ALTA Q&A

‘You’re an Artist. That’s What You Do.’

Russell Chatham at his studio in Marin County, California. ”I paint everything from memory,” he says.
PAIGE GREEN
Russell Chatham at his studio in Marin County, California. ”I paint everything from memory,” he says.
In what would be his final interview, the famed Marin County–based landscape painter Russell Chatham tells Alta publisher Will Hearst where he finds inspiration, what it’s like to work on commission, and why Gauguin brought him to tears.

UPDATE: It was with sadness that we learned Russell Chatham passed away on November 10, 2019. This was his final interview.

Landscapes are notoriously easy to paint but exceedingly difficult to paint well. For Russell Chatham, the challenge was impossible to resist. There was no other way. Chatham is the grandson of San Francisco muralist Gottardo Piazzoni, and before he turned 20, he had found his calling in painting nature.

In a career that has spanned half a century, Chatham became famous for capturing Montana’s rugged vistas and California’s golden hillsides through an approach that seems to combine a muted, idealized reality and the stuff of dreams. His collectors include Hollywood names like Jessica Lange, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Redford. Along the way, he was married three times, and made a fortune from his paintings, book publishing, and running a restaurant—only to lose it all. Chatham steadfastly believed in following one’s heart.

In what would be the artist’s final interview, Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst sat down with Chatham as he reflected on the difficulties he endured as a young painter and how he’s depended on the love and support of the women in his life. (Disclosure: Hearst is a collector of Chatham’s paintings.)

WILL HEARST: As a little boy, did you think, “I like painting” or “This is what I want to do with my life”?

RUSSELL CHATHAM: When I was eight or nine, it was clear painting was a big deal to me, and so I did it on my own, and all through school I stayed at it relentlessly…through my teen years and through my 20s.

HEARST: Your grandfather Gottardo Piazzoni was a painter. Was your father a painter as well?

CHATHAM: No, he wasn’t. My father had an enormous amount of artistic talent, which he never used. Which was always very sad to me. He graduated from Stanford, and he was an intelligent person, and he could draw beautifully. And though he had some drawings that he had done at school, he never followed through on it. My grandfather disapproved, and Dad decided to take a menial job at the family business instead of following with literature or art or something. My grandfather was, as you well know, a great painter.

HEARST: Did you know him?

CHATHAM: Very slightly. I was five when he died. But I did see him frequently.

HEARST: But you saw his pictures in the family home?

CHATHAM: Oh, totally. And my mother’s sister painted. She went to art school and she painted, and she taught at the California School of Fine Arts. Her husband, Philip Wood, was also an artist. When we needed some help with painting and so forth, Phil was there for that. And he was quite important.

HEARST: Did you go to art school?

CHATHAM: No, and it took quite some time to learn. I met my first wife when I was 18 or 19, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and she said, “You’re an artist. That’s what you do.” It was all I knew how to do. I said, “Yeah, but how am I going to convert this into a living?” Well, she didn’t really have a good answer for that one.

HEARST: Where were you living at that point?

CHATHAM: We were here in Marin County. We lived in Bolinas. We lived in Nicasio. We lived in different places around West Marin.

HEARST: Has there been an art and painting colony here, a community of artists?

CHATHAM: This area has its own group of amateur painters, just like Carmel or Monterey. Seascapes and sailboats and docks and wharves. That’s all fine. It doesn’t hurt anything. It’s harmless, but it’s all amateur stuff. We’ll let it go at that. Anyway, I just floundered around on my own all my 20s, but it was very difficult, because I was married and it was almost impossible for me to make enough money to live on. I didn’t know how to do it, other than to have little jobs for $2 an hour. And that clearly wasn’t working.

HEARST: Were you selling pictures yet?

CHATHAM: One a year for $25 or something like that. I went to galleries and tried to get exhibitions, but no one was interested. As they shouldn’t have been, because the paintings were undeveloped. They weren’t very good.

In my early 30s, I had an opportunity to go to Montana at the invitation of Tom McGuane, who I had met here in Bolinas. I thought, “I’ve got to paint and write every day, or I’ll never learn how to do any of this.” So that’s what we did.

