Russell Chatham

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courtesy of Ruthie V

Russell Chatham

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,

It gives a lovely light!

                              Edna St. Vincent Millay

Acclaimed artist Russell Chatham died last week. The world is richer for his having been here, poorer for his passing.

I interviewed Russell over several days in Point Reyes, CA five or six years ago for an article which I will include below, but I want to tell you some of things I noticed about him that were not germane to the article for that particular magazine.

I had driven up to Point Reyes to interview both Russell and the world’s foremost wildlife artist, Tom Quinn (separate articles, same magazine) and at Tom’s suggestion we all met for dinner in a local restaurant. I suspect it was something both men had planned as a way to check me out and make sure I wasn’t just another phony, and to see if I was worth giving their time to. I must have passed the test, because both Tom and Russell were incredibly generous with their time during the four or five days I spent talking to them and watching them work, and both men became telephone friends over the next half decade. But that dinner provided me with my first glimpse of Russell’s character.

He was already seated at a table when Tom and I walked in, with an open bottle of white wine and a glass half-finished and as we sat down, Tom said something to the effect of, “I thought you were on the wagon.”

“I am,” Russell said airily, “This doesn’t count as drinking.”

My immediate reaction was that all the various anecdotes I heard about him as an amiable wild man must be true. As is usually the case, most of those stories were emphasized, if not exaggerated, while his obsessive/compulsive hard work and discipline ignored, but the fact is that the two were intertwined: whether it was painting or writing, lithography or publishing, fishing or more, ah, shall we say, earthly delights, Russell Chatham threw all of himself into everything he did without any wasted concern for the world’s established norms or what judgmental fools might think. Consider Steve Bodio’s story about driving up to meet Russell in Santa Fe, NM for some event:

The two men were longtime friends (Russell painted the cover art for Steve’s magnificent memoir of love and loss, Quernecia) and they hadn’t seen each other for a long time. Steve lives down in an isolated area of central New Mexico and by the time he got to Santa Fe it was late morning. The two men had agreed to meet for breakfast, so both were hungry by the time they got to the restaurant, one of those frightfully fashionable watering holes that cater to Santa Fe’s ultra-rich, ultra-trendy celebrity residents. Steve ordered first, an over-the-top hearty southwestern breakfast with an equally hearty line of side dishes.

The arrogant and snippy waiter’s lips became more and more pursed as the order progressed, and when Steve finally finished, he said disapprovingly, “Really, Sir! That’s an awful lot of food.”

Somewhat abashed, Steve explained that he was very hungry and that he intended to eat every mouthful.

The waiter sniffed contemptuously and turned to Russell. “And for you, Sir?”

Without missing a beat, Russell gestured at Steve and said, “I’ll have everything he’s having, only make mine a double order.”

That’s the kind of man you want standing at your back in the culture wars.

And here’s another side of Russell’s character I witnessed the next day in that same restaurant (I shall be very circumspect here, to protect the privacy of several people):

I had only recently been contacted by a young person whom I greatly loved and whom I feared I might never see again. The young person lived not too far from Point Reyes and when I said I would be there, we agreed to meet for a late breakfast at the restaurant where I was to meet Russell, and the only day that worked was the day Russell had set aside to be with me. This was a working jaunt for me, but my desire to see my young friend once more was greater than my desire to fill my responsibilities to my magazine.

(As it turned out, Russell gave me several days’ worth of his time, so it never became a choice I had to make.)

 When I got to the restaurant, Russell was already seated. I apologized and explained to him what was going on and how important it was to me. To my surprise, he not only took it all in stride, but he told about his own loss of a loved one and how he too hoped to one day rebuild bridges that had been destroyed through no fault of his own. At one point, he burst into tears and the two of us sat in the sunny window of a northern California restaurant with our arms around each other, each—at least I hope it was true for each of us—drawing strength and comfort from the other. And more: when the young person arrived, Russell helped smooth a reunion that might otherwise have been awkward with his formidable charm and storytelling, and with an unspoken compassion and sensitivity very few other men would have had.

