Athin strip of light in Russell Chatham’s work “Fall Twilight” drew 20 fourth-graders to the large oil painting last week at the Yellowstone Art Museum.
The painting captures the way twilight changes the shapes of trees to make them look strange and a bit frightening, a stark contrast to the warmth of the golden sky. The students told Linda Ewert, YAM education director, that they had seen this happen before in their neighborhoods when the darkness distorts the familiar.
“It’s like walking outside at twilight and seeing all the shapes that are hard to define,” Ewert said. “It has this ephemeral feel to it. When you look at his paintings you think, ‘I’ve seen that. I feel that.’”
Chatham, now 75, spent 39 years painting moments like “Fall Twilight” when he lived in Livingston and Paradise Valley. He sought out views that weren’t the majestic, snow-capped mountains, even though he was surrounded by them. Rather, he explored the subtle changes of light on the land.
Chatham left Montana a bit abruptly in 2011, returning to his native San Francisco, a place he once complained was too crowded. When he arrived in Livingston in 1972, Chatham reunited with writer friends like Tom McGuane and William Hjortsberg, whom he met in California in the 1960s.
Chatham eventually purchased a 100-year-old homestead in Paradise Valley and spent many days fishing and cooking, in addition to writing and painting his surroundings.
He once said when his paintings
didn’t sell, his words did. Chatham has written hundreds of magazine articles, reviews, short stories and essays about fly-fishing, bird hunting and conservation and has been published in dozens of magazines, including Sports Illustrated and Outside.
Chatham stayed busy in Montana, completing paintings to hang in 400 solo exhibits across the U.S., Asia and Europe, and others that were purchased by celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford.
His love of cooking prompted him to open Chatham’s Livingston Bar & Grille, which operated for years on Livingston’s main drag. He also ran a now-defunct publishing company, the Clark City Press, and was renowned for making lithograph prints.
It was the print operation that prompted Ewert to visit Chatham in 2006 when she took a group of docents from the YAM to see his Livingston facility. Chatham, dressed in his usual outfit of bib overalls and a T-shirt, was a gracious and talkative host, Ewert said.
“He really appreciated people who were interested and cared about art and who were trying to understand it,” Ewert said. “I always think that is the best kind of artist.”
Ewert said Chatham went out of his way to show the docents around his lithograph printing facility and then took them all out to lunch at his restaurant.
“He was a genial man, smart and animated,” Ewert said. “A lot of artists aren’t people people, but he was.”
The YAM has two Chatham paintings in its permanent collection, “Fall Twilight,” which is hanging in the “Boundless Visions” exhibit on the museum’s first floor, and the other, “March Evening,” which hangs in YAM executive director Robyn Peterson’s office. The YAM also has a 12-piece lithograph series, “Missouri Headwaters,” which has one print representing each month of the year.
“Chatham developed his own recognizable style, an atmospheric and serene style that lent itself well to conveying a sense of openness and solitude that are so often associated with Montana,” Peterson said. “I hope he’s painting now. The paintings are quite simply beautiful.”
Chatham developed a close relationship with Rocky Mountain College and in 2010 he worked with art students on campus and was honored by former president Michael Mace at a President’s Dinner.
Helori Graff, owner and president of Artcraft Printers in Bozeman, donated 16 lithographs to Rocky in 2010, and the original idea was for the works to hang in the new science building, pairing science and art. They have since been put in storage and RMC president Bob Wilmouth said an upcoming strategic plan of the college will determine what the campus will do with the prints, which are worth thousands of dollars.
“He’s one of the true friends of Rocky,” Wilmouth said. “He’s a pro, just look at the artwork. I love the colors and the calmness of it.”
Graff, who lives in Bozeman, has not seen Chatham since he returned to California, but she remembers him as a charming, charismatic man.
“He’s a master of light and color and water. The landscapes just take your breath away,” Graff said.
Rocky board member Barb Skelton, who helped arrange Graff’s gift to Rocky, said Chatham is honest and honorable. If he didn’t think a painting was worthy of selling, he refused to sell it.
“He had a painting of some cows that I wanted in the worst way, but he said, ‘I can’t sell that to you.’ He didn’t like the way the cows looked,” Skelton said.
She eventually bought a different painting of cattle that Chatham thought was more worthy of a faithful admirer like Skelton.
“His artwork just makes me feel good,” Skelton said.
Chatham’s maternal grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni, was a famous mural artist in San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s. Chatham has said he grew up lonely and cherished the summers he spent at his grandfather’s California spread, fishing and drawing.
Chatham was primarily a self-taught artist who worked as a sign painter when he was a young man in California. He painted at least one mural in Montana at the Bank of the Rockies in Helena as a way to repay the banker, Mike Grove.
While many Montana fans of Chatham and his art have lost contact with him, you can still purchase a few of his lithographs at Rimrock Art & Frame. Their prices range from $700 to thousands of dollars each.
Chatham is good at so many things — writing, fishing, publishing, print and, most of all, painting — it is unimaginable that he could ever quell that creative urge and disappear.