Russell Chatham’s Brushstrokes: Interior Landscapes, Earthy Impressions

The Seattle Times
December 1, 1991
By Alex Tizon

Russell Chatham has been in Seattle two days when the dozen red roses arrive at the print shop. He is in town to finish two new lithographs, spending most of his time at the shop, which is wedged like a weed between Joe’s Cafe and a scrap-metal yard on Harbor Island. Enclosed with the flowers is a note that reads simply, “We’re thinking of you, S.R. & P.”

He can’t for the life of him figure out who S.R. & P. are. Chatham, a man of bearish proportions in his Montana casuals of faded overalls, work shirt and sneakers, lifts a hand to his silvery hair as if to scratch, then stops. This is a motion he does often when thinking. His face seems to lean to the left from the weight of a sizable nose that veers hopelessly toward his left cheek. He is technically blind in one eye. Both eyes at the moment are on scan.

He has gone through every name in his address book and presumably now is going through every name in memory. Nothing. He walks away and resumes work. Two hours later, he is fingering the note again. “Are you sure they’re not from your wife and kids?” a shop worker casually inquires. His wife’s name is Suzanne; their two children are named Rebecca and Paul; all three are at home in Livingston, Montana — obviously missing him.

The people in the shop begin to snicker. Somebody chides him about his aging mind; he’s 52, after all. When it finally sinks in to Chatham himself, his blank expression melts into embarrassment, and suddenly his bearish demeanor turns teddy-bearish. He has been revealed as the airhead that he later admits he is. He laughs louder than anyone else. It is a full, barrel-chested laugh. Of course it’s them.

“I was racking my brain,” he says. His hand lifts to his hair again. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell might I possibly have done some night when I got drunk?’ ”

It is clear this guy Chatham, whose vast brooding landscapes of the West have attracted a select and intelligent audience, is an endearing fellow. Whatever reservation or awe a visitor may have upon first meeting him falls quickly away to a plain, solid affection.

He maintains no pretense. He lacks cunning. He laughs at references to his rank among contemporary painters — one of his favorite quotes says something to the effect that painting is not a sack race. He is convincingly self-effacing, although an occasional poignant remark hints at his intellect. He is a man of obviously solemn and attentive sensibilities, who also is very much a good ol’ boy who can, among friends, spin his share of raunchy tales of wine, women and misdeeds.

A close friend, author Jim Harrison, captured the odd mix that is Chatham’s character when he described the artist as someone who “runs from trouble, my favorite psychiatrist though the benefits have been limited, the most outrageous sex maniac I’ve ever known, a manic-depressive, a lousy husband and provider, a lout, an incredible angler, a financial wimp and swindler, kind, generous, curiously noble, an implausibly faithful friend.”

Chatham liked the description enough to print it in one of his own art books. “I can’t add anything to that,” he says later, wide grin intact. “That puts the bullet right in the middle of the target.”

It was this peculiar brand of honesty and his total unconcern for self-promotion in the early days that made his friends worry about his chances of survival in the wild world. In fact, he almost didn’t survive. While bumming around the Bay Area, he lived in the back of a ’49 Chevy pick-up for two years. He fished striped bass for food. As a painter, he spent 30 years poor and relatively unknown, trading paintings for all sorts of survival knick-knacks like rent, bar tabs and firewood.

Today, a Chatham painting would fetch an awful lot of firewood. One of his large oils sells for $90,000, a lithograph for up to $1,500. At any given time, there are a thousand people waiting to buy a Chatham painting, says Terry Miller, co-owner of Seattle’s Kimzey Miller art gallery, which will be showing a Chatham exhibit Dec. 5 through 24, timed to coincide with the opening of the new Seattle Art Museum across the street on Second Avenue.

Miller says he’s been waiting two years to buy a painting from Chatham, whose patrons include writers Eudora Welty, Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam; musicians Jimmy Buffett and Bob Seeger; and actors Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Margot Kidder. Jack Nicholson, no fan of merely fashionable art, has added 30 Chatham originals to his monumental collection that includes works by Picasso, Vuillard and Renoir.

