R.I.P., Russell Chatham

“Crazy Mountains in March” by Russell Chatham, 1991.

The IRS can’t get Russell Chatham now. He’s skedaddled with his paints and brushes, vamoosed to a secret place where his creditors will never find him.

His flight west hasn’t interested the big boys yet. The New York Times, once Johnny-on-the-spot when it came to obits, hasn’t uttered a peep.

But his old hometown newspaper finally got around to writing a little something, days after the San Francisco Chronicle noted his passing.

It was apparently the dementia that got him, among other things. Once a Montanan and rounder, an artist and writer whose running mates included the likes of Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, and Rick Bass, Chatham died Nov. 10 in a memory-care facility in Marin County, Calif. He was 80.

Chatham’s landscapes adorn many a book cover, when they aren’t busy elsewhere, selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Indeed, it’s hard to find a Harrison book without one, and he dedicated “Sundog” to Chatham.

The artist also makes frequent guest appearances in Harrison’s essays. While fly-fishing for billfish off Costa Rica both men contracted bad cases of turista, but Chatham’s was by far the champeen, if you believe Harrison. In “The Tugboats of Costa Rica,” he wrote:

“I shall never forget his pathetic yelp in the night as he pooped his bed during a feverish dream about trying to eat a giant Mindanao clam that wouldn’t stop moving,” Harrison wrote. “This artist is a walking field day for a psychotherapists’ convention.”

In his essay “Seasons Through the Net” McGuane described Chatham as “a man who has ruined his life with sport,” a relentless angler and shootist “who “skulks from his home at all hours with gun or rod.”

“Russ never thought of painting as a career. It was just something he did,” said McGuane.

Bass called him “the greatest living landscape painter in America, famous for his outlandish appetites for food, wine, travel, art, music, literature, and the sporting life.”

And Chatham? He was busy doing the somethings he did, sport and art. Working without a net. Everything else would have to take care of itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” he told Charles Schultz for the Point Reyes Light. “If any money crosses my path, it is gone faster than butter in an oven. I have no savings, no retirement. I have whatever’s in my wallet. To a lot of people that would be frightening.”

He added: “The artist has absolutely no safety net.”

This didn’t mean that he was unaware of the ground down there waiting for him. In a chat with Todd Wilkinson for the Mountain Journal, Chatham said:

“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 twenties. People say it’s time to slow down, relax, go fishing. Well, I took the first forty 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.”

It’s fish-thirty, Russell. Time to wet a line.

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9 Responses to “R.I.P., Russell Chatham”

  1. SAO’ Says:

    More sad news today:

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ah, Poupou, “The Eternal Second.” We shall not see his like again.

    • khal spencer Says:

      Its tough to have your halcyon years coincide with the career of Eddy Merckx, ain’t it? Here with Anquetil

      • SAO' Says:

        Velo Press had this great coffee table book with an amazing graphic of every significant tour rider. Can’t find mine, probably donated it. Had a chart that color coded each rider’s tour journey, with stage wins, days in a jersey, and final placement on equal footing. Really highlighted guys like Raymond who never won but were in the damn fight every day.

  2. SAO' Says:

    Like butter in the oven … reminds me of one of my top ten sports quotes that aren’t about sports. George Best, asked where his money went: “I spent some on women, booze, and cars, and the rest I wasted.”

  3. SAO' Says:

    “ 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. ”

    Loved that line. But you gotta be our age to get it, I guess.

    “We all have a programmed streaming service playlist running inside us, but these days my internal phone is flashing ‘low power mode.’ ”

    Nope, doesn’t quite do it.

  4. Lowell Nault Says:

    Russel Chatham was a classmate of mine at Drake High School in San Anselmo. He lived just up the road from me. I never got to know him very well. I rediscovered him a dozen years ago when I read an article of his in Fly Fisherman magazine. I tried to look him up at his restaurant as well as his gallery in Livingston, MT, but he had recently moved back to Marin County. We exchanged a couple emails, but that was it. Regretfully, we never again met up!

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