If Chris Dutch hadn’t been standing outside his studio, waving me down, I might have easily missed the unassuming two-story building, despite the colorful sculptures displayed in the window. I entered beneath the original store front sign labeled R’s Variety Shop, and once inside, Dutch’s own art pieces—magnificent stained-glass pieces up to five feet tall—were stacked against the wall, their brilliant colors and artistry hidden. I walked right past them. Instead, he more prominently displayed other people’s art, along with tools of his trade (pliers, paint brushes, plates of glass) and kitschy decorations such as a 6 foot Barbie doll wearing a Santa’s hat, a crocheted tube top, and a sarong. A visitor could tell so much about who Chris is by what he displays. His space is playful, fun, infinitely interesting, and surprisingly humble. So is he.
Dutch’s stained glass, mosaic, and mixed media work can be found all across the state, from the West Virginia Permanent Collection at the WV Division of Culture and History, to the Avampato Discovery Museum of Charleston, sculpture installations at the Lee Street triangle, murals on the East End, work at Tamarack, and more.
Dutch was born in Maine and moved to West Virginia in 1982 from upstate New York. Given recent news that West Virginia has lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other state in the nation, any time WV can attract and maintain residents, it’s important to understand why.
Dutch: My wife got a job here in WV with Carbide. That brought a lot of people here, and people used to joke that Carbide was the “artist spousal employment grant.” Now I’m about ready to retire, and we plan to stay.
And Dutch credits being in West Virginia with sparking his interest in stained glass, highlighting the value of maker tradition and community resources.
Dutch: There are two companies here in WV that make flat glass, including Blenko, and stained glass was a popular hobby in the area. I took a community class at Garnet, and once I took that, it got me started.
He discusses working with stained glass, a medium that has a long history, where he is replicating but also modernizing pieces, adding his own take. He pulls a piece leaning inconspicuously against the wall, It’s about 5 feet tall, ablaze with color, titled Martha and Mary. He lifts another one off the floor, Jesus with a crown of thorns, a nod to works you might find in Middle Age cathedrals, but again, the pieces are modernized and unmistakably Chris Dutch.
And while he also makes sculpture, furniture, and mixed media pieces, stained glass works particularly well with his style.
Dutch: There are so many that start (stained glass) and get frustrated by the lines, but
that’s the best part for me. It fits with how I want to draw, very graphic cartoons with lines filled in. Cartoons influenced my work, newspaper cartoons. Like the Bike Man. I’ve been using that man in many forms. It’s Don Martin’s floppy feet and gangly arms.
Dutch’s man is instantly recognizable around town, whether viewers encounter him in the Bike Man at the Lee Street triangle or in the
Double Dog Star mural at 1588 Washington Street East, or when incorporated into his stained-glass pieces that show at places like Tamarack, The Art Store, or Art Emporium. The same is true for his DutchHammer sculptures created in collaboration with the late Robin Hammer. These pieces are colorful, often whimsical heavily decorated sculpture, influenced by craft and decorative arts.
When a viewer sees a Chris Dutch, he tends to recognize it. To Dutch’s chagrin.
Dutch: I don’t think I’m doing something that looks the same all the time, but I get comments that people see it. I was doing a church window, Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and a friend mentioned, “It’ll be interesting to see that in your colors.” I thought, “I don’t have colors.” But I do!
Hammer stated in a WV Public broadcasting interview that it’s important to have a look that typifies an artist and makes him or her recognizable. So when I asked, “What’s the Dutch look?” he brushed it off saying, “That’s nice if you’re concerned about marketing. If you’re talking artistically, it’s a limitation.”
And Dutch is focused on creating above all of the marketing and self-promotion. The closest thing Chris has to a personal website is his artist profile at GetCreativeWV.com. His Facebook highlights other artists and other events just as much as his own work, and there’s rarely a call to action to buy. Yet, as a testament to his work, Chris Dutch is a well-known and beloved name around Charleston and the state. And this leads to questions of legacy. What does Dutch want to leave behind as an artist?
In a prior interview with PBS, Dutch said, “I don’t need a whole catalogue or a group of art. If there was just one piece that people appreciate and it continues on, that would be plenty. “
I asked if that still applied.
Dutch: Well, you think, ‘what’s wrong with being a one hit wonder and how many people like it?’ Most artists, famous people, the average person thinks of one thing of theirs, [like DaVinci and] the Mona Lisa, etc. I don’t have grand designs about being anyone’s hero or icon. I think when I said that, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if you could reach one person with one thing? In the grand scheme of things, isn’t that enough?
Typical West Virginian humility, I think, for an artist who has created so many breathtakingly memorable pieces.
At the end of our interview, Dutch walks me out, apologizing when we’re at the door.
“My windows are dusty,” he says.
But I hadn’t noticed. There was too much else to see.