If Russell is being judged at the pearly gates as I write this, whatever sins he might have committed will have to be balanced against an extraordinary act of emotional generosity and diplomacy, and if I were doing the judging, I know which scale my thumb would rest upon.

One last account from that time in Point Reyes:

We had gone somewhere in my truck, Russell and I, and when I drove him back to his studio, a building with several different small business enterprises overlooking the beginnings of Tomales Bay, there was a non-descript KIA in the parking lot, with a lady in the passenger seat, two children in the back, and man knocking on Russell’s door.

Russell was completely bankrupt at this juncture of his life, courtesy of a malevolent IRS agent who had decided for personal reasons to destroy him. (Yes, Virginia, such things do happen when bureaucrats are given too much power and run amok; the good news is that Russell ultimately won a protracted lawsuit.) But at this time, he was bankrupt, so when I pointed the man out to him I was a little shocked to hear Russell say, “Don’t worry about it. He wants to talk to me about commissioning a painting, but I’m talking to you right now.”

Since the man was in jeans and a T-shirt, and since he was driving a KIA, I pegged him as perhaps one of those hopefuls who waste the time of artists and artisans with dreams of projects they can never hope to afford, and I was going to let it go. But when he turned around, the man saw Russell in my front seat and he walked over. I rolled down the window and he rested his left arm on my rearview mirror as he spoke and as Russell explained he was in the middle of an interview and would have to get back to him.

But while they were talking, I looked at the man’s wristwatch.

I had just recently written an article about ultra-high-end wristwatches, the kinds of watches worn by men and women who could purchase you or me out of their pocket change and never notice the cost, watches like Patek Phillippe, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Blancpain, Vacheron-Constantin, watches that start in five-figures and stroll casually upward from there. This man was wearing an IWC Schaffhausen Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, a watch that starts at six-figures.

(The immensely wealthy sometimes show great common sense, indulging wildly on art, whether art that hangs on the wall or functional art that encircles a wrist, but not wasting money on things like cars that can be destroyed by the first idiot talking on a cell phone instead of watching traffic lights.)

I turned to Russell.

“Look, I appreciate your commitment to doing an interview, but you’re in no financial position to postpone a meeting with any man who can afford to wear an IWC Chronograph. Get out of my truck and get that man in your studio. We’ll continue the interview later.”

For just an instant he hesitated. Then: “You’re right. Call me this evening.”

He knew damned well how rich that man was and how much he, Russell, needed that commission, but he had made a promise to me and he would have kept it.

Over the years since I called him from time to time—not often enough; never enough—especially after he became ill, and the last time I was delighted to hear strength and optimism in his voice. His was still in recovery mode, but he felt he was doing the best work of his life. Since every painting he ever did was magnificent, it’s hard to imagine those last ones as being significantly better than the ones I saw five or six years ago, but what’s important was that he felt they were. He was rejuvenated, and I was thrilled to think he might go on for another decade or two or perhaps indefinitely. It wasn’t to be.

What follows below is the article I wrote about him. I think it gave him pleasure. I hope so.

courtesy of pinterest

It would be very easy—and so much fun—to write about Russell Chatham as a Rabelaisian voluptuary, the kind of man who wakes up every morning in a California-king-sized bed surrounded by empty bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion and empty-minded cheerleaders and with only a dim memory of where or even who he is. And while it might not be an entirely untrue portrait from an earlier time, it would be a little like describing J. M. W. Turner as the guy who did all those erotic drawings. Uh, well yeah, he did, but in his spare time Mr. Turner also dashed off some of the most magnificent and innovative landscapes and seascapes of the nineteenth century. Or any other century.

That Rabelaisian image owes its existence to some very wild and wooly articles about hunting and fishing written by Chatham during his salad days back in the seventies. He is not the first man who has had to make a choice between two mutually exclusive passions (in his case, a naked woman with a green parrot on her shoulder and a once-in-a-lifetime meal of wild duck) but he is the first I know of to have written about balancing memory and regret quite so frankly. At the time, he ruffled quite a few feathers (not the parrot’s) with that story, and helped shape a legend for himself, but like all legends, it is only a small part of the truth. It’s like John Ford’s movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s tempting, but the truth is much more interesting.

