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Russell Chatham's Big Sky Country : A Western Landscape Artist Finds a Loyal Following Among the Hip and Famous

August 02, 1987|VAN GORDON SAUTER | Van Gordon Sauter is a Los Angeles print and television journalist.

THE DERELICT, TWO-TONE '74 Olds careens down the narrow rural road, the driver oblivious to its lethal curves and undulations, focusing instead on the vista of a broad, green pasture sloping down to the cotton woods that escort the Yellowstone River. The river sparkles through the foliage on its mad rush out of Yellowstone National Park through this valley to the flatland of eastern Montana, beyond which it embraces the legendary Missouri. The river, framed here by the Absarokas and the Gallatins, flows out of the Tetons and initially points north toward the Crazies. This stretch of the Yellowstone is mountain country.

It is a land of history and legend. The mountain men. Lewis and Clark. Indians racing the cavalry for the Canadian border. Calamity Jane. Frenzied settlers grubbing in the gravel of numbingly cold creeks for nuggets. Great herds of cattle. It is a serious land, where a walk away from the river, up into the hills, takes one into the embracing, yet menacing, silence and isolation of true wilderness.

The driver turns off the road and heads up along Deep Creek, past the occasional cabin, to the point where the wheel ruts give out and the land is surrendered to the bear and mountain lion and moose and deer. He works here, a few feet from the surging creek, in a small windowless cabin that some forgotten soul erected nearly a century ago. The caulking is new, there is now electricity, and three skylights have been opened to allow the high-country northern light to fall on his canvases.

When California closed in around him, when Marin County tipped over into a whirl of suburbia and kitsch, Russell Chatham came to this country up on Deep Creek to paint.

Over the last several years his brooding landscapes have attracted a unique and intelligent audience of collectors who find in them an almost mythic representation of the West in its natural state. There are no cowboys in pastel shirts hunched around a campfire, or gaudily painted braves running an exhausted buffalo down. There are only trees and looming hills and pasture and ramshackle ranch buildings and skies that can be welcoming or intimidating. Frequently there is water, enticing glimpses of the rivers that made the land accessible and livable. On a summer day in Los Angeles, the air thick with grimy heat, the hills brown with arid exhaustion, a glance at one of his works has the bracing effect of splashing your face with handfuls of water from the mountain snowmelt.

The art captures the moods of an area where the incessant battle between the mountains and the weather results in single days that seem to contain all the seasons; where the ever capricious wind and sky and temperature can daily drive the land and its tenants through a wrenching series of tormented changes.

The man and his environment are inseparable. Chatham is a mountain man, large and shambling, adroit and comfortable in the outdoors. Sliding along a muddy ranch road, he can recommend where to hike back to the ridges and hunt Hungarian partridge or sharp-tail grouse, or where to wade into the river to reach hold of cutthroat trout. But as he talks, he unconsciously scans the landscape, rearranges it in his mind. He bunches clusters of trees together; accentuates a bend in the river; introduces a thin veil of snow that blurs with the low clouds, obscures the mountains and wraps the land in the opaqueness of an afternoon snow squall in early spring.

Russell Chatham has been painting virtually all his 47 years. It was part of his youth, if not his genes. His grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni, a Swiss-Italian painter, did the 14 large murals in the San Francisco Public Library. While growing up in the Bay Area, Chatham was the officially designated high school geek--shy and awkward, more comfortable fishing and hunting and painting than going to school and mingling. He bummed around Marin and the rest of Northern California, painting, writing, drinking, getting married and divorced, bonding fast with a couple of writers named Thomas McGuane and William Hjortsberg. But he grew weary of evading the Marin gentrifiers and seeing developers chew up the open land. Chatham decided to abandon California. His friend McGuane had moved to a ranch on Deep Creek and urged Chatham to follow. In 1972, Chatham piled everything he owned into a 1949 Chevrolet pickup and, with his second wife, pushed off for the Rockies.

"If I could pick the place and the condition for living," he says, "I would want to live in Marin County the way it was when I grew up. Like (screenwriter) Robert Towne says he would like to live in Los Angeles the way it was 50 years ago. You can't do that. The way we live here (in Montana) now reminds me of how it was in Marin--it is rural, but not Alaska. This is a perfect sanctuary in a tough world."

But it was not always sanctuary.

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