In Jackson Hole, the irrefutable, unmistakable muse for generations of visual artists has been the Tetons. In Big Sky, that landmark is Lone Mountain and in Bozeman, the Bridger Range.
Just east of Bozeman, painter, writer, restaurateur and incorrigibly addicted angler Russell Chatham became legend for his association with a different topographical feature, the Paradise Valley.
We all know of Paradise Valley for the Yellowstone River that runs through it from Yellowstone National Park to Livingston.
A lot of folks have also treated themselves to a sojourn at Chico Hot Springs before moseying into Livingston where Chatham for decades was a social fixture and held court at his signature restaurant.
Scores of residents throughout the Greater Yellowstone own original Chatham oil paintings and high-end lithographs, displaying them next to priceless works by French Impressionists and treasured Western artists like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Carl Rungius and George Catlin.Some of the notable private collectors in the region and beyond include Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Ted Turner, Jessica Lange, Margot Kidder, Jack Nicholson, Tom Brokaw, Jeff Bridges and Harrison Ford.
Chatham’s artistic life force was his grandfather, the great California muralist Gottardo Piazzoni. A few years ago, Chatham moved back to his childhood homeland in Northern California and recommenced painting where his extraordinary career began.
I asked one of Chatham’s closest friends, William Randolph Hearst III, to interpret Chatham. “You must understand that ‘Russell The Personality’ is a wholly separate character from the life of Russell Chatham the painter, though at the same time they are inseparable. No matter what he does, his adventure with it becomes larger than life,” Hearst said.
“As good a painter as he is,” Hearst added, “Russell’s an equally wonderful storyteller and devoted friend, an absolutely superb fisherman who might be among the best on the planet, an intrepid restaurant owner, gourmet cook, wine aficionado, writer, boutique book publisher and general roustabout.”
If any contemporary painter qualified as a genuine rock star in the Northern Rockies, it was Chatham, now a late septuagenarian.
Starting in the 1960s, he was among a group of artists who went to Paradise Valley to escape the rat race, to fish, and go about their own media adventures without being hassled.
Those figures included writers Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, the late William Hjortsberg and Richard Brautigan; actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Kidder, Warren Oates, Nicholson, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Sam Waterston; singer Jimmy Buffett; and director Sam Peckinpah, among others.
Chatham’s style of painting landscapes, known for its fleeting, muted, tonal bands of horizontal color, summons up moods of introspection rather than blushes of superficial sanguine cheeriness.
They evoke the feeling you get when you realize you’re getting older, and the sensation hits home when you take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror, thinking about the kind of life you’ve led.
When I asked Chatham to ponder that feeling, he 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,” he added. “People say it’s time to slow down, relax, go fishing. Well, I took the first 40 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.”
Given the times, he feels compelled to act upon a conviction he stated earlier in his life about the role of an artist. “The artist does not simply hold a mirror to society. If the world now is greedy, the artist must be generous,” he said. “If there is war and hate, he must be peaceful and loving. If the world is insane, he must offer sanity, and if the world is becoming a void, he must fill it with his soul.”
Chatham didn’t say it, but one could add that the artist’s challenge is really no different from the obligation of the viewer. If painting represents a near-religious experience for some, perhaps it’s not a bad thing to act on those kindly impulses.
Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.