Chatham comes home, stakes future on feed barn

02/16/2012

Last Friday, in a small second-floor studio near Perry’s Deli, in Inverness Park, the 72-year-old landscape artist Russell Chatham sat perched on a stool, staring at a sheet of plain white printer paper tacked to the wall. Below it leaned a dozen half-finished paintings and unvarnished wooden frames. On the sheet was a message, scrawled in blue and green Sharpie, and it read, “You have 52 days left.”

Dressed in his standard denim overalls and muted gray tee, Chatham recited the message out loud as a reminder of the time he had left to complete a collection for his forthcoming exhibit at Toby’s Feed Barn. Many of the nearly 30 pieces, which range in size from no larger than an outstretched hand to as big as a bed, have a considerable ways to go. “It’s going to take some doing to finish this up in 52 days, I’ll tell you that right now,” Chatham said. Then he furrowed his brow. “But I will do it.”

Considering the six decades in which Chatham has been capturing vast open spaces on canvas, and the even longer span in which he has been thinking about doing it, there is reason to believe he will finish in time. But this show, unlike others he has had in the past, is not simply about the art; it is also about the return of a man to the place he once called home.

Chatham grew up in San Francisco, in a grand two-story house he later described as “quintessential San Francisco piss elegance.” A scrawny child disillusioned with school, he spent much of his early days on the living room couch, gazing at a hill and a field, which his grandfather, the acclaimed landscape artist Gottardo Piazzoni, had painted years before. “The tilled ground in the foreground held my child’s attention as would looking into a fire, and the architectural cloud formation in the sky seemed to speak in a voice from above,” he once wrote.

In 1949, the family moved to San Anselmo, and Chatham set up shop in his parents’ new basement, drawing, painting, and looking at books. “I always loved to read as a kid, even more so than painting,” he said. “But painting was something that came more easily to me.”

When stifled by the basement’s drab decor, Chatham ventured outdoors to explore the hills and to fish and hunt. He spent a summer working at his father’s lumberyard, using the compensation to purchase an old Ford, which he began driving regularly to West Marin to fish and gather fodder for future paintings.

Carpentry, developed under his father’s guard, became an important educational tool for Chatham: it taught him that, in order to construct a moving work of art, one must first understand how to break down an image into its composite parts. It’s not unlike writing, he said, recalling a story about Hunter S. Thompson a journalism professor once told him: “One of the things Hunter did when he was young was he typed the entire manuscript of The Great Gatsby. And when [the professor] found out, he asked, ‘Good lord, why would you do that?’ And Hunter looked at him and said, ‘I just wanted to see what it felt like to write it.’”

Following a friend’s tragic death in the early 1970s, Chatham suffered a self-described meltdown. He built a camper shell for his truck and moved into it with his soon-to-be second wife. “We found jobs hand-lettering throwaway grocery ads for the Owl Printing Company,” he wrote. “Fresh bass was a big item in our diet.”

In 1972, the two moved to Livingston, Montana, a small town northeast of Yellowstone National Park. It was there that Chatham made a name for himself as a painter and small-town eccentric. “He owned all these old cars and they seemed to be placed randomly all around Livingston,” said friend Jack Turner. “It was like, wherever you were you might just get in one and go somewhere and then drop it off for the next person.” Chatham also purchased the old schoolhouse and filled one room entirely with fishing reels.

In the early days, Chatham’s biggest patrons were other artists—among them, the novelists Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane and the poet Dan Gerber. By 1980 Chatham had saved enough to travel to Paris, where, after 20 minutes in the Louvre, he “teared up, began to hyperventilate, and had to race to a café in search of wine.”

The experience embodied exactly what Chatham hoped—and still hopes—to accomplish through his art. “I want to pour so much into a picture that when someone looks at it they burst into tears,” he said. “To me, that’s a tremendous goal.” A goal, he added, that is often ignored. “Look at all this shit that’s in the museums that people are producing today, and all these weird things with a stripe down the middle or a black circle,” he said. “Is that what you want hanging at the foot of your death bed? Not me. I want something that speaks to some larger sense of life.”

Chatham started spending winters back in Marin, where, unlike Livingston, the ambient temperature was a positive number and locomotives weren’t routinely blown off track by gale-force winds. But money became tight and he returned to Montana fulltime to try once and for all to put his finances in order. The attempt proved unsuccessful, partly because Chatham failed to pay his income taxes or respond to frequent inquiries from the IRS. “For the following four years I threw out everything that arrived in the mail which had anything to do with banking or the government,” he wrote. “I had turned the fan on high, and it was just waiting for the poop to arrive.”

But the decades passed and Chatham managed to survive financially, at least until 2008, when the housing market collapsed. “When the economy tanked I had done some things that some people would say I shouldn’t have done, which was buy a lot of land,” he said. “I could pay for it as long as things were going right, which they weren’t. When my income crashed I lost more than most people will ever have.”

Financial catastrophe and an intolerable winter climate ultimately led Chatham to his homecoming early last year. He found a sizable apartment to rent in Marshall, in addition to the studio in Inverness Park, and has since gone to work enveloping himself in his craft.

The one-room gallery in the back of Toby’s may pale in comparison to the Louvre, Chatham admits, but at some point it’s less about the venue and more about what one does with it. “It’s like, I was talking with some people I know from New York about the show and they said, ‘That’s great, where is it going to be?’ And I said, ‘It’s going to be in Toby’s Feed Barn; it’s going to be in a barn where they sell hay.’ Yeah, I’d like to have these paintings hanging in the Legion of Honor, but that’s not an option that’s open right now. So I’ll just turn Toby’s Feed Barn into that place in a way.”

Chatham also understands the importance of recognizing a venue for exactly what it is. “When you make a brush stroke and it’s a hill, a tree or a figure, it has to be visible that that’s what it is, but it also has to be a brush stroke,” he said. “The Chinese have a saying that if a work of art is too realistic it’s banal and if it’s too abstract it’s meaningless.”

Inside the studio, Chatham rose from his stool and walked to a small, unfinished piece of a hill eclipsing a soft red sunset. “It’s like a young writer who’s written a novel and wants to get it published,” he said, carrying the piece back to his seat. “Well, it’s hard, and so what should you do? Well, first of all you should try, and second of all you should start the next novel. Don’t sit there waiting for the first one to get published. Get back to work.”