LOS ANGELES — Most artists like to think of their studios as private domains: as places where they can wrestle with the problems and possibilities of art making without anyone looking over their shoulder. Mark Dutcher, a Los Angeles painter, has spent the last five years gradually breaking down that privacy. He has done it by using Facebook, which isn’t in itself unusual: Facebook is teeming with artists who post images of their work, share links to art-related news items and generally shoot the breeze. Dutcher’s posts are something else entirely: he uses Facebook as a kind of public diary, airing out his innermost thoughts and offering each of his readers the sense that he is trusting them with the most personal and meaningful of his daily studio musings.
Because of this transparency — and the sense of trust it engenders — Dutcher has built a community of 5,000 Facebook friends who read his posts feeling that they genuinely know who he is. Dutcher has a rare ability to address a group in a way that makes each reader feel as if he or she is being spoken to individually: as a friend. It is this skill that has allowed a rather private man to evolve into a kind of public figure on his own terms.
Unlike most of us, who use Facebook as a diversion and a way of showing off — posting pictures of our dogs, bragging about our kids or moaning about politics to people who we know will likely agree with us — Dutcher has tapped into the profound side of social networking. As he has discovered, if you are brave enough to push past your need to impress, Facebook offers a public forum where doubts and confessions can be offered up and support can be offered. It takes courage and humility to set the right tone and let this happen. In Dutcher’s case, his habit of using the small-case e.e. cummings style “i” in his posts is one of the ways he shows that his own ego is properly in check, as in this post from March:
i wanted to start the day confronting fear in the studio and just saying “fuck it” and plowing/pushing ahead. i always feel better when i take action
On his good days – and there are many – Dutcher serves his Facebook friends as a kind of coach, as he did when he posted a list of studio prompts that he keeps in mind while working:
Airing out his feelings via Facebook is also congruent with what Dutcher does as a painter: many of his recent works feature emotionally charged mark-making with textual elements. As Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight noted in a 2013 review of Dutcher’s exhibition at Coagula Projects: “ … those marks include thick slathers, thinned stains and layered strokes — both purposeful and random but none of them figurative — together with letters of the alphabet that may or may not cohere into words (‘death,’ ‘transfer’ and ‘lost’ among them).”
The work on display in that show included a suite of five paintings that reflected on the death of Dutcher’s older sister Laurie the previous year. On his Facebook timeline, Dutcher had discussed his sense of grief and loss over Laurie’s passing and also his anxieties about how the depth of his feelings might not transfer directly into the paintings. As he noted in one of his posts dated August 28, 2013: “i guess the anxiety i am having is that i want people to have an experience with the work that is as personal as i had making it.”
Interestingly, the messages and texts in Dutcher’s paintings – intended for public display in a gallery – require more deciphering and interpretation than the writings posted on his Facebook status, where his references are utterly direct and candid. Knowing Dutcher on Facebook brings people into his inner circle where his candor generates trust and a sense of artistic camaraderie. It also helps that he replies — consistently and kindly — to nearly all of the comments that his posts receive.
I asked my own Facebook friends about Mark and his use of Facebook and received a number of passionate responses.
Painter Anne Harris explained that she’s “most struck by his (Mark’s) willingness to post his doubts and vulnerabilities without any form of ironic hedging. Also, particularly surprising to me have been his posts in which he worried that he’d discovered another artist who made work that looked superficially like his (at that time). These fears, we hide them! How brave of him, and reassuring to the rest of us.”
“Mark talks a lot about the struggles alone in the studio, and reminds us that we have to ride that roller-coaster,” said artist David Taylor. “In doing so he shares the gift of friendship which we need just as much as we need solitude from this mad profession.”
Another artist/Facebook friend, Robert Morrisey, commented that: “Mark’s Facebook posts strike me as brave and honest confessions around the challenges faced by the painter on a daily basis. In doing so, he goads me to keep at it.”
“Mark Dutcher has become my very good friend,” said artist Bascha Mon. “We have never met in person.”
Matthew Wong, a Hong Kong artist who follows Dutcher on Facebook remarked: “I look to Mark’s posts and the replies from artists all over the world as a source of spiritual and creative nourishment without which I would not be growing so confidently as an artist.”
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from what Dutcher has created: perhaps one of the most important is that people are hungry for honesty. Another is that by creating a space where a group of people with similar interests and ambitions are discussed broadly and frankly, Dutcher has has found a way to “give back” and offer support and consolation to others. Artists need privacy but they also need community and in the virtual space of Facebook Mark Dutcher has found a way to create the kinds of camaraderie and conversation that artists used to find in the Odeon or the Cedar Bar. He is the impresario of a new kind of social space for artists.