In an interview with the Bloomsbury Review, Chatham once said: “All genuine art grows outward from the heart, and is a matter of sensations. Art inspired mainly by the intellect may induce awe, excitement, or even laughter, but never tears, and there is no great art without tears.”

By itself, that statement goes a long way to defining Russell Chatham, the artist. The problem is there are many Russell Chathams. No man is one-dimensional, but very, very few people are quite as multi-dimensional or multi-talented as he is. Acclaimed painter; one of world’s greatest—and the last living—off-set lithographers; first-class writer; restaurateur; founder and editor and publisher of Clark City Press, which produced some of the most beautiful books of the late twentieth century; one of the three best fly-fishermen in the world today, according to both his friend William Randolph Hearst III and Chatham himself (Chatham caught the world record striped bass on a fly in 1966 and has by his own reckoning caught more striped bass and anadromous fishes than anyone alive today); hunter; gourmet; gourmand; drinker; pauper; millionaire; pauper again; lover of nature; lover of life; feckless wild man; devoted friend; constantly concerned parent… But out of all this, two things come into focus.

“I started painting when I was seven, and I started fishing when I was ten with grown-ups who really knew what they were doing,” he told me as we ate oysters and drank wine outside in the sun overlooking Tomales Bay. What remained unspoken was what I found later in Silent Seasons, an anthology of fishing stories his Clark City Press published, his own stories and others including Thomas McGuane, William Hjortsberg, Harmon Henkin, Jack Curtis, Charles Waterman, and Jim Harrison. In his introduction, Chatham writes:

“Some of us went quite crazy over fishing at a pretty tender age. I think those like myself were at first seeking a kind of refuge away from the erratic and sometimes frightening behavior of our young peers. Or, in other cases, our parents.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the tears resonating behind those words, but if the past can drive a child to refuge, and leave phantoms that linger long into adult life, the past can also shape the child in ways that coruscate, ways that resonate with the brightest and most knowledgeable among us.

The list of rich and famous, the high and mighty who collect Chatham’s work would fill an entire page, but just for fun, a few: Tom Brokaw; authors Richard Ford, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Peter Matthiessen, and the late enfant terrible Hunter S. Thompson; the original (and now deceased) Hollywood Madam, Alex Adams (don’t ask); William Randolph Hearst III; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard; most of Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges… The neon names go on and on, dripping gold and diamonds and gossip.

Forget those people. The name that should make you sit up and take notice is the late Robert Hughes.

I have zero use for art critics. At their worst they are as dangerous to art as war, being for the most part arrogant twits who make their livings off the doubts and insecurities of people with more money than taste or judgment. Most of them tend to promote their own particular artists for their own particular purposes that frequently have little or nothing to do with art. (As Robert Hughes himself once wrote “The new job of art is to [hang] on the wall and get more expensive,” as damning and accurate a comment as I have ever heard.) But writer, producer, and (shudder) art critic Robert Hughes was the exception that proves my own rule.

Highly educated, hard-nosed and hard-living, controversial, he was the art critic for Time magazine, and produced several television specials, including one on art called The Shock of the New. Most importantly, I sometimes agreed with what he had to say, so clearly he was man of staggering genius and exquisite taste. Robert Hughes collected Russell Chatham’s work.

