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Tom Uttech, Portage to Cache Lake

Tom Uttech

The Art

Portage to Cache Lake

Changing daylight illuminates a vibrant scene of lake and forest in the American North. Spindly pine trees and moss-covered boulders fill a narrow strip of land between a watery shoreline in front and a lake behind. Streaks of yellow light break through pink clouds and cast a colorful shimmer onto the lake and the bordering forest. Red, yellow, and orange rays make trees look like flames, and pink and violet shadows make rocks look like striated marbles. In the center, an ancient boulder appears to have naturally split apart, creating openings between the parts and enabling a passageway, or portage, for carrying a boat between the two bodies of water. The pathway and the glowing trees draw the viewer’s eyes toward the radiant lake and shore in the distance. Gradually one realizes that the eyes of a black bear are staring back. Everything seems at once both still and in transition—a vivid scene of tranquility and of cyclic change, enticing contemplation.

This image is not of a specific place but relates to an actual portage in the Quetico Provincial Park, a large wilderness in Canada that shares its southern border with Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It is a difficult, three-mile trek over creeks, swamps, up and down hills. Tom Uttech says the print was arbitrarily titled “to convey the atmosphere, at least in my mind, of how wonderful that portage is. When anyone is in those woods and they see through to another spot, through an opening, the mind cannot look away.” In his paintings and prints Uttech depicts breaks in the forest to show how they “provide the equivalent of exposure to someplace else.” He includes features that convey timelessness, such as “glacial erratics”—boulders that were pushed along across the landscape by moving glacial flows, and lichen—organisms that are long-lived and considered to be among the oldest living things. Hanging on a tree behind the bear is a piece of usnea lichen, sometimes called “old man’s beard” that is a genus of pale grayish-green lichens characteristic of moist, shady, boreal forests around the world.

Uttech often depicts bears as human stand-ins in his images. He says, “The bear is both fascinating and threatening, magical, between human and animal. The important point is that the bear is looking directly at you, not that you are looking at it.” The animal is both a presence in this setting and a representation of human engagement with the natural environment. Uttech has said, “When I enter the north woods, 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…Since [my] pictures are about nature and our role in it, the knowledge gained [by viewing them] might grow into love of nature, and thus into concern for its well-being.” He hopes that his images will encourage people to become informed about the environment and take action to sustain it.

Uttech does not make drawings or studies while he is in the woods and wetlands, but makes his paintings and prints from memory and imagination when he returns to his studio. Portage to Cache Lake is an original print made in collaboration with printer John Gruenwald, and is not based on a prior painting. Working between a limestone keystone and a second stone, the image was drawn with lithographic crayons and printed with successive applications of ink to produce its high-color, ethereal effects. Close observation of the edges of the print permits a view of the different colors of inks that were applied in sequence.

Anchor Standard 1
Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work
Essential Questions: Why do artists follow or break from established traditions? How do artists determine what resources and criteria are needed to formulate artistic investigations?

Anchor Standard 2Organize and develop artistic, ideas, and work
Essential Questions: How do artists determine whether a particular direction in their work is effective? How do artists learn from trial and error?

Anchor Standard 7Perceive and analyze artistic work
Essential Question: How do images influence our views of the world?

Anchor Standard 8Interpret 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 10Synthesize 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

Tom Uttech

Originally from Wausau, Wisconsin, Tom Uttech lives in Saukville, near Milwaukee. By fourth grade he had decided to become an artist and he earned a Bachelor of Art degree from the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati. He taught painting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for thirty years. Early in his teaching career he stopped painting because expectations communicated by colleagues and critics about contemporary art styles challenged his personal approach to art. Once he began making canoeing and camping trips to the boundary waters of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario in the 1960s, he felt he had found his spiritual home and settled on his landscape painting style. He has said, “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.”

Key Ideas

  • Visual art as a means to communicate the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world and to encourage stewardship
  • Landscape art as expression of emotion and inspiration for spiritual contemplation
  • Animal imagery that calls attention to human presence in nature

Discussion Questions

  1. If you look for a moment at the image and then close your eyes, what do you remember? How would you describe the parts of the painting?
  2. What do you notice about light in this image, including the source of the light, the effects of light on the trees, the shoreline, and the vegetation and the ways the artist employed light to guide your eyes into the scene?
  3. From what vantage point are you, the viewer, observing this scene? How does this vantage point affect your experience of the image?
  4. What mood or feelings does the painting convey? How has the artist accomplished these effects with color and shapes?
  5. The artist has said, “When you get into a detailed study of what’s in the world, it’s magic beyond belief. If landscape is the context to help us connect ourselves to a spiritual realm, it is the details that are convincing.” What seem to be the artist’s feelings about this place he has depicted? Do you think it is a real place or an invented one? Why? Are the details in “Portage to Cache Lake” convincing? Why or why not?
  6. If you could climb inside this picture, where would you choose to be? For example, would you choose to be in a tree, on a rock, in the water, or to be the bear or another animal? Would you choose to remain human or would you become an animal? Why?
  7. What are your thoughts about how artists help us think about interactions in the natural world that we may not be able to see?


cache a word that comes from French, cache, meaning hidden, or cacher, meaning to hide

erratic a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests and which has been carried by glacial ice, often over great distances

illuminate to supply or brighten with light; to make luminous or shining

lichen an ancient complex life form that is a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga

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

portage the carrying of boats or goods overland from one body of water to another or around an obstacle (such as a rapids); the route followed in making such a transfer

print an original work of art (as a woodcut, etching, or lithograph) intended for graphic reproduction and produced by or under the supervision of the artist who designed it

striated having lines, bands, or grooves

tranquility the quality or state of being quiet and peaceful