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John Colt

The Art

Pond Tokens

The “pond tokens” in this lithograph are treasures the artist has discerned from close looking at a watery scene. John Colt was not interested in exploring large vistas; rather, he said he liked the “little areas—little realms of experience, nature close up,” and his title for this work demonstrates that he liked to look at what most represented, or was a token, of one of these sites. A token can be something that exemplifies and distinguishes, but it also can be something used to express a memory or a feeling. This image shows what the artist saw as well as how he felt about this view of the pond. The delicate colors and luminous shapes convey his joy in the beauty and complexity of this piece of nature.

This view of the contents of a pond seems to be both a realistic representation as well as a dreamy arrangement of abstract forms implying rhythms and relationships. The largest forms are a circle just left of center that contains colorful triangular sections, a sweeping black cone with an ovoid opening in front and tendrils extending from the rear, and a large white symmetrical shape made up of two wing-like triangles, each having a pink, black, and green spot in its center. Surrounding these forms is a lively environment containing blackish green blobs with tendrils, orange and black wormy tubes, white cloud-like balls with tails, and spots like water droplets— all within a netlike web of horizontal pink lines intersecting faint gray vertical streaks. It might well be a pond full of algae, specifically a diatom and some greenish black gloeotrichia, which can sometimes be seen with the naked eye or with a magnifying glass, along with insect wings and bird feathers or emerging plant tendrils. All of these creatures exhibit a variety of shapes, and the artist has likely focused deeply on some of these pond natives.

Alternatively, John Colt has simply used color and geometric shapes in abstract relationships to convey his ideas about linkages within nature. He has balanced a large area of white—the two wing-like shapes—with a large area of black, and superimposed a disc divided into sections through which a delicate dotted line implies a spiral. Beneath the disc is a divided purplish triangle that mimics the larger white shape. The orange tubes and white balls provide balance and create a rhythm that influences the movements a viewer’s eyes make when contemplating the scene. A black border at top and a curved greenish band below it, along with the intersecting pink and gray lines, define a “little realm of experience” on which a viewer can focus attention and ask questions, such as, what is the source of light in this scene; are the white parts and dark parts opposites; is one part pursuing another; is there a balance among the parts that is suggested by the geometries or by the references to actual natural beings?

Anchor Standard 1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work

Essential question: What conditions, attitudes, and behaviors support creativity and innovative thinking?

Anchor Standard 2: Organize and develop artistic, ideas, and work

Essential Question: How do artists create works of art that effectively communicate?

Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work

Essential Questions: How can the viewer “read” a work of art as text? How does knowing and using visual art vocabularies help us understand and interpret works of art?

Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art

Essential Questions: How does making art attune people to their surroundings? How do people contribute to awareness and understanding of their lives and the lives of their communities through art-making?

The Artist

John Colt

John Colt was a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee for thirty three years. He had served as an electrician on a submarine in the South Pacific during the Second World War and then attended the University of Wisconsin Madison for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in art and art education. He was considered one of Wisconsin’s finest artists and his art works were collected by many museums. His early career was focused on abstract interpretations of the natural world, but it evolved toward images of creatures that inhabited small natural spaces like tide pools and roadsides in which he examined processes of metamorphosis and growth.

Key Ideas

  • Art creation based on close observation of small realms of nature
  • Shapes and color used to express beauty and mystery
  • Representational and abstract approaches to analyzing a work of art
  • Use of imagination for creating and finding meaning in a work of art

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the shapes, colors, and patterns you see in your first glance at this print? Does the image seem to be a representational depiction of real objects or an abstract arrangement of shapes and colors? What do you notice that influences your impression?
  2. What geometric shapes are included here? How does their arrangement create a balanced and rhythmic composition?
  3. Consider the title, Pond Tokens. What are your ideas about the meanings of each of the two words and about the title itself? What are some of your ideas about the word ‘habitat’? What suggests that this image is of a natural habitat?
  4. How has the artist used color and value to give the impression of light and translucence? How do the black and green bands at the top give clues and guide your impression of the setting? How are movement and stillness suggested?
  5. How has the artist conveyed his feelings about this place and the beings located there? What feelings can you imagine he felt?
  6. Consider how an artist’s close study of small organisms in their natural environment can give you an appreciation for parts of nature you would not normally see.


algae simple, nonflowering, and typically aquatic plant of a large group that includes the seaweeds and many single-celled forms; algae contain chlorophyll but lack true stems, roots, leaves, and vascular tissue

artistic method the form, such as painting, drawing, video, installation, as well as techniques through which artistic ideas, perceptions, or feelings may be communicated

habitat place where an organism or a community of organisms lives, including all living and nonliving factors or conditions of the surrounding environment

lithography a method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water; the printing is from a stone (lithographic limestone) or a metal plate with a smooth surface—in modern lithography, the image is made of a polymer coating applied to a flexible plastic or metal plate

luminous emitting or reflecting usually steady, suffused, or glowing light

pond a small body of still water formed naturally or by hollowing or embanking

token a thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of a fact, quality, feeling

tendril a leaf or stem modified into a slender spirally coiling sensitive organ serving to attach a climbing plant to its support

vantage point a position that offers a good view of something