Chatham’s changing landscapes |

Chatham’s changing landscapes

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

San Anselmo is a prosperous place. A town of 12,000 in the center of California’s picturesque Marin County, bordered by the Muir Woods National Monument, and a few miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and all that San Francisco has to offer, San Anselmo has an enviable median family income of more than $86,000.Some 60 years ago, when Russell Chatham was growing up there, San Anselmo had yet to discover such fortune. The Chatham family was poor, poor enough that having enough to eat was never a given. What young Russell did have, though, was artistic ability, a desire to paint, and at least enough materials that from the age of 7, he was constantly painting and drawing. Despite the hardscrabble conditions, Chatham learned an important lesson early on, not to mix art with commerce. Among the family’s possessions were numerous paintings made by Chatham’s maternal grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni. Piazzoni had been a successful landscape artist in his lifetime; Chatham considers his grandfather one of the great figures of American painting. But the work he left behind was never seen as a commodity: “My mother and her sister never discussed selling those paintings, or how much they were worth,” said the 63-year-old Chatham.Chatham took that idea to heart. For much of his adult life, Chatham has painted for pleasure, and taken on assorted other jobs to cover the bills. Well into his 40s, Chatham made his living as a writer and carpenter, while his paintings and prints cost as much as they brought in. Still, Chatham kept painting, and never asked his art to pay its own way. That approach allowed Chatham to continue putting an uncompromised vision of the landscape – moody, with muted colors and fuzzy detail – onto the canvas. Eventually, he gained recognition for his art: Chatham’s work has been exhibited across the world and documented in a series of books; he has been profiled in Esquire, Southwest Art and U.S. Art. “For so many years, I made my living doing something else,” said the 63-year-old Chatham, who has an exhibit of work, mostly lithograph prints, at the Woody Creek Store and Gallery. “For a long time, I made my living writing, writing about fishing and other things. I was always confident I could make a living, so I never had to look at the art and think, ‘Well, if I change something, I’ll be able to sell these and make some money.'”Chatham considers it his great fortune that he never had to cater to the marketplace, and always felt free to paint what he pleased. “I don’t have to look for a common denominator, or make my vision simpler,” he said. Becoming his own man But while his art was free of commercial considerations, Chatham wasn’t able to experience full freedom as an artist. A constant presence, peering over his shoulder at everything he painted or printed, was the ghost of his grandfather. Gottardo Piazzoni, who died when Chatham was a child, was more than a noted landscape painter to his grandson. In Chatham’s mind, Piazzoni was an unshakable specter, a conjured critic who weighed in on everything Chatham did. It was not the ideal experience of artistic freedom. “The biggest issue for me in my artistic life was to discover who I was apart from my grandfather,” said Chatham, a self-taught artist. “He was such an artist, and the primary influence on my life was his artistic work. It was a huge influence on my early work, and it still is today.”Two years ago, much to his surprise, Chatham did in fact have that moment of self-discovery. San Francisco’s Museo ItaloAmericano had a retrospective exhibit of Piazzoni’s work, and Chatham was shocked by the vast distance between his grandfather’s art and his own. Chatham had been emancipated from his past all along, but it took decades to realize it.”I remember going to see it, and my aunt and all the family was there,” said Chatham. “What struck me, after seeing this work my whole life, is, I’m not him. I barely understood what he was doing. And this whole time I thought I was emulating him.”It was so freeing: ‘Don’t hold back on making an artistic statement, just because it’s not what he would have done.’ And that’s allowed me to do things in the last few years I never would have dreamed of doing before. Now I feel when I decide to do something, I can do anything and not think, ‘Is this going to be good enough for Papa?’ Because he’s dead.”The revelation came amidst other monumental shifts in Chatham’s life. Reputed as a bon vivant with a flair for excess, Chatham has downshifted of late. Speaking of his work – as well as jazz, fishing and wine, topics with which he is well-acquainted – Chatham now comes off as thoughtful and eloquent, rather than reckless. The one lingering vestige of his wild past is his use of the word “fuckin,'” which is frequent.”If you told me three years ago I’d be walking three miles and pumping something called Boflex and not drinking six glasses of gin a day, I’d have thought you were crazy,” he said. “Wine has an upside. A couple of glasses makes me feel good.”For whatever combination of reasons, Chatham finds himself a better artist now than he ever was. “I think the paintings I’ve done in the last few years are many, many percent better than anything I’ve done in my life,” he said. “It takes me longer to do them – and I think that’s because it takes more to satisfy me now. I don’t quit them; I stay with them for as long as it takes.”Artistic influencesThe influence of grandpa Gottardo has hardly been without its benefits for Chatham. In fact, Chatham says it is the strength of that influence that has made him the artist he is. “If your influences are weak, you will be weak as an artist,” said Chatham. “It’s like somebody interested in Paganini, but who’s also interested in Mozart: that’s a long stretch. It doesn’t give you any direction; it doesn’t give you any strength. Because my grandfather was such a good painter, it was easy to stay under his influence for a long time, to lean on him as a yardstick.”As strong as his grandfather’s influence is, equally powerful has been the effect of the Rocky Mountains, Chatham’s adopted home for more than three decades. After spending his younger years in and around San Anselmo, Chatham moved to Livingston, Mont., in 1972 at the age of 33. He has lived there since, drawing inspiration from the rivers, skies, mountains and meadows of the Rockies. By his count, Chatham has made thousands of portraits and figure drawings during his painting life. Those, however, are for practice, to develop hand-eye coordination and confidence, and not for public consumption.”The landscape, though – I’m very emotionally attached to it,” he said. “Because if I have a religion, it has more to do with the primitive religions, Native Americans and so on, whose religious beliefs are completely tied to the natural world. “Goethe said: ‘Nature is the living visible garment of God.’ God is in the air, the water, the fire, the earth, the creatures. In reality, no one knows what religions is. But for me, it isn’t a guy with a beard on a cloud.”Chatham has created a signature style with his landscapes. Along with the moodiness and the quiet earth tones, Chatham has made the atmosphere a palpable presence in his work. The air can be seen, almost felt. His paintings aren’t just of rivers, mountains and moons, but also of the space between the objects and the artist’s point of view. “In conventional landscape painting, the viewer and the artist are accustomed to thinking in terms of subject: What’s the subject of this – trees, skies, hills,” he said. “But it’s actually atmosphere, air. I think it’s important to let the viewer break through the picture plane and into a believable picture space. If a work is successful, if it’s compelling, that’s what it does – the person can go in that window and live inside that space. And to do that, there has to be air to live in.”Chatham’s landscapes are not site-specific. Rather he sketches certain areas – on his recent visit, Chatham visited the Roaring Fork River for a series of prints on Colorado rivers – then retreats to a windowless studio to make landscapes from memory. But though his landscapes may not be literal transcriptions, they have, when successful, an element of reality, of recognizability.”All artists strive for their version of reality,” he said. “I keep working on something ’til it looks real to me. It comes down to whether your own version of reality is translatable. When I’m successful, when I make something I think is good, people can access it.”Chatham has never stopped looking for different ways to connect with people. In the early 1980s he expanded into printmaking; he is now considered one of the world’s finest lithographers. In 1989, he founded Clark City Press, which has published books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art and children’s stories. He is at work on a book about fishing, and on essays for a handful of art books.And in 1996, he opened Chatham’s Livingston Bar & Grille, with Chatham in the position of “aesthetic director.” The restaurant, whose cuisine is inspired by the simplicity of Mediterranean cooking, has earned a reputation as one of the finest in the Rocky Mountains. The establishment, says Chatham, draws a mix of “unsophisticated local people and very sophisticated people from somewhere else.” What unites them is a fondness for wine: “We sell more wine than any other restaurant in Montana can dream of selling,” says Chatham.It may comes as a surprise, though, that Chatham’s doesn’t serve American wine. Chatham much prefers wines from Europe – France, Italy and especially Spain – where winemaking is considered more an art than a commodity.”California used to have great wines,” said Chatham. “But in California, wine has become too much of a business. It’s lost its soul.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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