YOU ARE AN avidly collected artist, a writer, publisher, sportsman and raconteur. You’re in your late 60s; you have worked hard and played hard; you live on a 1,000-acre ranch in Montana; your friends are hunters, fishermen, authors and famous actors; when Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain comes to town, he interviews you.
Life is good, really good.
Then comes the economic meltdown of 2008 and life turns bad, very bad. Art commissions are canceled and real estate foreclosed on. “I lost it all,” says renowned landscape artist Russell Chatham, now 72. “I went from having millions to zero. I was dead meat.”
Many suffered greatly in the great recession of 2008, and Chatham was no different. He is now working his way back by returning to what he loves — spending 12-hour days in front of an easel — in a sunfilled Inverness Park loft.
What were the turning points and major influences in your early years? Well, I was born in San Francisco and our family moved to San Anselmo in 1949. Our home revolved around the arts and painting. My grandfather was the landscape painter Gottardo Piazzoni. I graduated from Drake High School, attended the College of Marin but was a terrible student; I barely passed my art classes. Then in the ’60s, I got married, moved to Bolinas, wrote magazine articles and pasted up ads at the Pacific Sun. In Marin, even then, you had to have a fortune to live like a pauper. I couldn’t afford Marin and paint and live the life I wanted to live. So in 1972, I moved up to Montana, where I could rent a ranch house with acreage for $500 a year.
At various times and in various publications, you’ve been described as an accomplished artist, a writer, a printmaker and publisher, an expert fly-fisherman, a hunter, a successful restaurateur and a jolly good raconteur. That said, how do you describe yourself? I am a natural-born painter; I’ve been painting since I was 7 years old. I did not choose painting, it chose me. Yet, for years, back when I first lived in Marin, I made a living by writing articles on hunting and fishing for magazines. I guess I am just interested in many different things such as writing, and printmaking, and designing books, and cooking, and hunting, and, of course, fly-fishing. Friends often ask, why don’t I just paint? I have friends who are writers and that’s all they do — write. They don’t cross disciplines. I enjoy doing different things. I really enjoy all aspects of life, even after this recent financial setback.
You’re now spending long hours painting — what is motivating you when you paint? What is your goal? Over the last 14 months, I’ve been bringing along 20-or-so paintings. I will work on one for maybe two or three hours at a time, then let the oils dry. However, during those two or three hours of working, I am motivated to get the painting to have an emotional pull on a viewer. When I’m out hunting or fishing, I’m always taking mental notes; I’m always collecting images. Then, when I’m painting, what I try to do is pull an image out of my head, to get it on canvas and make a picture of it. To me, nature is chaos. What I try to do is make order out of chaos and produce something that gives the illusion that it is absolutely real even when it isn’t. Yet it is not realism the way most people understand realism. It’s an atmospheric manifestation of things that have appeared in my mind. They could be the sky, the moon, a boat, trees or the mountains. Then later, these are in my final work. As for a goal, mine is to cause an emotional response within the viewers, which, if they’re like me, is to look at the painting and find it so beautiful they cry.
How did you develop a client list filled with celebrities like Nicholson, Redford, Brokaw, Bridges and Harrison Ford? Even Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and art critic Robert Hughes collect your work. Believe me, it was a fluke. What happened was in the late ’60s, when I lived in West Marin, I caught the world record striped bass on a fly. This caused two writers, Thomas McGuane and William Hjortsberg, who were Stegner Fellows at Stanford, to rent houses in Bolinas because, since I lived there, the fishing had to be good — which it was. Over time, we became friends and McGuane, who was a successful writer from the get-go and had a small ranch in Montana, convinced me to move there. Soon after, he wrote the screenplay for The Missouri Breaks starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando and those actors started buying my paintings. We all became friends and the circle just kept getting bigger. Warren Oates, Peter Fonda, Sam Peckinpah, Dennis Quaid, Jeff Bridges — they’d ask each other, “Where’d you get that painting?” and someone would answer, “Oh this guy Russ up the road did it.” So, they would drive up the road and buy my paintings. I never did have a gallery. By the way, probably 50,000 people have one of my paintings or lithographs, but only a handful are celebrities.
Let’s be honest: You have a history of financial ups and downs — and yet, many people were set back by the 2008 economic meltdown. What do you say to people who, like yourself, have suffered financially and emotionally? First, let me say, it’s hard. There’s no getting around it; at this age, it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. Without the moral and financial support of my friends, I do not think I would have made it this far. However, there’s a saying: “The universe will deliver what you set yourself up for.” If you’re negative and set yourself up for a plate of sh* t, you’ll get it. On the other hand, if you take a different tack and say I am going to be all right in spite of everything that has gone wrong, you’ll somehow work yourself back. You cannot keep saying “woe is me”; everyone has his problems. I just made up my mind to not dwell on my problems. And I lost many millions of dollars, a beautiful ranch, an island in the Yellowstone River area and my inventory of prints that was put up for collateral. I’ve just got to make some money and pay my way back out of this hole and now I’m working dawn to dusk to do it.