Ray Dutcher at his Swall Meadows cabin. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
In February, 85-year-old artist Ray Dutcher fled a wall of fire three stories high as it roared down the mountain toward his cabin near Bishop, a town in the remote eastern Sierra south of Yosemite. The self-described hermit took one thing: a painting he’d been working on since 1982. The Round Fire sparked the artist’s rediscovery and his first show in four decades.
Stand on Ray Dutcher’s porch and you start to get the whole hermit thing. The view from his cabin in an area called Swall Meadows is a breathtaking panorama of stark mountains, deep valleys and sky. If sky can be measured in tons, this is tons of sky.
“I came up here just to get away from L.A. and find a better place to create,” says Dutcher. “I liked the back country. I didn’t enjoy myself down there.”
Dutcher is a wiry man with bright eyes, long gray hair and a white beard. He’s a fast-talking fellow who’s sharp as a tack and in tremendous shape. He eats right, doesn’t smoke or drink, and faithfully strides miles a day in boots he found in a garbage can 13 years ago, covering the trails he’s been visiting since Herbert Hoover was president.
“My first encounter with the eastern Sierras was 1933,” says Dutcher. “My folks brought me here in a Model T Ford and I wandered off.”
Before he made the permanent move to the Sierra region, Dutcher put in his big-city time, receiving his master’s degree in fine art from Cal State Long Beach in 1957. That same year he co-founded the Exodus Gallery in San Pedro, exhibiting work by West Coast artists Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz and John Wesley.
Despite that affiliation, the art scene was not for him. “I was never a gallery guy because they want to sell paintings and make a living,” he says. “I want to paint whenever I darn well please to paint.”
Dutcher’s last exhibition was in Encino in 1973. It sold out. After that, he moved to the Sierra, where he’s been working on his pieces -- often the same ones -- for decades in his backroom cabin studio facing western light.
And that’s where these works may have stayed, were it not for the Round Fire that swept through the area in February, consuming 7,000 acres and destroying over 40 homes and structures. Dutcher was forced to evacuate at the last minute, and took with him only one thing: a painting called "Glacier Lake" that he’s been working on since 1982.
After the fire, Ray’s 52-year-old son, Mark -- an artist in Los Angeles -- was unable to get in touch with his father, whose home was spared. He checked on him by way of Facebook and a Bishop-based gallery owner named Bruce Licher, who was a stranger to Mark.
“I wasn’t friends with him on Facebook,” Mark explains, “but I saw that he was posting images of the fire in Swall Meadows, so I contacted him in a message on Facebook and said, ‘My dad lives up there and I can’t get ahold of him. Can you check on him?’ ”
Though Licher and his wife, Karen, also lived in Swall Meadows at the time, “we didn’t even know that Ray existed,” he says.
Yet he dutifully trekked up the hill in search of Mark’s father, found the cabin and knocked on the door.
“The first thing I saw on his walls were these amazing paintings,” Licher says. “I thought, wow, you know, these would be great to show in our space.”
Independent Project Press is the Lichers' “space.” The couple’s main business for the last 30 years has been creating unique printed material on vintage letterpress equipment, veritable works of art unto themselves. The space also houses The Project Room, a gallery that’s helped to galvanize the local art scene.
Despite Licher’s enthusiasm, Dutcher was not thrilled with the idea. His first reaction was, "Oh no, I’m done with showing my work in galleries. Galleries just want you to produce lots of work and I don’t do that. I don’t work fast and I don’t want to sell these anyway. I want to pass them on to my son.”
Dutcher reluctantly agreed to an exhibition, after stipulating that none of the pieces would be for sale. Signed prints of the work are available, however.
And so it happened. The Sept. 25 opening night of "Adventures in Visual Thought," a 40-year retrospective of Dutcher’s work, drew a significant chunk of tiny Bishop’s population.
“You can see in his paintings, your mind’s eye would walk into the depth of them, so it’s pretty unique,” offers Karen Licher. “Ray’s got his own way to do this that I haven’t really seen with any other painter.”
A small group stood in front of "Tundra Pond," an oil on canvas image of yes, a tundra pond, but Dutcher has captured the light, the water and the moss-covered stones in such an exact manner it would seem to define photorealism. Yet this entire exhibition might not have happened were it not for the fire and Dutcher’s son.
“If it weren’t for Mark, they’d never been shown,” says the artist. “And the Round Fire and Bruce. They all came together and got me down here. Otherwise, the paintings, maybe through selfishness, they’d never been shown.”
Ray left the family when Mark was 7 and, until recently, they saw each other only sporadically. But art is where they connect.
“I would say that my dad is the reason that I’m an artist,” says Mark. “It gives me encouragement that he’s been painting all these years. It really inspires me to keep going.”
Ray’s art is what’s kept him going. Each piece is continually evolving, and he doesn’t like to let them go. He still feels the sting of selling his work back in ’73.
“They just disappear,” he says. “What the hell have I got? Someone else has it. I have nothing to show for it but money. Money’s not that important to me. I’m not suffering for it.”
Despite his self-imposed four-decade absence from the gallery walls, Dutcher is glad to be back.
“I’m happy to have a show,” he says. “How long am I going to live? I’m a late bloomer, as they say, you know?”
"Adventures in Visual Thought" runs through November. Then Dutcher will pack his paintings into his old truck and drive them back up the mountain to his cabin.