Russell Chatham, fly fisherman and painter, dies at 80

David Briggs
Russell Chatham exhibited extraordinary focus and attention to detail. He also wanted to make art that anyone could afford, hoping to sell prints at a Point Reyes gallery that he was close to opening.  
11/26/2019

Russell Chatham, a record-breaking fly fisherman whose landscape paintings hang in the homes of movie stars and adorn high-end art collections, died on Nov. 10 after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

Russell grew up in Marin, where he cemented his love of painting, fishing, hunting and storytelling at an early age. During his four decades in Livingston, Mont. he owned a restaurant, an art gallery and a publishing company, wrote articles for sporting magazines and authored four books on fishing. In 2011, he returned to West Marin, where he was close to opening a gallery of his work in Point Reyes Station at the time of his death.

“He had a supreme confidence in his own abilities, and he just knew whatever he put his mind to, it was going to be good. And by god, it usually was,” said Thomas Wood, Russell’s cousin. “Talk about leading a full life—a life packed with adventure, ambition and achievement. It’s hard to think of anyone who has lived a more complicated and eventful life.”

Russell was born on Oct. 27, 1939 in San Francisco. His father, an Englishman, graduated from Stanford University and worked in lumber; his mother came from a poor family of Swiss immigrants. “Which is why I’m comfortable sleeping under a trestle and going to dinner in a castle,” he once said in an interview.

His mother’s father, Gottardo Piazzoni, was a prolific and respected landscape painter who influenced Russell more than anyone. Although Gottardo died when Russell was 5, his paintings hung on the walls of Russell’s childhood home. “The influence was not so much stylistic, but just the concept of being true to yourself and that being a real artist meant having integrity and values,” Thomas said.

Growing up, Thomas and Russell spent their summers at a family ranch in Carmel Valley, where Russell learned to paint at age 7. Thomas’s parents supplied them with oil paints and easels, and the children depicted the surrounding hills. In what became a tradition, the family tacked their paintings up on the porch to dry, and neighbors would come by to see their work. 

“It became a kind of mini gallery,” said Thomas, himself a painter with a gallery in Nicasio. “We weren’t too critical about it—we just kept painting.”

Russell’s passion for fishing was also realized at a young age. His father brought him on weekends to Lagunitas Creek to fish and swim, and Thomas’s parents would take them to their cabin on the Russian River. As an adolescent, Russell bought the best fishing gear and rode to the creek on a bicycle whenever he could. “He really took it to another level,” Thomas said. “He was obsessed.” 

Russell wrote, “I couldn’t have put it into words of course, but I was falling in love with the aqueous world that captivates some of us and scarcely exists for others.”

When Russell was 10, his family moved to the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood in San Anselmo. It was rural enough that he could shoot guns in the backyard without prompting any complaints. His mother would take him to visit her uncle, Parisian artist Maurice Del Mue, in Forest Knolls, and they would drive together through the Nicasio Valley to the French cheese factory.

“I’d have [my mother] pull over so I could make sketches from the front seat, and if the season was right, there were places I could get out, walk to the creek to watch thousands of salmon hard at their procreation ritual,” he wrote in the Light. “When I turned 16 in 1955, I immediately bought a car and booked out to West Marin, where I spent the following 15 years hunting, fishing and painting nearly every day.”

He lived periodically in Nicasio, Forest Knolls and Marshall, even at one point in his camper truck. He married printmaker Doris Clark when he was 19 years old and had his first daughter, Gina, in 1963. Russell took up his father’s love of bird hunting and fished alongside fellow writers and sportsmen, including Bill Schaadt, Thomas McGuane and William “Gatz” Hjortsberg.

Russell wrote about fishing in the Angler’s Journal, Sports Illustrated and other magazines. He told stories with vivid detail, such as the time in 1966 when he caught a world-record 36-pound striped bass on a fly tackle in the San Francisco Bay.

In a 1973 edition of Sports Illustrated, he recounted reeling in that fish: “The take is authoritative and my response lifts the clearly visible fly line from the water, curving it abruptly as a sheet of droplets limns the fish’s first long run. It is not a frenetic battle as the striper stays deep, far from the boat. But I am not inclined to carry out these contests gently and soon the fish is nearby. Once, glowering, it rushes away beneath a crescent of spray only to be turned in a vertical wallow. Nothing in their lives really prepares fish to deal with the relentless harassment of being hooked.”

One year, Thomas McGuane returned home after a vacation in Montana and told his friends about Livingston, a remote town with excellent fishing and hunting where they could pursue their careers as writers and painters. Development and the  accompanying financial pressures of the Bay Area were getting to them.

In 1972, shortly after a second marriage—to typesetter Mary Fanning—and the birth of his second daughter, Lea, Russell moved to Livingston. He had a handshake 99-year lease for a house at the base of protected wilderness, where Lea still lives. He joined Gatz, Thomas and several other sportsmen, painters and writers raising their families and supporting each other’s crafts. Like West Marin, Livingston is known for its natural beauty, ranching, tourism and art scene—which Russell helped to create. 

Still during his first years in Livingston, Russell struggled to get a feel for painting Montana. He routinely returned to California in the winter and painted its marshes, streams and lakes from memory at his home studio. He struggled with money, too, but that was something he mentally prepared for when he chose the life of an artist.