Chatham almost never broaches his celebrity following, partly because he thinks people make too big a deal about celebrities already, and partly because those patrons who happen to be famous, and whom he met fortuitously, also happen to be his friends, no more dear to him than the very ordinary people who also are friends and patrons. Such as the daughter of a bar owner in Livingston who won a painting shooting pool, and an old farming couple near his home who got their Chatham by cutting the artist a great deal on some zucchini.

The diversity of his following speaks of Chatham’s wide-open heart (he says he needs to learn to say “No”) and incredible luck. His journey has been long, difficult, serendipitous, and full of improbable meetings and happenstances that nobody could have planned or even imagined — least of all Chatham.

Writer Etel Adnan, who met the artist in his 20s, described him as someone who “looked as if he were never to have a trade, or a profession, or an identity you could circle with a pencil and put in your files.”

Upon hearing his story, one gets the very distinct impression that he is one of those people who prosper in spite of themselves.

THE HANDS ARE NOT AS LARGE AS one might imagine, judging from the rest of him. They are hands that know precision, but also know freedom and magic enough to weave spells on canvas. Chatham is not now weaving such a spell. He is sitting in Joe’s Cafe sipping a Pepsi and drawing a loose map of Central California on a page torn out of a notebook.

“OK, here’s San Francisco. Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz. Over here is a mountain, Mount Toro. My family’s ranch is right here,” he says, indicating a small rectangular section that would be the head of the Carmel Valley in Monterey County, where he grew up, and which sits in the center of one of California’s last wilderness areas.

It was in this place, it seems, where nearly all of Chatham’s deepest passions were born: fishing, hunting, an almost ministerial devotion to the land, and painting, which he inherited not as a hobby but as a way of living. A close friend describes him as one who from the beginning has been inhabited by the spirit of painting.

His grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni, a noted Swiss-Italian painter, did the 14 large murals in the San Francisco Public Library. Chatham had an aunt, uncle and cousins who also painted, but it was his grandfather’s work that most influenced him. Regarding a Piazzoni painting called “The Soil” that hung in the family’s living room, Chatham has written: “None surpass this work’s deceptive simplicity. It is wholly without artifice, its only motive an absolute love of the earth. The painting is random, sublime, plain; tragically and mysteriously beautiful. It utterly defies explanation.”

It has turned out that after decades of exploring his own muse, of living and spending time with the contours, smells, shades and moods of various landscapes, and having these pass through the contours, smells, shades and moods of his own experiences, that the words he used to describe his grandfather’s painting can now also be used to describe his own work.

Chatham’s darkly sensuous landscapes, mostly of California, Montana and points in between, with their muted earthy hues, are stark contrasts to the Kodachrome realities often found in landscape art. He uses no stock Western characters, no easy associations, yet his paintings are anything but obscure. They often include wide-open expanses of sky or hillside. Sometimes there is a moon or a creek or a grove of trees. Often, they are of moments of transition — dawn, dusk, high-noon, summer turning to fall — when a certain light seems to fuse all the elements into one graceful blending. The very withholding of the bold and bright creates a simple luminescence that is void of sentimentality, but not of sentiment. The sensation of an overwhelming and incommunicable silence passes through. Looking at one of his paintings has the bracing effect of walking out of a crowded room into the open air.

Except for his family’s early influence and the camaraderie of a few fellow artists, Chatham is almost entirely self-taught and has always conducted himself as a sort of Wild West maverick in the art world, fiercely independent, a devotee of no particular tradition or movement. In talking about his art, he is obliging but not overly so, perhaps for fear of lapsing into shop talk, which he seems to loathe with some relish.

