Russell Chatham's Big Sky Country : A Western Landscape Artist Finds a Loyal Following Among the Hip and Famous

Van Gordon Sauter is a Los Angeles print and television journalist.

THE DERELICT, TWO-TONE '74 Olds careens down the narrow rural road, the driver oblivious to its lethal curves and undulations, focusing instead on the vista of a broad, green pasture sloping down to the cotton woods that escort the Yellowstone River. The river sparkles through the foliage on its mad rush out of Yellowstone National Park through this valley to the flatland of eastern Montana, beyond which it embraces the legendary Missouri. The river, framed here by the Absarokas and the Gallatins, flows out of the Tetons and initially points north toward the Crazies. This stretch of the Yellowstone is mountain country.

It is a land of history and legend. The mountain men. Lewis and Clark. Indians racing the cavalry for the Canadian border. Calamity Jane. Frenzied settlers grubbing in the gravel of numbingly cold creeks for nuggets. Great herds of cattle. It is a serious land, where a walk away from the river, up into the hills, takes one into the embracing, yet menacing, silence and isolation of true wilderness.

The driver turns off the road and heads up along Deep Creek, past the occasional cabin, to the point where the wheel ruts give out and the land is surrendered to the bear and mountain lion and moose and deer. He works here, a few feet from the surging creek, in a small windowless cabin that some forgotten soul erected nearly a century ago. The caulking is new, there is now electricity, and three skylights have been opened to allow the high-country northern light to fall on his canvases.

When California closed in around him, when Marin County tipped over into a whirl of suburbia and kitsch, Russell Chatham came to this country up on Deep Creek to paint.

Over the last several years his brooding landscapes have attracted a unique and intelligent audience of collectors who find in them an almost mythic representation of the West in its natural state. There are no cowboys in pastel shirts hunched around a campfire, or gaudily painted braves running an exhausted buffalo down. There are only trees and looming hills and pasture and ramshackle ranch buildings and skies that can be welcoming or intimidating. Frequently there is water, enticing glimpses of the rivers that made the land accessible and livable. On a summer day in Los Angeles, the air thick with grimy heat, the hills brown with arid exhaustion, a glance at one of his works has the bracing effect of splashing your face with handfuls of water from the mountain snowmelt.

The art captures the moods of an area where the incessant battle between the mountains and the weather results in single days that seem to contain all the seasons; where the ever capricious wind and sky and temperature can daily drive the land and its tenants through a wrenching series of tormented changes.

The man and his environment are inseparable. Chatham is a mountain man, large and shambling, adroit and comfortable in the outdoors. Sliding along a muddy ranch road, he can recommend where to hike back to the ridges and hunt Hungarian partridge or sharp-tail grouse, or where to wade into the river to reach hold of cutthroat trout. But as he talks, he unconsciously scans the landscape, rearranges it in his mind. He bunches clusters of trees together; accentuates a bend in the river; introduces a thin veil of snow that blurs with the low clouds, obscures the mountains and wraps the land in the opaqueness of an afternoon snow squall in early spring.

Russell Chatham has been painting virtually all his 47 years. It was part of his youth, if not his genes. His grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni, a Swiss-Italian painter, did the 14 large murals in the San Francisco Public Library. While growing up in the Bay Area, Chatham was the officially designated high school geek--shy and awkward, more comfortable fishing and hunting and painting than going to school and mingling. He bummed around Marin and the rest of Northern California, painting, writing, drinking, getting married and divorced, bonding fast with a couple of writers named Thomas McGuane and William Hjortsberg. But he grew weary of evading the Marin gentrifiers and seeing developers chew up the open land. Chatham decided to abandon California. His friend McGuane had moved to a ranch on Deep Creek and urged Chatham to follow. In 1972, Chatham piled everything he owned into a 1949 Chevrolet pickup and, with his second wife, pushed off for the Rockies.