I made a vow that I would never do anything but paint again. I’d never take a shit job. And I told my wife, “We’re liable to be pretty poor, and I’m just letting you know that things could get a little thin here.” And they did, too. But she didn’t care. She got it. She herself was a very good artist. So I painted California from memory for three or four years. Because I didn’t know what to do with Montana.

Summer Rain (1999), oil on canvas, by Russell Chatham.
Summer Rain (1999), oil on canvas, by Russell Chatham.

HEARST: You’ve done a lot of painting from memory. I’ve always been amazed that you’ll go someplace and spend days looking at it, but you don’t carry a sketch pad. A year later, you’ll paint something that’s true to the landscape.

CHATHAM: I paint everything from memory.

HEARST: You’ve been a writer, too?

CHATHAM: Years ago, I wrote a fishing book, The Angler’s Coast, and I sent it to a friend I grew up with who worked at Doubleday, and she sent it to her boss. I didn’t know his title, maybe he was the head honcho, but he liked to fish. He loved the book, and he said, “Tell Russ I would like him to come to New York.” I’d never been on an airplane, I’d never been anywhere, but I went to New York. I met with him in his office. And we hung out, and he bought the book instantly, in five minutes.

That was the first time I ever went to the Met, and I went to the Frick, and I went to all the New York museums. I was there for probably two weeks. I jumped on a shuttle and went to Washington, D.C., which in a very short period of time let me see the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen any of those paintings in the flesh. And it changed my life. So when I came back to Montana, I saw everything with new eyes and started to figure out how to work with Montana.

HEARST: You told me a story about seeing Gauguin’s paintings in Chicago. I think you had a girlfriend in Detroit, and you thought, “I’ll stop in Chicago first, and I’ll go see this Gauguin exhibition.”

CHATHAM: That’s right.

HEARST: You went to see these Gauguin paintings, and they were so moving that you found yourself tearing up.

CHATHAM: I was crying my eyes out.

HEARST: Then, just at that moment, the woman you had expected to visit, she suddenly appears at the exhibit.

CHATHAM: That’s right.

HEARST: You thought, “This is gonna ruin our date. She’s seeing me in this unprepared state.” It’s a sweet story, because you were just being yourself, and the paintings brought you to that kind of emotion.

CHATHAM: I was incoherent. I couldn’t even talk to her. The thing was so powerful that there was no way I could even have a conversation with her. Yeah, that’s true.

ART OF THE DEAL

HEARST: How do you work? What happens when somebody comes to you and says, “Russell, I want you to paint something for me. I want you to paint a picture of my wife and my ranch. I’ll give you a million dollars.”

CHATHAM: Well, everything I’ve done in the last 20 years has been a commission. I treat each one individually. I talk to the person about what they’re thinking, what they have in mind, and we come to some agreement—an understanding of what I can do and what I can’t, or won’t, do.

HEARST: What are the things you won’t do?

CHATHAM: Well, the only thing I won’t do is basically follow specific instructions. I knew a guy who came to me one day and said, “I want to buy some paintings,” and I said, “Hold it. Why don’t we start with one?”

But there are other people, like this one media executive who had a ranch down by Big Timber, [Montana]—he bought five miles of the Madison River. It’s a very famous ranch. I can’t think of the name of it, but anyway, he was a nice, sweet guy who had the same wife since he was 18 or 20, whenever they were married. He wasn’t one of these smart-asses with the trophy wife.

He’d never bought a painting before. I said, “So what are you thinking? What do you want?” He said, “I want a painting of the Crazies, the Crazy Mountains,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know if I can do that or not.”

I said, “You have to understand: I don’t copy things, but I’ll go down there and take a look around. If I think there’s something I can do, that I can live with, I’ll do it for you.”

I drove down there—it’s pretty close by—and I looked around and looked around, and I’m thinking, “Man, I can’t paint those mountains. They’re jagged, snow-covered peaks.”

So I said, “I don’t think it’s gonna work.”

