Tom Uttech speaks about his work

by Doug E. L. Haynes

Tom Uttech
The following is an interview between AIW editor Doug Haynes and artist Tom Uttech. Tomís exhibit Magnetic North is on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October 3rd.

D- I am curious about your thinking about color. In a way your use of color is adventurous, but at the same time it is also based on observation from nature.

T- The paintings are obviously about nature they are obviously landscapes and all that stuff, about animals and stuff. At the same time I donít think of them as being wildlife paintings or landscape paintings. For me thatís obviously what they are, but they donít fit that description.

What they are about, what I hope they will be is the equivalent of the experience of being in nature. A report on what it is like to be in the wilderness for a long time for people who arenít there donít get and you donít do that by describing. You donít write about nature by describing it, you write about nature by telling that incredible story that occurs there. How people who are there are affected by being there so its by inference and allusion and metaphor that that story gets told and so that is what I have to do in these paintings. I have to pick and choose what is going to be portrayed very carefully and how its designed even more carefully to communicate that experience. Part of that leads to certain kinds of exaggerations and simplifications and the use of color and light is just one of those. Its an expression of what it feels like to see something like that or to be there.

D- Iíve been up in the boundary waters and I know there is a lot of wildlife, but not to the extent that you have to brush it aside.

T- That is part of exaggeration, but its also a description of whatís really there if one stops and figures it out.

Most of the people who go to the boundary waters either try to have some sort of macho athletic adventure or its a long extended social party. You seek some sort of interaction with the people you are paddling with and you chose those people to have a good time and you really concentrate and have a good time. But almost everyone who goes there is after that, or its how many lakes you can zip through in a day...carrying two packs and a canoe and that kind of person doesnít have enough time to possibly see anything. And the other type are too busy looking at each other to see anything.

But if you become a naturalist and you look for it that kind of stuff is out there everywhere. And that stuff spreads out of our way as we come through. Its not that weíre pushing through it. Theyíre just naturally parting. So its not exposed to us, so that stuff is there.

D-Do you go by yourself?

T- Many times.

D- What kind of artistís materials do you take with you?

T- None at all. I tried taking a sketch book once, but I found it was such a regrettable experience that I stopped and put the book in the bottom of the pack and didnít do it again. I really donít enjoy drawing from life at all. Iíd rather just sit and look at it.

D- What kind of preliminary work do you do?

T- Do you see that charcoal drawing on the canvas over there. That kind of drawing occurs on the bottom of all these. Those kind of drawings can be rearranged. Its vine charcoal I can wipe it off real easily and they are rearranged for weeks until thereís a place that emerges thatís interesting.

D- Do you have any visual references?

T- No, it is all coming out of my mind.

On that one there you see the brown (under paint) you can cover that brown with a certain about of paint and still see right through.

D- My impression is the paint is not put on very thick.

T- Theyíre not. Theyíre generally pretty thin. I started painting with watercolors when I was a kid and when it came time to use oil paint I felt so comfortable with that real liquid substance that I kept doing it.

D- So do you wipe away paint that youíre not happy with.

T- Pretty much I just paint over it. You can paint over it with thin paint. Some of them get pretty thick but generally I am pretty happy with that glow that comes with the translucence.

D- In that show I was seeing the enormous paintings and I was wondering about the technical problems in creating them.

T- There are no technical problems.

D- Then when I arrived in your studio I could see it is well suited to large works. My studio has 8 foot ceilings.

T- That was the problem I faced in my Milwaukee studio. With a 6í painting if I wanted to turn it around I would go through incredible gyrations. Now I can rotate a 10í painting with no problem.

D- So how do you get a 10í painting to an exhibition space.

T- Well there is some calculation about that. Either you stretch it so that you have a lot of excess canvas around the side which you can handle for unstretching and restretching. And I make a stretcher such that it can be disassembled. None are nailed together no matter what. Frames come apart so they can be put together with screws. So I can take the frame off first and fold it in four pieces. And then wrap the painting around a big tube. I donít like that, but weíve done that. I can send something to New York its a lot easier getting a van or big truck.

The other way I have done it a lot it is make the stretcher so it will be cut in half along with the cross braces and you cripple it together with wood or steel straps and build it back together again so its a solid piece and then stretch the canvas over that. And make a frame that you can disassemble into four pieces.

So when the time comes to move that one. You take apart the frame and then you put the painting on the ground very carefully and pull the screws out and pull the staples out and you have laid plastic beneath the painting and you have laid the painting across the face of one of those great big concrete tubes the ones used in freeways. Real heavy cardboard, strong as hell. So you lay the painting on that and then you pull the bars and then you pull the screws and the whole thing just collapses on itself. So then you have somebody that helps you and one person lifts up the tube on this side and the other person lifts up the other side. You lift it up so the tube supports the painting folded in half and then you screw strips of wood right underneath the tube to make a big solid package. I can take a full sized 8 x 10 foot painting this way in my van. When the time comes to redo it you just reverse the process. That works pretty well. Iíve had to do that with 6í paintings that for some reason or another we couldnít get around the door or something. Then we need something to key out the kerf of the cut. So you start screwing it back together and you need put in some keys to stretch it back out to the full original size.

D- It sounds like a lot of work

T- Itís not that much work. Getting up and down the ladder is harder.

D- Thatís how you reach the upper part of your tall works?

T- Yeah. On the other hand the painting in the show filled with birds. The museum that owns that work refused to unstretch it. They insisted that it come in itís form. It was sent from me to that gallery in New York rolled and it was sent from New York to the Museum in New Orleans rolled, but once they had it stretched they insisted that we ship it stretched. It cost us $14,000 to ship it. Because it was too big to send in a regular van so we had to have a dedicated semi. It went directly from there to here and itís going directly back with no stops in between.