“My grandfather was dirt poor his whole life,” Russell said in an interview. “I never associated being an artist with making a living. In fact, I assumed it was impossible, because I never knew anyone who did… I just loved painting, and never thought of it as a profession. When I began to think, ‘This is what I am going to do,’ I had to grit my teeth and accept that I was going to be dirt poor my whole life.”

Hunting, gardening and bartering with his artwork allowed Russell to live simply. “A lot of people who have my dad’s paintings, they got it for a cord of wood or for babysitting or for letting my parents borrow their car,” Lea said.

After a couple of years, Russell became more comfortable painting the vastness of his adopted state, and he learned to find the color in winter.

In the early 1980s, his career started to take off. Livingston, with its cache of writers, was becoming connected to Hollywood. Movies were shot there, bringing celebrities along with them, and Livingston became a well-known place for people to find landscape art of Montana. 

Jack Nicholson, already known as an art collector, bought Russell’s work, as did the likes of Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Jessica Lange. Russell’s paintings sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and were featured in museums and galleries across the United States.

At a studio space in a downtown warehouse, he worked on multiple paintings at once. He placed scaffolding on one wall for large oil works and had tables for smaller acrylic painting. The larger works suited Montana, with its snow-capped mountains and valleys. He took months and sometimes years to finish a single painting, working with the three primary colors, black and white. “He was very, very focused and worked long hours, often seven days a week,” Lea said. 

Russell explained, “I want to pour so much into a picture that when someone looks at it, they burst into tears. To me that’s a tremendous goal.”

Lea said he didn’t like interruptions, but that he always went out for lunch or dinner. After dinner, he found time to write about fishing.

To quench the demand for his work, Russell began producing lithographs and, as with most of his undertakings, he went all out. His lithographs were unique in that he used 30 or 40 layers of color; most lithography uses three or four. With the additional colors, the prints take longer to produce but develop a richer image.

He produced his first lithographs in Seattle, at a studio with a large press, and eventually bought the bus-sized press and moved it to Montana. Employees oversaw the production and worldwide distribution of more than 100 original lithographs. The business allowed him to spend time knocking paintings off his long waiting list for commissioned work.

Although it wasn’t his strong suit, Russell found success in several business ventures. Already a fine cook, he opened a downtown steakhouse, Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill. As the executive chef, he created a gourmet menu in a refurbished space decorated with his own paintings and illuminated with museum lighting. 

A few doors down was Chatham Fine Art, a gallery where he hung original lithographs, paintings, posters, book covers and drawings. His base of collectors grew.

And, after becoming discouraged with larger publishers, he started a publishing company, Clark City Press, which published his four books, a collection of 100 paintings, and non-fiction work by other authors dealing with the natural world.

Russell never went too long without returning to the Bay Area, partly due to Montana’s long winters. He met his third wife, Suzanne Porter, in the 1980s in San Francisco. They kept her apartment there and had two children, Rebecca and Paul.

Russell made a lot of money in his life, but he also spent a lot. As Livingston became a popular vacation destination, the cost of housing and land rose dramatically. Russell tried to take advantage of that momentum through land purchases, but when the recession hit, values plummeted, and Russell lost any money he had. 

“That same ‘go big or go home’ attitude goes the other way,” Lea said. “My dad was a great artist and a visionary person, but business was not really his forte.”

Lea said Russell always thought he would return to California, but feeling like he was going back because he had failed was difficult for him. He rented a house in Marshall and a studio in Inverness Park, where he caught up on commissioned work. He had a dream of opening a gallery like the one he had in Livingston.

In West Marin, Russell took principled stands on local matters. He pushed back on the way people talk about streams, claimed the Department of Fish and Wildlife was mismanaging the watershed, and blamed large-scale ocean fishing—not environmental degradation of streams—for the decline in salmon and trout.

He wrote an essay giving advice for young painters: only do it if you feel a primal calling, avoid institutional education, choose your heroes carefully, never forget you are a sworn enemy of the establishment and don’t watch television.

A few years ago, Russell leased a gallery space downtown and bought a house in Point Reyes Station. Russell had a specific vision for his gallery, and he kept changing and adding elements. He was getting close to hanging paintings; already, the walls were painted, the rugs were laid and the lighting was installed.

He had other projects, too. Because his paintings were only accessible to big collectors, he bought a high-end printer to create ink reproductions at an affordable price. He was working on a book about fishing on the San Francisco Bay and had hired a personal assistant this summer, but his declining health took over.

In early 2018, a major infection led to sepsis. Russell was in and out of the hospital for the next year; just when it seemed like he was rebounding, he was back in the hospital again. His family tried to bring him home, but the care he needed was too complex. 

In September, Russell moved to a facility in the South Bay Area, and his family canceled the lease on the gallery space. “That was pretty heartbreaking for him,” Lea said. “He was hoping to recover so he could finish the gallery.”

At the end of his life, Thomas said it seemed like he didn’t realize how sick he was. “That was part of his attitude his whole life,” he said. “Nothing seemed to stop him… They call people larger than life, but in his case, I think that really fits.”

 

Russell is survived by his daughters, Lea Chatham and Rebecca Chatham-Vazquez; his son, Paul Chatham; his sister, Elizabeth Carpenter; and his granddaughter, Della McCann. A memorial will be held next year.