“Some people could say it’s a very interesting design element to have this phone pole up and these power lines going down in juxtaposition to this very organic line of trees . . . I don’t know what the $— @&! they’re talking about,” he says. “Give me a break. I don’t give a ##$%— about design elements. &$— @! the phone pole. Juxtaposition? Don’t talk to me about that!”

He laughs, but he is also very serious.

Ultimately, he says he believes all good art is spiritual in nature, less to do with design elements than with a meditational, single-minded seeking after the divine. He doesn’t mean church or religious doctrine.

Creating art, he says, “is an attempt to search for something beyond ourselves, which is essentially what religion is. When you’re in a landscape that’s wild, not disrupted, there’s a feeling that you’re surrounded by the presence of God, and a good painting of a landscape should have some sense in it of that wonder and of that kind of respect.”

THE WAITRESS PASSES BY. CHATHAM SAYS he’d like another Coke. The waitress reminds him, “No Coke. Pepsi.” He says OK, he’ll take a Pepsi, and mutters under his breath after the waitress has left, “And a Chee-burger.” He laughs like a bear, recalling his favorite Saturday Night Live skit, about a diner that serves only chee-burgers, Pepsi and chips. He has it on videotape at home in Livingston and watches it once in a while just for kicks.

Dedication to his art, it turns out, was only part of what shaped him. The other, almost equally important, passion was fishing. While growing up in the Bay Area, he was a self-described geek, shy, ultra-sensitive, terrified of everything, lousy in school — he barely made it through high school and dropped out of junior college — but he was by all accounts a heavyweight angler.

One marriage came and went. Menial jobs came and went. Hundreds of sketches and paintings came and went. Then one day in the mid-1960s, he caught a 36-pound striped bass on a fly rod that happened to break the world record. On the strength of that accomplishment, Chatham began writing freelance stories about his outdoor adventures, selling them to magazines such as Field & Stream, and years later, to magazines such as Esquire and The Atlantic.

A young man named Thomas McGuane, also an avid fisherman, heard about Chatham and decided to move to the Bay Area to try his hand at the fishing there. Chatham and McGuane became friends.

“I didn’t know he was a writer and he didn’t know I was a painter, and neither one of us probably were either one at the time,” says Chatham.

McGuane eventually became an accomplished novelist, moved to Livingston and convinced Chatham to do the same. In 1972, the artist puttered into Livingston in his ’49 Chevy with five one-dollar bills in his sorry pants. A second marriage came and went. More menial jobs came and went. Hundreds of paintings were given away or bartered for sustenance. He once traded a painting for a pig named Vivian, who then sustained the artist for months. “Poor old Vivian,” he says. He lost track of most of his paintings.

In Livingston, which has been succinctly described as “a railroad and cattle town with a few banks and a dozen or so bars,” Chatham settled into a life of free-wheeling struggle. Struggle because money was scarce. Free-wheeling because of all the diversions offered by the wild, mountainous country. If he wasn’t at the Livingston Bar & Grill chewing the fat with some buddies, he was trekking the high country hunting Hungarian partridge or sharp-tail grouse, or snapping flies in a river for cutthroat trout. Chatham, according to those who know him best, is a man given to distractions. But even as he recreated, he was working: rearranging landscapes in his mind, distilling images that someday would find expression on a stretched piece of canvas.

Meanwhile, McGuane had been introducing him to his literary friends. Chatham met Jim Harrison, who happened to have a devoted follower named Jack Nicholson. Nicholson had heard about Chatham while filming the movie “The Missouri Breaks” (screenplay co-written by McGuane) in Montana. Through Harrison, the actor offered to buy one of Chatham’s paintings. Chatham drove the painting, called “Winter Evening,” down to California and walked it into Nicholson’s front door himself. The rest of the story unfolds like a roll of paper winding itself down a hill.

Chatham feels a certain giddy pleasure in having circumnavigated the art establishment, which he purposefully avoided most of his life. The art world, to him, has become a pit of commercialization.