"If I could pick the place and the condition for living," he says, "I would want to live in Marin County the way it was when I grew up. Like (screenwriter) Robert Towne says he would like to live in Los Angeles the way it was 50 years ago. You can't do that. The way we live here (in Montana) now reminds me of how it was in Marin--it is rural, but not Alaska. This is a perfect sanctuary in a tough world."

But it was not always sanctuary.

"We were pretty severely poor when we came up here. But I was able to rent a ranch for $800 a year. When I got here, a lot of people liked my work. But they had less money than I did."

So began the swapping and trading. He exchanged his art for medical services, guns, food, fishing rods, car repairs, airplane tickets, even veterinary care for his pets. That resulted in a lot of dens and living rooms in Livingston being graced by art that now commands thousands of dollars in the marketplace. "By 1979, the guys working on the railroad here were doing better financially," he recalls. "You might go three or four months without selling a thing. You get a dink loan from the bank waiting for a painting to sell, and when it does, you have just enough to pay off the dink loan and start over."

Hollywood gave Chatham his big break. When some films were being shot in the valley, the artists and writers there began to mingle with visitors from Southern California. The link for Chatham was the novelist-poet Jim Harrison. Chatham's work graces the jackets of some of Harrison's books.

"Jack Nicholson in effect became a patron of Jim Harrison," Chatham says, "advancing him money while he did the novels. Jim kept saying to me that Jack wants to see something of yours. I thought Nicholson's interest in art was bull. I went down there to Los Angeles with a canvas thinking, 'What a waste of time.' But when I went into Nicholson's home I couldn't believe it.

"You can't believe the level of what he buys. His collection is hyper-good. He has a real taste for art. I don't know where he got it, but he has it. I've been to big collections, but they don't touch what Jack has put together."

Word spread. In a short period of time Chatham's work had been acquired by a fascinating range of people: Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam, Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty, George Plimpton, Ali McGraw, Ed Bradley, Jane Fonda, Don Johnson, Jimmy Buffett, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford, to name a few.

Chatham's output is relatively small. He is a man attracted to distractions. He and his third wife, Suzanne, have a 10-month-old daughter, Rebecca, and he's deep into clucking and cooing over the child. Then there are some local havens--the Owl Lounge, the Guest House and the Livingston Bar & Grill. Any one of those places can ensnare a man in conversation that takes hours to honorably conclude.

And finally, there is the lure of the outdoors--the fish and the birds.

Writing in Sports Illustrated, McGuane told of being on the river and looking up to see Chatham: "I . . . see my friend and neighbor, a painter, walking along the high cutback 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.'

" 'As you can see,' says the painter gesticulating strangely. 'I'm ready for anything. I spoiled half the day with work and errands. I have to pull things out of the fire before they go from bad to worse.' "

Speaking of his work, Chatham says: "I don't feel obligated to (paint) every day. I can go for a month without painting. Painting is much more absorbing than anything else. It is like being a novelist. He invents a world and its people. He may become one of those people for a period of time. With a painting you think it's real. You become obsessed with it."

His work is now finding a dollar market. The large oils sell for between $30,000 and $50,000. The smaller pieces start at $2,500, and the lithographs are at $1,800, a price that no doubt will soon start to escalate. But Chatham will probably never accept the financial potential available to him. He has walked away from a seven-figure-a-year contract with a printing firm that would like to increase the distribution of his work. He also shuns galleries, and, with few exceptions, declines to leave his valley.

But each year, as if on pilgrimage, he returns to California, to the old family spread. It covers about 1,000 acres in Carmel Valley, 20 miles from the ocean. He relishes trekking across the hills, savoring what he calls "a piece of California untouched by California."

"The essential difference between the country here and Carmel or Marin is scale. In California, it is easy to have an intimacy with the country," Chatham says. "But things here are seen at great distances. It's wide and open and tall. You've got to reduce it here, telescope it. The other essential difference is that the California hills are sensuous. They're like nudes in the way they roll and curve. Here, they're angular, cold, distant, even hostile."