Chatham’s painting reflects an extraordinary degree of subtlety, sophistication, and tremendous discipline. In an article about the artist Edward S. Curtis, Chatham describes Curtis: “As a painter and draftsman as well as a photographer, he attained art’s greatest goal: he made his process invisible.” Chatham might just as well be writing about himself. He works simultaneously on a great number of paintings in varying stages of progress. When I visited him in his studio on the Point Reyes cape in northern California, he took a small painting I would have happily purchased as it was and proceeded to horrify me by smearing paint over it and then wiping everything off. The result was an infinitely subtle change of hue, one that would have been indiscernible if I hadn’t witnessed it. He then leaned the painting back against the wall, where it will remain for days until the oils harden enough for him to do the same thing again and again. He will repeat this process for a year or more to create an illusion of depth which is a signature style of Chatham’s. His reliance on color (as well as focus, overlapping, diminishing scale, and so on) as opposed to diagonal lines, tricks the eye into seeing an optical illusion of depth, an illusion that delights endlessly, but unfortunately only with the real thing, not with reproductions. The more subtle the painting the harder it is to reproduce, and Chatham’s use of atmospheric perspective (I believe it was invented by Velásquez) is a style that does not reproduce well with normal modern reproductive techniques, which is in part why he trained himself to be such an accomplished lithographer, another art form almost as painstaking and time consuming as his oils.

Chatham’s grandfather was Gottardo Piazzoni one of the most acclaimed tonalists of northern California’s golden era from the turn of the century to his death in 1945. Where other children are told to go outside and play in the traffic, Russell was told to go outside and paint, and by his own admission, he was so heavily influenced by his grandfather’s art and reputation that for many years everything he painted looked like Piazzoni’s art, so that working our way into the past through Piazzoni’s own influences, we may say Chatham was influenced by the Barbizon school and the echoes of Millet, Corot, Rousseau, and others.

But while Chatham is also a tonalist like his grandfather, we can end the comparisons right there. Without getting all Art 101 on you, two of the chief characteristics of the Barbizon school were “realism” (as opposed to “idealism”), and the practice of painting outdoors, on site (en plein air). Today, those landscape artists who do not work en plein air take voluminous photographs and work in their studios from those, some actually projecting a photograph onto the canvas and, in effect, painting by numbers. Russell Chatham does neither.

“A fisherman looks at one percent of the river because the other ninety-nine percent doesn’t have fish. It’s the same thing painting a landscape. I dismiss ninety-nine percent and focus on a pinpoint in space and time. Then I go back to the studio and paint from memory. It’s sort of like taking a photograph with my brain and letting it out through my fingertips, so there is a transformation of reality into an essence of place and time.”

Essence indeed: this is the essence of art; it’s also pretty much the essence of fishing, and I suspect that for Chatham there is not much distinction between those two. Consider his assessment, in his volume of autobiographical essays, The Angler’s Coast, of his fishing mentor and hero, the late Bill Schaadt:

“It [was] his overall sense of understanding, curiosity, deep love of the natural world, energetic effort, and his style which set him so clearly apart from his contemporaries.”

That could be Russell Chatham talking about Russell Chatham the fisherman, or it could be Russell Chatham talking about Russell Chatham the artist. Or both.

As a fisherman, Chatham reminds me very much of Norman Maclean’s description of his father: “…our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

When we first met, at a restaurant in Point Reyes Station, Chatham pulled out a number of reel cases and put them on the table. I had done my homework, and I knew he was a serious world-class fisherman, but I also knew his paintings were collected by some of the richest and most famous men in the world, and my heart sank. I thought he might turn out to be one of those phonies for whom the expense of the toy is part of the aesthetic experience, the kind who think of fly-fishing as being the height of patrician elegance and refinement, the piscatorial equivalent of the Social Register, or a debutante ball.

I needn’t have worried. All of those reels were older than he or I, and in just about as bad shape. To someone of my decidedly amateur status (rank amateur, third class) as a fisherman, the reels had a decidedly utilitarian look: not just utilitarian, but working class, blue collar, much the worse for wear, with none of the refined and feline elegance we associate with high-end reels today. Raw aluminum, no fashionable gleaming oxidation, bent and battered as a boxer’s nose, they looked as if they should be on display in a dusty, back-country fly-fishing museum. If you look closely at the some of the photographs of Chatham fishing in his Dark Waters anthology (fishing with the late Richard Brautigan, with Tom McGuane, Guy de la Valdene, Jim Harrison, others) you’ll see some of those reels.