Later, I was driving out of the ranch, and I was going down this two-track dirt road, and I looked over, and I guess it might have been a clump of willows or cottonwoods. As I was going by, the trees were in front of the mountains. You could see the snow sparkling through the trees. On one edge, the mountain came out and was in view, but the mountains themselves were obscured by this clump of stuff.

I called him up, and I said, “I saw something I could try. But you remember, I’m not going to do some postcard view of the mountains.”

He said, “Well, go ahead.” So I painted it. It wasn’t very big. It was about four or five feet. It was pretty decent.

HEARST: How long does it take you to do something like that?

CHATHAM: It took me, I don’t know, 8 or 12 months. I don’t remember.

HEARST: Painstaking work, though?

CHATHAM: I called him up and said, “I finished the painting. You should look at it.”

He said, “Well, I’m flying up this weekend with the family to the new ranch.”

I had my girlfriend Liz with me. I told her, “This guy’s not going to go for this painting. But we’ve got to show it to him anyway, even though he’s never bought a painting and doesn’t know anything about art. He’s going to take a look at this and say, ‘Where the hell are the mountains?’ ”

We met at his ranch house. The thing was wrapped up. He says, “Get it unwrapped. Hurry up. Get it unwrapped.” I’m thinking, “Well, I’m just going to have to wrap it back up. I don’t want to tear the wrapping paper.”

Anyway, I unwrapped it, and we set it up there. He looked at it, and he says, “Goddamn. That is incredible. That is absolutely incredible.”

Liz and I look at each other, and I go, “Whatever.”

HEARST: You were glad he liked it?

CHATHAM: Yeah, then about a year later, he called me back, and he said, “I need another painting. I want a view from here of this valley, looking down.”

I told him, “Look, we’ve been through this before. I’m not going to do it. That’s not what I do.”

He said, “Well, can you even try?” I said, “Well, I’ll think it over.”

I thought about it and thought, “I really can’t do this. This is going to go against my thing.” Anyway, I made three or four trips out to the ranch to look. Well, one day I went out there and went up on the bluff. The season had turned. It was late fall or winter. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but there were clouds, fog, and stuff like that hiding the mountains, which were across the valley. I painted this view of the valley, where I had the mountains disappearing into the fog. There were just suggestions of the peaks showing through the fog.

He called me up: “Are you done with that thing yet?” I said, “I’m getting close. I’ve struggled with it for a year.”

He said, “Can we see it?”

I said, “It’s not done.”

He said, “Well, can we see what is done?”

I said, “I guess so. ’Cause if you don’t like it, then I don’t have to waste time finishing it.” I drove it over to the ranch. I brought it into the house and set it up above the fireplace. The husband and wife, they both stood there and they looked at it. They didn’t say a word. They had had this interior decorator who hated to see me there. She wasn’t getting a commission for this.

HEARST: It seems the decorator is the hardest one to please.

CHATHAM: Yeah. She’d sold them all these little crappy, just shit paintings from, like, the School of Art in Bozeman, Montana, or whatever. They didn’t say anything. Finally, he said to the decorator, “We can’t have these kind of paintings in the same room with Russell. We’ve got to get them out of here.” They went and took all the paintings down and took them out of the room. He said, “Now we’re cooking. Now we’re all right.” They loved the painting.

HEARST: You were educating the clients in a certain sense, helping them to rethink what they wanted.

CHATHAM: Exactly. The other paintings that were hanging there, they had nothing to do with buying them. They were sold to them by the interior decorator.

Paradise Valley in January (1988), oil on canvas, by Russell Chatham.
Paradise Valley in January (1988), oil on canvas, by Russell Chatham.

HEARST: One of the best shows I ever saw was at the Met in New York, which reassembled the collection of paintings owned by Edgar Degas, who was a friend of all the impressionists. He could go over to his friend and say, “That’s interesting what you’re doing,” and the other painter might say, “Well, why don’t you just pick one you like, and then I’ll come over and pick one of yours?”