In Montana, people tend to band together to surmount the physical challenge and isolation of the land. The people are generous and open. Livingston itself is a picture-book Western town where the ornate facades on Main Street bear dates such as 1890 and 1904. The mountains loom above the end of Main Street, and the local newspaper recently gave passing notice to the fact a black bear had to be removed from a backyard only a few blocks from downtown. Chatham keeps an office on the second floor of a downtown building, above Sax & Fryer, an enchanting bookstore that has served the town since 1883.

"At one time a lot of people thought Livingston was flashy," Chatham says. "It's funky here. That flashy stuff blew over us. Aspen is flashy. The people here are nice. In New York City, going to the post office is a nightmare. That stuff is pleasant here. You never want to go to the DMV in California; here it is fun. You see and chat with people you know."

Around town, Chatham is viewed as a curious mixture of celebrity and good ol' boy. Even in a town with some true Dust Bowl vehicles, he is hard to miss. His cars stand out. Wheeling the '74 Olds into the 6th Street Conoco gas station, he yells out the window: "Hey, Harlan, have you got a screwdriver so we can adjust the idle on this. It doesn't want to turn off." Even Chatham seems self-conscious about the car at this moment. The mighty engine pumps hysterically, causing the decaying frame to twitch and throb, like a once-proud beast in its death throes.

"This car," he says defensively, "reminds me of my soul. It has a lot of strings hanging from it. You know, I did get my wife a new car, what with the baby and these roads. We send off $300 a month or something. But this, this Olds cost $200." And over in Harlan's side lot is Chatham's '49 Chevy pickup, which sat there for three years until they recently found a new axle for it. "It still starts," boasts Chatham. Harlan, still trying to sedate the throbbing beast under the hood of the Olds, volunteers that the Chevy will soon be on the road again.

Back up at the studio are two other denizens that round out the Chatham fleet: A '65 Cadillac and a '47 Plymouth covered with bird feathers in the shed. Chatham gets into the Plymouth and tries to turn over the engine. There is an anguished grinding noise. "Haven't turned it over all winter," he shouts above the noise. More grinding. He begins to talk to the car, quietly, lovingly. It is the seductive mechanical foreplay of a person desperate to rekindle a spark of passion in an abandoned love. Finally, with the roar of a Beirut satchel charge, the Plymouth comes alive. Its exhaust blows up a torrent of leaves and bird feathers and vile fumes. Chatham's exultant cackle of joy pierces the chaos.

The Plymouth redeemed, he leaves the car and walks back a few feet to admire it. "Most cars are so small now I don't fit into them. But I keep these old cars because I presume at any given time one of them will be working."

Chatham sits on the porch of his studio, watching the shadows dye the hills a dark green, thinking about art. He had recently taken his wife to Europe. Peter and Becky Fonda, working in Rome on a movie, had gotten him access to the restoration work in the Sistine Chapel. He was allowed to climb the scaffolding to the ceiling.

"I saw that ceiling from one inch. I'll never get over it. I can't believe a human being did that. I'm a painter. I can usually look at a painting and know how the guy did it. But that ceiling! It's like it just appeared, like it wasn't done by a man."

Chatham, direct and self-effacing, feels that his work has a deep affinity with the land and its spirit. "It affirms there is something bigger out here than we are. I believe in some force around us. We call it God. Who knows what it is? But I guess that wouldn't be taken too seriously today on West 57th Street.

"Not everything in life can or should be explained or clear. It's like part of every painting should be incomplete . . . to be completed in the mind of the person who views it.

"I'm not capable of doing art on the level of the great art I've seen. I don't think I'm a great artist. But I am a good one. I can live with that."

The trees have now gone from dark green to black. The artist gets up and heads for the car, glancing at the hills, trying to freeze the colors in his mind. Tonight, he'll play with the baby, fix a Chinese dinner for his wife and a friend, and have a few drinks while watching the Lakers and Celtics. Tomorrow, if the wind is gentle, he'll fish the river, and maybe, later, paint, trying to seize on canvas the patina of colors in the trees as the sun falls to the west, beyond the river, past the Gallatins.

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