Inspired by the North

Art & Science By Pete Marshall

Tom Uttech first visited Quetico in the summer of 1968, when the now provincial park was a timber reserve. Though logging was allowed at that time and trucks hauled out flatbeds stacked with cut pine, Quetico still drew hundreds of adventurers and paddlers each year. 

A friend who had gone on a canoe trip there the previous year raved about the experience and convinced Uttech to accompany him.

On a whim, and without really knowing what they were doing, the two drove up Highway 61 — which was then little more than a single-lane trail of asphalt that wound alongside the edge of Lake Superior. They crossed the border at Pigeon River and in a few hours, were sleeping on the ground in canoe country. Uttech, a self-described Northwoods boy, grew up in northern Wisconsin, surrounded by pine and birch forests.  But he was more of an artist than a rugged outdoorsman. As a young painter, he had spent the better part of a decade studying compositional techniques, learning to work with oils and acrylics. Wilderness canoe travel was not part of his apprenticeship.

But he fell in love with Quetico, and though he did not know it then, discovered a place that would have a profound effect on his life and his art.  

Several years after that first canoe trip, Uttech had stopped painting. After years of mastering the technical aspects of his art and earning a master’s degree in painting, he struggled to find inspiration. The type of art in vogue at that time — pop art and large canvases with single blocks of colors — didn’t do it for him. Uttech had no interest in imitating the latest fashion or conforming to a fad in order to succeed as an artist.  

He did, however, continue to explore Quetico.  

On one trip Uttech visited Roger Thew, a good friend and owner of an outfitting business in the northeastern corner of the park. Thew’s daughter, Candy, asked Uttech if he would paint some pictures of the wilderness for her. Uttech agreed and made a few charcoal sketches of the landscape. In the process, something took hold. The dance of light, the way the reflection on the water doubled the land and the sky, captivated Uttech. From these initial sketches he completed a painting in three days, a task that normally took him around six months to complete. 

It was a breakthrough. The northern landscape grabbed ahold of him and set him a trajectory that would be the foundation of his future work. Here was a source of inspiration that has never ran dry.

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Today, Uttech, 78, lives on a plot of land with his wife Mary, outside of Saukville, Wisconsin, where a converted barn serves as a studio. True to his Northwoods roots, when I spoke to him this March, his energy was more focused on boiling maple syrup, not painting. Spring had come early, and so did syrup season. The sap was flowing and Uttech needed to tend the fire to process the syrup. 

Uttech’s studio

Over the course of a long career, Uttech has created a unique space for himself in the art world, attracting a broad audience. The natural world, in particular the Northwoods, has a prominent place in his paintings and photography. But his works are no replicas or attempts to reproduce a landscape or a lake scene. There is a magical, visionary gleam that gives an ethereal quality to his paintings. At the same time, the strangeness seems familiar, an expression of the mystery and wonder of this place called Earth. 

“All my paintings are fictional. I have never been impressed by painting exactly what I saw, or a realistic depiction of a landscape. I want to evoke the feeling of being in the land. A sensation of being there,” Uttech says. 

Not one to strive for realism, Uttech’s paintings don’t begin with a photo, or sitting before a landscape, trying to match the color in the sky. Rather, the process begins with a blank canvas and no precise idea of where to go.  Using fine charcoal – which is easy to erase – he begins to sketch and explores where the process might take him. Lines become shapes and shapes become a scene. As the image develops, Uttech discovers what the picture is about. “It usually turns out to be as simple as some place I’d like to be,” he says.  

Then he begins to paint. He adds layers of information, adds colors to heighten or enhance the mood, lets it dry then paints and repaints, working until it is complete. The whole process — sketching, painting and blending — usually takes several months.  

Some of his most well-known paintings are the so-called “migration series.”  Set on large canvases, these works teem with hundreds of birds, insects, and mammals that overwhelms the landscape. They are both an exhilarating celebration of life, and a somber reminder that the sheer abundance of species depicted in these works has become a fiction, a memory.  

Nin Mamakadendam

Many still remember how, after an evening’s drive, their car’s headlights and windshield would be caked with insects. This rarely happens anymore. Habitat destruction, pollution and climate change have drastically reduced the quantity of species, bugs included. I’ve read accounts of the immense herds that once filled the plains and woodlands, how migrations of birds blotted out the sun and spawning whitefish or salmon filled the rivers to such a dense degree that people could walk on the backs of fishes. I can’t help but see echoes of this former world in Uttech’s migration paintings.  

Far from being a melancholic reminder of the world that was, the energy and the extravagant power of the natural world that is contained in Uttech’s works is irresistible. 

Though Uttech is clear that his works are not sermons, he hopes they serve as an invitation for people to go out and interact with the natural world and to preserve what wilderness remains. “My belief is that if you make something people like to look at, they will want to experience it and learn about it. I hope this will lead to a deeper appreciation for the interconnection we have with nature, and lead people to act in order to preserve it.”

If Uttech’s paintings draw on elements that could be called mythical or magic, his photography is a more tangible effort to communicate in the language of moss, roots and rocks of the northland. Though quite different, in both of these mediums he draws on natural elements from the northern ecosystem to convey something about life, and about our experience, that feels true. 

This makes me reflect on how everyone experiences Boundary Waters or Quetico differently. On the same trip, a sunset can evoke different feelings. A loon call can mean different things for those drinking coffee around the morning fire. This intangible aura infuses Uttech’s art. It’s a sensation that can never be fully articulated, it makes canoe country a treasure, one that we are fortunate enough to enjoy and protect.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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