Russell Chatham was known for his evocative landscape paintings, whose muted tones grace the covers of books and have been featured in myriad galleries. The self-taught artist, writer and fisherman died Sunday, Nov. 10. He was 80 years old.
An accomplished writer in his own right, Chatham surrounded himself with some of the most celebrated fishing authors of his time, including Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane and Guy de la Valdène. His books reveal an idiosyncratic man who loved fishing and art, but was often lost in his thoughts.
“Confusion and loneliness became frequent demons, and I was troubled by the question of whether or not there was a place for me in the world,” Chatham wrote in One Hundred Paintings. “I had no notion of earning money by being a painter, or of being anything other than a person compelled to fish all the time.”
The Los Angeles Times reported in 1990 that collectors were waiting two to three years for Chatham’s sought-after work.
Chatham was a humble raconteur, a realist who delighted as much in nature’s immense beauty as he did in being irreverent. In the forward to One Hundred Paintings, Harrison wrote, “Along with others, I have spent a great deal of time worrying about Chatham. For a long time I thought he had too much humility to survive, and in some respects he nearly didn’t.”
Chatham made a name for himself in Livingston, Montana, in the 1980s, where he owned a four-star restaurant.
“The West is an incredibly formidable place to launch a career as an artist,” Stephen Collector, who photographed Chatham and was a trusted friend, told Anglers Journal on Tuesday. Far from the metropolitan art hubs of the East Coast, Chatham charted a course that was entirely his own.
He was the founder of Clark City Press, a publishing house. And he had a well-publicized reckoning with the Internal Revenue Service.
Chatham, who some believe lived in the shadow of his peers, leaves a legacy not soon forgotten. “How many times have I heard the phrase, as one speeds over the blacktop, ‘It looks like a Chatham,’ as the sun rakes the valley cottonwoods, or a moon rises over a stand of fir, backed by an impressive range,” Collector says.
“Russ had an extraordinarily diverse and creative personality, a world view of remarkable freshness and originality,” McGuane says. “It would take a kind of cultural archaeology to find all the things he’d done, all the places he’d been. It was a very big life.”
Chatham was living in the San Francisco Bay area, where he had grown up, when he died.
The last time Dan Lahren saw Chatham was at Harrison's memorial. "We got drunk and talked about the old days in Livingston till daylight," he recalls. Lahren says Chatham taught him how to cook a wild duck, and "to this day I've found no other way any better."
McGuane first met Chatham in 1967 in Bolinas, California, “where he was an unsuccessful painter and I was an unsuccessful writer,” the writer recalls. “We sought each other out because of fishing, which was nearly all we cared about. I was a Midwestern trout fisherman and Russ was a West Coast steel-header. I had stars in my eyes about the new-to-me fishery, of which Russ was a skilled practitioner.”
McGuane says he found West Coast fly-fishermen to be advanced compared with what he was used to on the wooded rivers of Michigan. Thanks in part to the casting studies and competitions at the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, the coastal rivers of California were filled with phenomenal casters, McGuane remembers. They were deep-wading, long-distance casters skilled with sinking shooting heads. “It was very competitive; there were plenty of fish and the hierarchy in the casting line-ups on the Russian and other rivers were rigid and status driven: it was easy for a novice to make blistering and humiliating mistakes,” he recalls. “The river rotation resembled a chorus line composed of belligerent and pugnacious dancers. Like public surfing, you had to know the rules and be tough enough to enforce them. Russ was at the top of this pyramid with Bill Schaadt and others. He lived with exceptional modesty but as a reader and student of the arts, he was clearly a cultivated man. The northern West Coast was his native heath: he loved fog and low light.”