Degas had a good enough eye that if he went over to somebody else’s shop, he wouldn’t pick the biggest one or the most expensive one. He would say, “How about that little one over there? Do you mind if I pick that one?” The quality of an artist’s choice is so much better than a decorator’s or a curator’s. It’s an artist picking the work of fellow artists.

CHATHAM: I remember that show. One of the most depressing scenarios I can think of, what I’ve managed to avoid my whole life, is to have an art dealer trying to tell you what to do. To have them say: “These last 10 paintings you did, they don’t look like one another. They’re all different. What are you doing? You can’t do that. You’ve got to stay in your lane.”

HEARST: I know some other people who paint seriously, maybe not as established as you are, but they are striving to get a gallery, trying to get someone to represent them. You are not backed by a gallery?

CHATHAM: I haven’t wanted one.

HEARST: What is your view of galleries?

CHATHAM: When I was in my early 20s, I would have been happy to have a gallery but came to realize that my paintings were simply not good enough—and there weren’t enough of them. I mean, there were plenty in number, but they weren’t good enough. They were also completely out of fashion. In those days, in the 1960s, everybody wanted abstract expressionism. Nobody wanted what I did. “Oh, you paint landscapes? Get out of here and don’t come back, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

Then when I got to Montana, there were no galleries. There were some galleries, in Jackson Hole, and I’d used a gallery occasionally, hit-and-miss. I had a guy in Aspen where we did two or three exhibitions, very successful, but he didn’t represent me except for those exhibits, and it was kind of the same thing.

HEARST: They want to be exclusive?

CHATHAM: Well, they want to not only be exclusive; they want to tell you what to do. Guess what? You can imagine how that works for me. High rollers in locales like Aspen call me and ask me, “Could we represent you? Could I at least have a couple of paintings?” And my answer would be, “No. You can’t represent me, and you can’t have a couple paintings—unless you want to buy them. If you want to buy them outright, then we’ll talk.”

HEARST: They wanted to resell them?

CHATHAM: No, they’d say, “We’re talking consignment.” I’d say, “Well, I’m not.” I like deals that are done deals.

BEHIND EVERY PAINTER

HEARST: I know you’re a bit of a romantic and you’ve been married a few times. What are your thoughts about love and romance and those parts of your life?

CHATHAM: Well, I think I attempted to create good marriages, but I just wasn’t any good at it. First of all, my parents had a terrible marriage. They didn’t like each other. I had no road map. I had very few examples of what a good marriage was. For my first marriage, I was only 20 years old, and my first wife was 20 years older than I was. She was the first woman I ever met who seemed to be so extremely intelligent. I was very much attracted to that.

HEARST: She encouraged you to be an artist.

CHATHAM: She did. I credit her with that, and when we parted, I was heartbroken. I swear to God. I didn’t think I’d ever get over it.

Fortunately, I met my second wife, who was very sweet and extremely talented. I mean, she could draw and paint anything better than anyone I’d ever seen, and that’s not why I fell in love with her and married her, but it was part of the deal. She was willing to gamble on going to Montana without any assurances.

I said, “Look, if you do this with me, I’m going to tell you flat out: we’re going to be dirt-poor. You should know what you’re getting into.”

She says, “Sounds fine to me. Let’s go.” We were together for about 10 years. Or close to it.

When I met my third wife, I had started to make some money, and she saw that, and she figured out how to manage it. I was never exactly interested in higher finance, so I was happy to have her run the checkbook.

HEARST: I would imagine, Russell, that your wealth is your paintings.

CHATHAM: Yeah, well, I thought she was being devious about the money. I didn’t walk out; I ran out. I had no idea how much money we were making, which turned out to be a fair amount, by the way. So then I thought, “Man, I’m not doing this again.” Meanwhile, I had kept the radar out for a decent woman to associate with. And finally, I found Liz Blavatsky, who you know.

HEARST: Yes, I do.

CHATHAM: Liz and I were together 14, 15 years. We’re still together. I mean, we talk two or three times a week. We will always be friends. When we split apart, it was better for her. I said, “Look, my world is coming down around my ears. I’m going to lose millions. I’m going to lose all the real estate. I’m going to come out of this with a set of overalls and a jacket. That’s all.” [In 2011, Chatham fell into financial hardship after investments he’d made in Montana soured. He returned to Marin County and focused solely on painting.]

