in black and white, because “they help me round out his artistic vision.”

Unlike typical wildlife artists and landscape artists, Uttech does not use photos or on-site sketches as a reference when painting. His work is a product of memory and imagination.

“These are not paintings of specific places,” the artist explains. “Like ‘Harry Potter,’ it’s made up.” He describes his work as “about the excitement of being in a place like this,” and not a documentation of the place.

So the swirl of fog is designed to look mystical, and the austere moonlight is meant “to stop you in your tracks.”

“After a while, the painting belongs to itself,” Uttech says, of the process that bridges his vision with what results from it.

He considers the natural world to be something whose actions “are exploding all over the place,” yet also “a part of one great big sense of order.” That, too, is a part of the tension and balance in this exhibit.

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Birds of prey – falcons, hawks and owls – will be at the Milwaukee Art Museum from 1-3 p.m. July 25. The “Beak to Beak” program has been arranged because of the “Magnetic North” landscapes exhibit.

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center handlers will be with the birds. Other special events, for children as well as adults, are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit.

During the same week that Uttech’s exhibit opened in Milwaukee, he was one of five visionaries inducted as fellows of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. The honor is reserved for people “whose work has contributed significantly to the intellectual and cultural life of our state.”

“Possibly, this means there is importance in what I’ve been doing for a long time,” Uttech said modestly, in accepting the honor. He’d like his work to help people “behave in ways that are beneficial to our survival,” both individually and environmentally.