“I don’t know of any other painter who’s gotten to the point where I’ve gotten without ever having a single review in an art magazine or newspaper, without having a BIG collector or art dealer (the equivalent of a literary agent for an author),” he says. “At this point, the only thing an art dealer can do for me is introduce me to people I don’t like.”

Impartial observers who have followed Chatham’s work over the years have marveled at his circuitous route to success, especially in light of the artist’s absolute indifference to trends. “His name first came up during the time when Andy Warhol was starting to do Campbell’s soup cans,” says Chris Waddington, a critic for Art in America and U.S. Art. Pop art, expressionism, conceptual art and photographic realism were among the movements that thrived while Chatham continued painting landscapes.

“It was hard for critics to look seriously at landscapes. It was considered old-fashioned,” Waddington says. “But Russ kept doing what he’s been doing from the start. He hasn’t changed, but the world has.”

Waddington says environmental consciousness, the sense of the Earth as an imperiled planet, has brought a new kind of relevance to Chatham’s rendering of landscapes. His paintings, Waddington says, contain an element of nostalgia for wild places that have been lost and will be lost. The painter’s work chronicles a world that may or may not exist a century from now, and somehow the tragedy of that is carried in the vast silences of his paintings.

Chatham’s reputation spread, literally, by word of mouth among people, the artist will point out, whom he respected. “Sure they’re celebrities, but they’re interesting celebrities,” he says, explaining that they are individuals who find a philosophical affinity with his vision. He notes that Sylvester Stallone will probably never be a patron, nor will Vanna White.

“If Vanna was my biggest collector, I’d really have to ask myself what’s going on,” he says. He laughs. He sips his Pepsi. “No, the kind of people who like my paintings tend to be the kind of people who like to read Jim Harrison’s books. They like a little passion, they like a good experience.”

A good experience is what these past five decades have been for Chatham, who has become somewhat of a celebrity himself in Livingston. At the very least he is one of the town’s favorite sons, able to walk into any number of businesses on Main Street, reach over the counter and help himself to the telephone, almost as if each store was another corner of the Chatham ranch. The younger folks call him Mr. Chatham. The old-timers talk about him with affection and pride, like one of the family who has made it.

They remember not too long ago when Chatham’s survival in this frontier land was not a certainty. Would he or wouldn’t he make it through another year?

“For years I had to do the kind of work where someone pays you a few dollars an hour to get down on the floor with a brush and scrape where some @!$%& # spilled his mustard . . .

“As the years went by I just basically kept plugging along. I just did what I could do. (When it came to painting) I always felt fairly limited and I didn’t think I would ever make a cent in my life or that anything would ever happen much. I thought it would be nice if something did.

“Things happened just the way they happened. There was no plan, no road map. I never had aspirations to be famous or to have a career. I’m just so pleased that I don’t have to work as a janitor anymore. I mean, that was my goal. My goal was to not have to be a janitor, to be able to paint and write. Well, I made that years ago so everything else is just gravy.”

BACK AT THE PRINT SHOP, THE dozen roses, which stand splayed and blooming on a bare table, bring a touch of softness to a room full of hard edges. There is a steady whirrr of machines. Two lithographs (prints created through the use of numerous hand-drawn printing plates) hang on a far wall. A few feet away, the artist is working on two other lithographs to complete the set of four, all of Montana landscapes, which will be part of the Kimzey Miller exhibit.

The finished prints, called “Sweetgrass Spring Evening” and “Silverbow Winter Dusk,” though different from his paintings, contain elements that are distinctly Chatham: the muted colors layered by elegantly contoured lines, the sense of seeing it all through a veil, the feeling of wide-open space.

So it is that while life has changed, a certain continuity has followed him through all the years. Chatham has lived in the same town, run with the same friends, fished in the same holes, indulged the same passions for decades. He has owned the same Chevy and the same Plymouth for more than 30 years. He has used the same palette, palette knife, sketch box and easel, all passed on to him by his uncle, for nearly 40 years.