HEARST: A painter sometimes has to paint his way out of a jam. I heard Heidi Fleiss has some of your best work?

CHATHAM: Well, not her, but Madam Alex. We met in Los Angeles. Alex Adams was her name. And all these guys who were well-known philanderers used her.

HEARST: If you need a date, call Madam Alex?

CHATHAM: She was funny and really smart and was a very nice person, too. I’d go over to visit her, and she realized that I love to cook, and so did she. We talked about having dinner parties and stuff at her house, but she had cancer, and she was past the point where she could pull off a big dinner party. She had a string of girls that, as they say, could bring “eyesight to the blind.”

HEARST: I hadn’t heard that expression.

CHATHAM: Yeah. That was a stopgap measure in my life in the late ’70s or the early ’80s—I can’t remember the exact time. If I wanted a date, all I had to do was pick up the phone and somebody way too beautiful for me showed up. You never knew whether they were going to be a nice person or obnoxious. I’d tell myself, “This is a crapshoot. You need to do better than this.” But it certainly did result in a hell of a lot of experience with women, in that way.

GOOD ENOUGH TO HANG

HEARST: Your paintings have become very collectible, but they’re not “modern art.” They’re very different from what’s hot and trendy. What’s changed?

CHATHAM: Today’s world is so different than when there were standards to go by. Now there aren’t any standards. It’s just kind of hit-and-miss. I mean, if we’re talking about paintings with a paintbrush on a canvas, not very many people are doing it anymore.

HEARST: What are they doing?

CHATHAM: They’re just putting two sticks on the ground in the gallery or assembling a pile of twigs. I saw an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, across the street from the university. And I walked in there and I went, “This is a joke.” One of the things that I remember is that, I mean, each person was supposed to have done a piece of work that justified their master of fine arts degree.

HEARST: But surely there are some people like Hockney who make images?

CHATHAM: Yeah, they’re making images. Painting with colors and paint and paintbrushes. That’s true. It’s just not very many.

HEARST: Are there artists whose work you find especially worth collecting, or inspiring? De Kooning?

CHATHAM: De Kooning? It’s the same painting over and over. What the dealer wants is for the customer to recognize it as a de Kooning, from across the room. And when the buyers invite people over to dinner, they want their guests to say, “Oh, I see you have a de Kooning.”

HEARST: What about some of the California moderns, like Diebenkorn, or Bischoff, or Oliveira? Do you like any of those? I guess they’re of your generation or nearly your generation.

CHATHAM: Not quite. I mean, Diebenkorn found something that was very simple to do, and he did it a thousand times, and it’s all the same painting a thousand times over, just abstract shapes and things that are instantly recognized across the room as a Diebenkorn. Oliveira is better than any of those guys.

HEARST: I remember when Frank Stella started doing something different. He had the parallelograms; then when he started doing other things, it was like, wait a minute, this is not a Stella. I want the old stuff.

CHATHAM: That’s right. But many of these guys, and I’ve known a lot of them, were vying for these teaching jobs at universities. They didn’t care where they were. Because they paid them so much money for doing nothing, but really, when you took it apart, there was always a string behind it. You were still an employee of the university, and you were expected to produce the kind of work they hired you to do.

HEARST: Did any of their students go on to do something interesting? Did they become wonderful painters, or did they go on to become hedge fund operators? One of the tests of a teacher is what happens to their students.

CHATHAM: You are not going to fool these students. They’re not stupid. They’re sharp, and they know when their professor is just killing time. Does the teacher have something to impart? To me, a good teacher doesn’t put himself in the equation. He looks at the other person to see what the other person can do.

HEARST: So they ask their students, “What are you capable of?”

CHATHAM: Yes, what are you capable of. The teacher asks, “Where does your talent lie?” And once it’s seen, they encourage that person to follow their own dream, not somebody else’s. n

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst interviewed Roku CEO Anthony Wood about the future of video streaming in Alta, Issue 8.