D- Theyíre paying for this?

T- No we got money for it. That was a third of the shipping budget for the show.

D- The photos in the exhibition were taken a number of years ago and they were all printed recently?

T- They were originally printed in that kind of print (much smaller )

In the mid eighties when the paintings started to sell like mad and I had this opportunity to show them, I went with it. It gradually took more and more time so I gradually abandoned it. It just sort of slid away and that took off.

Then my New York dealer came out to visit a long time ago and I had put them up and he loved them so much and said we ought to use these. So I left them up. And then the MAM curator came out to start to look at stuff and to try to make sense of my unorganized slides and everything. She saw them and said we have to use these too. So then we went through this terribly interesting long process of going through thousands of pictures that had never been printed. And I raised about $20,000 to get a selected number of them digitally scanned. First of all we were going to have them printed. The person who was going to do that his name is Tom Bamberger. He has become very interested in digital and he was slowly steering us over to that... pushing and pushing. And I was becoming more interested and then it we were going to do five of them this way. Then it was going to be 15 finally we ended up doing the whole show that way. We put the negatives in a drum scanner and then bring them into Photoshop to produce these files that we made on the scanner that are huge.

D- How big are the negatives?

T- Two and a quarter inches.

The raw files obscured a lot of the detail. It was hard to distinguish one thing from another, so we had to do a lot of work in Photoshop to stretch them back out again. To make them the equivalent of what the originals were.

With Photoshop you can try something and if itís not right you forget it and do it again until you get it right and then itís there forever. With the darkroom you get it right once and then you have to do it another 10 times before you can repeat what you had before. So its a real advancement. There is something not as romantic and interesting in some ways, but the results are worth it.

Iím doing a painting right now thatís going to be for the PGA (Pro Golfing Association). The PGA generally has a poster that commemorates each occasion. Herb Kohler wanted me to do this one because he is as eccentric as I am. And he wanted it to not be like every other one. So I was taking the rough proofs to show to him. I was showing them a proof of what will be used for the poster. The PGA is coming up in two weeks, If we had to repaint and reshoot we would be coming on a serious deadline problem. So we isolated the areas in Photoshop that needed to be changed and I made two versions of it that would be suitable sent it up to the client and which ever one he chooses we will send that to press... and I will paint the painting to match what is in the computer.

D- Laughs

T- You know why not.

D- So its a painting of a golf course.

T- its a fantasy golf course, just like the Northern paintings are fantasy landscapes. Itís painted by moonlight.

D- Do you often depart from your chosen subject matter?

T- No. I have by coincidence painted two golf course paintings. To me it is less of a compromise that going and sitting in a faculty meeting for 3 hours. If you get lucky you get a patron like Herb Kohler who is imaginative, willing to try something unusual so it is not really a compromise at all.

D- So your trips to the north woods, do they occupy a good part of your summers?

T- Less lately. Because of my son Gus. I am spending some time coaching baseball. I used to go up every May as soon as school was out for three weeks and then sneak in at least one more trip in June, July or August... often three trips. My summers when I taught during those years Summers were not a great time to paint because I was off in the woods

D - I imagine you are pretty rigorous about putting time in the studio.

T- Yeah, you have to be, If youíre going to do this as a living. I put in time out here pretty much every day. It seems to me that even an hour counts some days. If for some reason you canít do it for three or four days, I feel as if my hands are no longer mine when I start to try to draw or something its sort of like I have to kind of retrain them to draw again. You can lose that edge real fast. People that try to work occasionally and find excuses why they arenít in the studio are kidding themselves it just doesnít work that way...ideas donít come and their hands donít do what they are supposed to. Its got to be done all the time. I really cherish the long nights of winter because I am not distracted as much as I am at this time of year. Itís a little bit hard to concentrate.

D- I donít recall seeing any winter scenes in the Magnetic north show.

I have painted very few winter scenes. I love winter. I like the woods in winter, but Iíve discovered that one thing that I like even more is I like making texture ... using brush strokes to achieve texture of one kind or another. Which is a way of metaphorically describing grass and moss... And I do not like having to paint smooth things like snow. And its not a question of not liking snow, its not wanting to physically be blending and modeling snow. So its not happened very much.

D- Thatís interesting.

T- Itís nothing but a process choice. I just donít like blending. I blend enough of the skies I donít what to have to blend the bottom too.

D- When you start a new painting, do you set a problem for yourself?

T- No. There are already enough problems you donít need to set up a problem. Often just start making a design, Sometimes you just make random shapes and seeing which is going to be an animal or a tree or a cloud. And just arranging things like that until it gradually turns in to an identity. Sometimes its a very clear idea, like this work I wanted to create a fog enshrouded woods so that was an idea.

D- In the show everything is grouped thematically is that part of the process or is that part of the curation?

T- Thatís the curation.

It seems to me that every time you paint a painting you come to a crossroads where you can choose to paint the sky bright orange or bright blue. And you have to choose one or the other. The other choice could be just as interesting. If you do a lot of work you just do another with a blue sky. If you hardly ever work you sit and you stew about it.

So then you do the blue sky and it suggests something else. So you end up doing thematic things because you just want to visit the idea again. The previous one suggests variations that are interesting that you just have to try to see what they are like. The curator did a great job of feeding the images off of one another. Creating the juxtapositions that she made. I really like the way the show is hung.

D- Anytime you hang a lot of an artistís work together it strengthens it.

T- In my case it helps a lot. Whenever you hang my work with other people, its oddness starts to becomes an issue.

Tom Uttech Tom Uttech
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