I spoke to Mark about his relationship with Facebook.
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John Seed: Mark, how long have you been using Facebook as a way to share your paintings in progress and to open up your process?
Mark Dutcher: I think I joined Facebook in 2009: I started out slowly but then I began connecting with other artists. At first I mostly posted photo albums of artists that are influences for me — an album of work by Susan Rothenberg or perhaps Philip Guston or David Park — but things changed when I started bringing my laptop to the studio.
Between breaks in painting — you know, the process where you are sitting and staring at the work trying to figure out the next move — I think that is when I started more actively posting about process and the thoughts related to making paintings.
JS: There is a real vulnerability in what you do, as you often comment on your emotional state and relate it to your work. Has your vulnerability been rewarded?
MD: I remember a couple years ago really making a conscious decision to be as honest as I could possibly be on Facebook. I wanted to have my posts be a record and reflection of who I am as an artist and that included talking about some of the melancholy I go through in the studio. I wanted to talk about the shadow side of being an artist — including the disappointments — and then of course I also wanted to talk about the triumphs, but without sounding like I was bragging.
The more honest I was, the more normal the flow of the everyday studio practice became and that seemed to connect me with other artists in their studios. That has been the real reward for me: to feel connected and to feel a part of something.
When I wrote about destroying a painting that I had been working on for some time and cutting it off the stretchers, other artists responded with their stories of paintings that didn’t work out. That provided with was a nice sense of camaraderie. There have also been times when I have been profoundly moved: moments on Facebook that I think changed my life or rather put things into perspective for me.
One was my friendship with Conrad Mecheski — an artist in Florida who I never met — but I enjoyed his postings of his work: mostly I just “liked” his paintings. Sometime last year he was diagnosed with cancer. What was so moving — just incredibly beautiful — was that he kept painting and posting his paintings even when he was in hospice care and in great pain. He had an easel in his room and painted. At the very end he posted pictures on Facebook of his wedding to his longtime girlfriend Mia whom he married in the hospice and then he passed away the next day.
Why do we paint? Who are we painting for? What do you want to say as an artist that needs to be said? Conrad brought up those questions: what a gift! So I don’t know if my vulnerability has been rewarded but I have been rewarded by other’s vulnerability. What a life lesson: to give so freely of yourself — I want to do that — to give back.
JS: How is discussing art and life on Facebook different from just having some friends over to see work in the studio?
MD: I think the difference for me is that on Facebook I can come and go to the conversation: I can still be alone on the studio. It is kind of perfect for me as a painter. I always think of myself as a loner in the studio and like many artists I can spend long hours there. I can take a break for five minutes and then get back into the painting, and with Facebook I don’t have to clean up my studio for a visit.
JS: In addition to dealing with deep things do you also talk about some of the aesthetic and practical matters related to art-making?
MD: Yes. I have certainly some gotten good information from my fellow artists. We once had a discussion about what company makes the best white oil paint: about what white doesn’t yellow. We have had discussions about the “edge” of a painting; that was one of my favorites … here is the prompt I posted:
Edging. what is your relationship to the edge of the painting? compositionally i need the edge but lately the action has been taking place without touching the sides. though as i said on an earlier post i find it hard to finish a painting un-stretched because i need the hard line to work against even when the painting becomes an object rather than something in an atmospheric plane. it is common for painters to fixate on the edge. where does the painting stop?.. does the painting wrap around?..etc.. which is probably why i have been interested in the frame and framing.. i am kind of into this old fashioned notion of the painting as a window or portal.. an atmosphere in which to enter.. what are your thoughts? to edge or not? and here is a green painting i have been working on.
JS: Have Facebook friends ever made observations or comments that were game-changers for you?
MD: One thing that I have gotten out of this whole experiment on Facebook has been the realization that there are so many really talented artists from all sorts of different backgrounds making strong work all over the world. I have Facebook friends from all over the world: painters in Russia and Spain, from all over the world and across the US, in small towns and big cities.
Sometimes that can be overwhelming: is definitely humbling. So maybe the game changer in all this is that it keeps me “right sized” and throws the question back to me: “What is it that you want to say?” I guess one of the things that I am trying to do on Facebook is to be radically myself: to be as honest as I can about who I am as an artist and to share some of my studio processes and practices with others. I like it when other artists are generous with their time and I try to do be the same way. I want to encourage other artists to push it further — to keep going — no matter what, even if they are alone in the studio. I want them to say to them “you are not alone.”
Sometimes the biggest game changer of all is just a pep talk from another artist.