Former Livingston painter Russell Chatham dies at 80

By: 
Justin Post — Enterprise Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
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Russell Chatham is photographed in 2014 at his studio in California. (Photo by Tim Porter)

Iconic landscape painter and former longtime Livingston resident Russell Chatham, 80, died Sunday at a nursing facility in northern California.

Chatham, who had been battling dementia and other physical issues for the past roughly two years, will be remembered during a memorial in Livingston at some point in the next four to six weeks, said his daughter Lea Chatham.

Friends of the painter, who was also a book publisher, fly-fisherman and gourmand, said they will remember Chatham as a larger-than-life artist with ties to Hollywood, authors and artists around the globe. 

“He lived on the edge — they don’t make them like him anymore,” said Livingston resident Geoff Harvey, a lithographer who spent years working alongside Chatham.

Chatham was longtime friends with the late author Jim Harrison, a Paradise Valley resident who died in 2016, as well as McLeod resident and author Thomas McGuane.

Harrison’s daughter Jamie Harrison Potenberg of Livingston remembers growing up in Michigan, where Chatham would visit every fall when she was a teenager.

“We’d make everything from ravioli to Szechuan food,” Potenberg said, adding that Chatham was one of the people who taught her to cook.

Potenberg and her husband eventually moved from New York to Montana, where they lived in Chatham’s home at Deep Creek. Potenberg worked for Chatham for several years at his publishing company, Clark City Press.

“Russell had an almost insane enthusiasm for life, and his joy rubbed off on everyone he met,” she said. “His paintings are utterly beautiful, and immortal.”

Livingston artist Parks Reece met Chatham soon after moving to Livingston in 1980 to run the Danforth Gallery.

Reece was 15 years younger than Chatham, who he said was always willing to answer questions and talk about painting.

“He’s who I looked up to as a young artist,” Reece said.

Chatham had his office and studio on the second floor of the Danforth, and he also kept a ping-pong table in the space. Reece remembers wondering whether the second-story occupants might come crashing through the ceiling, during what must have been a lively game of ping-pong.

Chatham was also known for his sense of humor, Reece said.

Once while working at Chatham’s studio on Front Street, Reece brought a new shotgun in to show a lithographer. Chatham walked into the room and noticed the shotgun, casually remarking to Reece, “Oh, expecting critics today are we?”

Chatham and Reece shared a love not only for art, but for fishing, hunting and Montana.

“It was freedom; there weren’t many people. It was wild. Great fishing, beautiful rivers,” Reece recalled of life in Livingston in the 1980s. “It was just kind of free and wide open as the West is.”

Reece believes Chatham’s lithographs, which are widely circulated around the Livingston area, and his other artwork and projects will stand the test of time.

“I believe that he’s one of the major forces in American art and I hope that historians will corroborate that,” he said.

Chatham and his friends were also known for their enjoyment of fine dining, elaborate meals and fly-fishing.

Harvey said you might hear stories about Chatham’s adventures in Montana and beyond and wonder whether they are far-fetched fiction or actually true.

“You hear the stories and you just can’t believe it, but that’s really how they lived: It was excess whether it was fishing, hunting, drinking, writing — it was always all the way,” Harvey said. “I think that’s what made those guys special. It was quite a unique group of characters.”

Harvey said his friendship with Chatham extended beyond their work together creating lithographs, and often included wetting a line. He remembers Chatham visiting him in Phoenix, where he said the nearest decent fishing is a four-hour drive.

Harvey learned at the time that large ponds in some of the gated communities in the Phoenix area were home to tilapia, so Harvey convinced Chatham to bring his fly-fishing gear to Arizona.

The two dressed up in fancy clothing and waited for the guards to change shifts before sneaking in to strip small streamers and catch tilapia in the gated communities, Harvey said.

“He had a ball — he never thought he would fish in the middle of Phoenix,” he said.

But despite his fun-loving character, Harvey said Chatham was sometimes stressed about finances.

Chatham, who once ran the Livingston Bar and Grill, could be $250,000 in the red on a Friday and $150,000 in the black by Monday, Harvey said anecdotally.

A friend once described Chatham as the only person he knew who could paint himself into a corner, and then paint himself back out, he said.

“I never saw a man blast through money so fast, but he made up for it,” said Harvey, who owns the Whiskey Creek Saloon and Sunlight Graphics in Livingston. “He was stressed out about it, but it always worked out.”

The son of an Italian painter, Chatham lived in Paradise Valley and eventually at a home on North Seventh Street in Livingston. Chatham left the Livingston area less than a decade ago, returning to northern California, where he continued painting.

“I think he’s one of the most important American artists,” Harvey said. “You just don’t meet characters like that. He’s one of those people who was just gifted, creative and tortured.”

In lieu of flowers or gifts, Lea Chatham asked that anyone wishing to remember her father make a donation in his name to their favorite environmental conservation charity.