The word extraterrestrial comes to mind, though not in the flying-saucer sense, but instead only that there was no soul better-suited for living on this Earth, and no soul less capable of surviving, remaining tethered and attached to, the buffetings and general turbulence of the times. Russell Chatham’s art was his life — there are still a few like this out there — but the much greater trick, his life was also his art. I’m thinking of an epigram by his friend Jim Harrison: “We loved the Earth but could not stay.” And this from Wallace Stevens: “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.”
Though I published a book with Russell’s Clark City Press, I rarely saw him when he lived in Montana, where, distracted, he often struggled mightily. There were few parties where he was not present, but those are rarely the places to visit with a person at length. He was always a magnificent, old-school correspondent, sometimes punctual while other times waiting weeks to respond — but always writing back. The envelope with his elegant letterhead, the ink ribbon hammered into the fiber with such integrity it seemed one could still feel the trembling resonance of each key’s clacking thunderstrike — the occasional micro-fraying of the paper’s cotton threads beneath the correspondent’s punctuations indented upon the page with his signature indignation, despair, euphoria, ecstasy. One could almost read his missives by touch alone. He had no filters to the world. It’s why his paintings are the way they are.
Our friendship deepened when Russell returned to California, where he had grown up and where he had started to paint, if not quite having learned. That would come later, when he went to Montana, where he said he unlearned everything he thought he knew — had to learn to see the world anew, actually getting down into ditches to look up at the mountains. And with so much sky, and so much white, that even the caged bird of his heart might have, at first, felt free.
“It took me a long time,” he said, with uncharacteristic understatement, speaking of that second apprenticeship. But how he mastered it. It grieves me to think of a world where his panoramas and vistas might one day be clotted with billboards, villages and roads. As painter Albert Bierstadt gave a nation its vision of our first national park, Yellowstone, Russell gave us the rest of Montana. He had a genius for living in beautiful places — a genius for all sorts of beauty, really — and it is not coincidental that the valley where he settled in Montana is called Paradise.
Artist, angler, writer, gourmand and much more, Russell Chatham died Nov. 10, 2019. He was 80 years old.
Russell was magnificently, gloriously, wantonly inappropriate, with his appetite for the world matched only by his generosity. The financial worth of things was an ever-shifting value to him, depending on his need at the time. He was famous for bartering. The same small sketch he had traded to someone for a dozen eggs last week might be used for a car the next week. Or a year’s rent, in a subsequent week. It was all Monopoly; he had no interest in the abstractions of monetary wealth, only craft and an appetite for this world he was visiting. This from his friend,› writer Thomas McGuane, in the essay “Seasons Through the Net”:
I see my friend and neighbor, a painter, walking along the high cutbank above the river. This would be a man who has ruined his life with sport. He skulks from his home at all hours with gun or rod. Today he has both.
“What are you doing?”
“Trout fishing and duck hunting.”
I feel like a man who has been laid off to be only trout fishing.
Whenever I am feeling deep-poor — desperate, as opposed to chronic regular poor — and am in the wind-scoured brilliant reality of Livingston, Montana, I like to drive out to the hospital north of town, where a collection of Russell’s giant paintings hangs. Anyone can look at them. You just walk into the lobby and look up, and there they are, like the mountains and plains themselves. No one needs to own them; like the mountains, they are free.
Russell is, was, one of the few still alive who saw salmon come into California’s Point Reyes in great numbers, and who fished for them. There was something different in his eyes and in his voice when he talked about those days — about how he could hear the water change there not just with the tides, but when the big fish came in, and in such volume. It was a delicate sound, as I imagine it, feathered as sheaves of wind, that in some way communicated itself — its subtlety, its perfection — to the neurology that directed his eye and his hand to lay in such perfect brush strokes. Of course, he learned how to catch them. It might be that he was learning to be a painter before he learned to be a painter.
Still, he started young and learned from the best. His grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni, the famed Italian-American muralist, taught him all he could, and Russell soaked it up. He situated himself well. Russell would be the first to tell us that he squandered some hours, days, years in his various grapplings, and yet we would be the first to tell him, “No one else has produced what you have, what you did.” Squander is not the right word. It appears to have simply been the cost.
No one can afford his paintings now. No one can afford his life now — not even him. But he did leave his mark. I am reminded strangely of the meteorites in the American Museum of Natural History, with the strange striations and scourings from where they entered the atmosphere — the heat and friction etching fantastical patterns, beautiful hieroglyphs, onto these outer-world minerals for which we have no name.