If there is a criticism of Chatham, it is that this continuity, this quality of sameness, has affected his work. His approach to landscapes and the resulting themes and images, some say, have been too repetitious.

John Anacker, director of the Haynes Fine Art Gallery at Montana State University in Bozeman, regards Chatham as a premier artist whose work is “aesthetically pleasing,” but wonders whether “the scope of his examination is not as broad as it could be.” Anacker says there are many other important aspects of Montana and its landscapes that Chatham has not addressed.

“Artists are not remembered in history just for painting beautiful pictures,” Anacker says. “Artists who produce work that is remembered have concerns and concepts in their work that are enduring. They address aspects of the human condition, they push the language of art ahead. I don’t know if Russell is striving for that.”

Chatham does not dispute such critiques, and says, in fact, that the same notions have been flitting around his head, too. He concedes, characteristically, that he may not have the sensibilities to apprehend all aspects of Montana’s dramatic landscapes.

His defenders say that he doesn’t need to, that the alleged flaw of repetitiousness can just as easily be regarded as consistency or distinctiveness. Indeed, they say part of the reason why Chatham’s works have emerged from obscurity is because he has created a recognizable style that appeals to the eyes and to a new-found consciousness, and the very quality of sameness in his work is exactly what gives his paintings power, just as a distinctive “voice” in literature gives a certain kind of power to writing.

“Russ works with a very limited palette. He doesn’t try to use every color in the book,” says Henry Matthews, curator of the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan. The result is that “his paintings are enchanting, like they come out of a fog almost. They are so mysterious, haunting.”

Chatham doesn’t spend much time obsessing over what critics or fans say. He is too busy tending to the very real expansions and additions in his life, such as Suzanne, his third wife, and their two young children; and two small business ventures, both in Livingston: Rebecca Fine Art, which oversees the production and distribution of his prints, and Clark City Press, a small publishing house of literary and artistic books that has lost money all three years of its existence. Chatham says he is determined to keep it afloat. Three Clark City authors — James Crumley, Dan Gerber and Chatham — will be reading at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. this Saturday.

How can Chatham be a good father-husband-publisher-businessman-printmaker-fisherman-writer and paint, too? He can’t. And he is growing weary of the new relentless pace of his life. More than once over the past few days he has muttered, almost to himself, that “This is going to have to come to an end.”

By “this” he means, specifically, commercial exhibitions of his work. But it also means, in a more general sense, all his running around. In the past seven months, he has traveled to the Soviet Union, the Bahamas, British Columbia, New York City, Boston, Hartford, Detroit and Santa Fe, to name a few places — mostly for business. The trip to the Soviet Union, for example, was for a story that will run in Esquire next year. Gone are those days when he could drop everything at the spur of the moment and go fishing.

Success has brought other kinds of difficulties, such as the boxes of unanswered letters in his studio, which because of a noble notion of reciprocity he feels a solemn obligation to attend to one by one. But this he can handle. It’s the exhibition stuff, the traveling, that he says will eventually have to stop. He says all of it is a necessary phase to make up for all those years when he made hardly any money at all. Within a few years, he says, he will no longer do commercial exhibits, and will probably sell only to friends. What he wants is a return to his life of 20 years ago, when he did little else but paint and fish and cavort with family and friends.

“I have these little kids, Paul is 2, Rebecca is 5,” Chatham says. “I mean, I want to play with these kids. In a few years, they’ll be old enough to go fishing and I don’t want to be working like an idiot. Somebody will say, `Do you want to go to an opening in Boston?’ And I’ll say, ‘Are you kidding!? I’m busy. I’m taking Paul fishing.’ ”

Chatham laughs his barrel-chested laugh, fairly shaking out of his overalls. Behind him, the flowers seem almost to vibrate with him. The note that came with the flowers has disappeared. It turns out that Chatham, in the middle of all his running around and talking and working, has tucked it away. Montana, it seems, has been much on his mind.