Chatham is so far advanced as a fisherman that his snobbery, if you will, has nothing to do with externals, Harris tweed, Hardy reels, split cane bamboo. Instead his snobbery is restricted to the aesthetics of ability and enthusiasm, and love of the experience. If you don’t have those, you’re no better than the slobs, literally, he describes in Salmon on the Fly…or on the Run:

“A labyrinth of well-worn trails strewn with trash led down to the river. Once there you faced an unfathomable amount of additional garbage: discarded lure packages, cardboard bait containers, food wrappers, rags, beer and soda pop cans, and an altogether dangerous amount of snarled monofilament. Covering it all like the finishing touch on a bad practical joke, or the icing on the cake, was a vast, matted layer of salmon eggs—discarded bait—combined with white powdered borax. The borax is used to preserve roe, giving it a tough skin so it stays on the hook. When dropped on the ground (an apparently mandatory detail), it lends the scene an ambience only to be otherwise found in the most ill-kept Laundromats of east Los Angeles.”

For Chatham, fishing is not about the equipment or even the fish, but about the aesthetics of the experience, experience that can only be purchased with years and knowledge and a great deal of love.

The moment you purchase a painting and hang it on the wall, it becomes a reflection, for better or worse, of the space around it. How often have you gone into a museum and admired a painting, and then turned to the person with you and said, “And, my God, look at that frame!” A spectacularly sculpted, gold-rubbed frame is a legitimate work of art in its own right. The problem is when two works of art are juxtaposed as closely as a painting and its frame, neither can be fully appreciated. Chatham is one of the few artists working today who seems to understand this. (His comment about seeing some of J. M. W. Turner’s masterpieces unframed in London: “Relieved from imprisonment within seven hundred pounds of gold filigree, the works appeared almost buoyant.”) He designs his own frames and has them made to his specifications for each individual painting. First, a massively strong laminated structure is created in scale to the specific painting. The laminate is then covered with a surface veneer of raw walnut which Chatham then “washes” with oil pigment mixed to compliment the tone of the painting. Some frames are also enhanced with a very thin border of gold. The result is a protective work of art that enhances without distracting from the work of art you should be looking at.

Chatham is predominately labeled a Western landscape artist, and though he has also painted animals (winter scenes of elk; birds; cattle; a hauntingly evocative painting of Betsy Huntington and her dogs for the cover of Stephen Bodio’s magnificent memoir, Querencia) it is landscapes one automatically associates with his name. Many are large in scale, four by five feet, six by eight feet, some even larger, and in the relatively small space of his studio, they lean against the walls in stacks, in various stages of completion. One, perhaps five by six feet, still showed some of the original lines he starts with to provide an outline of the “pinpoint in time and space.” I commented on the newness of it.

“Actually, I’ve been working on that for about a year, but I’m probably another year away from completing it. It’s giving me fits because I haven’t yet figured out how to get where I want to go. That’s why it’s there. I look at it every day so that one day I’ll come in and know automatically how to finish it.”

It’s one of a set of four commissioned by a dot-com prince who intends to design his house around the paintings, a man who is willing to wait for the artist’s mental photograph to come out through the fingertips. It gives you an idea of how revered Russell Chatham’s work is.

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6 thoughts on “Russell Chatham”

  1. Thank you for this. I look forward to your writing daily and am glad your recent dry spell on this site has ended.
    The world is a better place for having Russell Chatham’s contribution in it.
    Yours too.
    PS When is the next book coming out? I have a space reserved in my reading schedule and am itching to write another review since the Horseman at Midnight. Plus, it is highly inspirational in my own writing which, currently, is coming ever so slowly.
    Thank you
    Ken from Dallas

    1. Thank you for the kind words. As for the next book, don’t hold your breath. Nothing is finished and my writing is slow, but nowhere near as slow as the publishing process, which isn’t as slow as the process of finding a publisher.

  2. When it comes to art, my education is sadly lacking. Google to the rescue. October looks like it could be a scene from Nebraska. J.M.W. Turner’s paintings are stunning!

    I am sorry you lost a friend.

    (I need to write a paper “diagnosing a celebrity”, would you mind if my paper was about you?)

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