I saw Russell often late in his life in Marshall, California, where he was finishing a small painting that he was taking to an auction in Montana. A seven-figure painting? It was all Monopoly money to him. Pass Go, pay it all out; do not pass Go, pay even more. It didn’t matter. He carried the little painting under his arm as another might carry a copy of People magazine. He is gone, and we grieve.
Russell was an eternal boy, a giant boy, a hawk, a hunter, a peasant, a philanthropist of heart. He was a passion artist, a ferocious critic, a savage warrior in a losing battle. The more he lost the war against contemporary culture, the more dignified and noble and exasperated he became. He did not let his anger make him brittle or bitter; he simply burned, then went quietly back to that place where genius lives.
Like any genius, part of it was clear and simple, right there in front of us, easy to see, while another part of it was forever unseeable. With each painting, he pulled something living out of that swollen current, a nugget, the solid material of time, able to be held, admired — so breathtakingly beautiful — then returned, backward into itself, into the layers of it that lie beneath us. As if we are magnanimous, powerful and in control — deciding what goes and what stays. Is this not what the angler does? Is this not what the painter does? Deciding which palette, which brush, which line? A man or woman in a first garden, picking up a dab of clay, then breathing — perhaps gently at first, but later with a maelstrom — his or her inspiriting breath, animus, into the clay. As the fish, in its own way, breathes animus into the angler. Back into the angler. And the painting, back into the painter.
Harrison, from the preface to Russell’s classic, One Hundred Paintings:
What are we to do with, or say about, Chatham? He has the soul of a Great Waif, and his work doesn’t belong comfortably anywhere, certainly not within the confines of post-modern art, which strikes one as in permanent diaspora. Everyone within the critical apparatus points in a different direction or is building a different birdhouse, none of which has room for our Waif.
It is strange when someone who has been the closest of friends for 20 years still surprises. 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.
“The artist does not simply hold a mirror to society,” Russell wrote, in “Letter to a Young Painter.” “If the world now is greedy, the artist must be generous. If there is war and hate, he must be peaceful and loving. If the world is insane, he must offer sanity, and if the world is becoming a void, he must fill it with his soul.”
He left California for Montana, where he had to learn all over how to paint. “You can’t just do it, painting, for an hour a day, or on Saturday,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”
In Montana, he said, the landscape was too vast; overwhelming. At first, he could never get it onto one canvas. “I had to learn to get down in a gully and look up,” he says. “I’d never been in a winter before.” Eventually, he stopped being a fan of it and acknowledged that’s one of the reasons he came back home to California.
Lacking accounting mastery — it was never one of his passions — he was often in deep water with tax obligations; lamentably, it seemed he was always digging in and trying to get up out of that gully. Painting his way up and out, working every day. Rising eager for work, working long hours, taking care of himself, and going to bed each night dreaming of the next day’s work.
“Color goes away in winter,” he said. “Not completely. But almost. I had to learn to find some color in winter.”
Working from Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park, by the banks of the same river Bierstadt painted, and which Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with, Russell painted the gates of the mountains in their clean, natural, unconfusing duality; snow, glaciers, crevasses in the icy peaks not yet attainable in April, May, June, while in the valley below it is verdant — for now. A moment in time.
He painted the agricultural lands along the Yellowstone River, just north of the park: the homesteads, the solitary cabin, the lone tiny window square of light at dusk, the darkness beyond the fields — the responsibility of life, the responsibility of space.
In slightly tilted perspectives, some of his mountainous paintings or winterscapes — again, often at dusk — look out from the mountains rather than into them, as if the traveler has gotten out just in time, has gotten out just ahead of winter, or even from winter’s depths. The big cottonwoods along the wide river — there’s a pastel quality to these compositions, but it’s not so much the artist’s interpretation as the artist’s eye. This is Russell’s genius: He sees things the way they are and, through the power of his art, makes us realize that it is we who have not been viewing the world correctly.
How many times in Montana particularly have I heard someone say, beholding a landscape, it looks just like a Chatham painting? The great artist changes how we see the world. Russell’s paintings are resonant with a complexity of sentiment — innocence, yet also the ominous foreboding, accessible at any age, to a child who has just seen his beloved grandfather pitch forward, or to an old man suddenly aware that his appetites can no longer be met, that time has suddenly turned, intent on devouring him.
Late in his life, Russell was keenly aware of this latter inevitability. In a 2018 interview in Mountain Journal, he confided to Todd Wilkinson: “Early on, I was never concerned about having a career, so I didn’t have one. And now nothing could interest me less. But I think we all have a programmed tape running inside us, and most of mine is now stored on the right-hand side of the cassette. I finally feel I know enough to paint what I could only dream about in my 20s. People say it’s time to slow down, relax, go fishing. Well, I took the first 40 years of my life off and went fishing, and now my tape is telling me to finish what I was put on Earth to do. Before, time didn’t matter. Now it does.”
I’ve never known an artist with a fiercer aesthetic and more inviolable commitment to his craft. Walking near the coast with him, he lamented to me how a talented younger painter had come to him asking for mentorship. For a while, Russell was interested. The young painter had talent. But then the mentee said something that changed that. He said to Russell, in essence, I know how you do what you do. Capturing the magic. I want to know how to make money off that.
Years later, Russell was still disconsolate about the exchange. No, he said, you don’t know. There aren’t any shortcuts.
So it was for Russell. He could never possess money or that kind of wealth. His heart and soul said always to give. Wherever he passed, money blew away from him as if in a whirlwind of anti-magnetic repulsion. It was not meant to be. He was from another place.
It’s an ancient and weary exercise, rising not even to the level of bittersweet: writing a eulogy, an elegy, an obituary that the subject will not see. I wonder what the equivalent is for a painter? Perhaps there is none.
In 2014, I wrote a story about Russell for Field & Stream. Talking to him, you’d never know that he held the world record for striped bass on a fly — a heifer of a beast as long as Russell was tall. You’d never know, in a conversation with him, that he was a member of the Northern California Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, or that he’s chased fish on almost every continent and learned to cast from old geezers at the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco when he was 19, which suddenly was a long time ago.
“What is it you love about stripers?” I asked once.
He looked at me oddly. “Because they bite,” he said. “Because they’re a big, strong fish.” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged. He did not try to put into words what it’s like to be standing waist-deep or deeper in the current or the waves, in that intense world of scent and sun, gulls crying, baitfish hurtling, fighting for their lives, streaking past as if trying to outrun the sun; and the big, strong fish on the line, playing it, stripping out and reeling in, stripping out and reeling in, the fish working the current, making the angler rush into it himself, hurrying to reposition; the angler’s curious intelligence against the fish’s ancient ocean-shaped instinct and the power of the sea.
“They bite,” was all he said. “They’re strong.”
You miss them all, the greats who must go away. You miss the quiet, gentle pillars of strength. But missed most of all are the outrageous ones, who never fit a world that grows smaller with each generation — the bright, bold, joyous, furious ones who never compromised.
Did they wake up each day consciously thinking, How may I fracture complacency; where should I first swing my ax today? What needs splintering, demolishing, disassembling, exploding? The voltage that must crackle through such minds is known perhaps only to the tarpon, which upon inhaling a puff of Black Death or Marabou Toad finds itself momentarily restrained, then explodes upward, into the medium of sky, just above the usual old one of clear water. Or to whales in their breaching, as they roll over to similarly test that next level of being and, in so doing, are glimpsed by others of our own kind, so many of whom have grown weary, dulled by routine, fear, distraction and, even more I fear, uninstructed in the culture of passion. Incorrigible. Russell might be the first to say — in his absence, bold measures are now required — live larger.
They leave the largest holes, and the longest-lasting. With what will we fill their absence? Anything but numbness.
I remember the café in Point Reyes Station where Russell told me the story. We were having brunch. He was not drinking — he was feeling the clock acutely, had paintings he wanted to get done, wanted to kick ass and take names — but it did not stop me from enjoying a Bloody Mary. He was remembering a fishing trip to Russia. It was a high-end deal: fancy guides, a secret honey hole — salmon, of course — with well-heeled clients staying in a lodge, a castle, whatever, with large meals each evening at the long table, and the kind of competition, not just among the clients but even the guides, of the sort our man, the artist, most certainly despised.
He put it in his mind to humble them all, which he did without even appearing to realize it — the best form of humbling. But that saga was an aside to the narrative. The heart of the story was Russell telling about going off on his own — leaving his guide — and on the other side of the river encountering a local family, who shared their picnic lunch with him: Manchego cheese, jamón serrano, rustic bread, wine. The light falling on all of them, lying there snacking, with the scent and sound and frenzy and fury and power and freedom of the wild river charging past, and all the icky, messy stuff on the other side.