Russell Chatham – An Original

San Francisco Chronicle photo.

Where has the time gone?

It seems like it was just last weekend when Montana’s general season for deer and elk started, the beginning of the five-week season.

Don’t look now but time is running out. Next week we’ll observe the Thanksgiving holiday and at the end of the holiday weekend, at sundown on Sunday, December 1, the season will be over.

If you’re serious about having venison in the freezer, here’s a reminder that you’ve got just a week and a half to go.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Russell Chatham, one of those larger than life people who, much his friend, author Jim Harrison, went roaring through life, taking it all in like a grizzly bear before hibernation.

Russell Chatham had many facets. He was a renowned artist, acclaimed writer, skilled fly-fisher, restaurateur, publisher, and gourmand. That’s just for starters. In a foreword to Chatham’s book, Dark Waters, Nick Lyons described Chatham as “a voluptuous pilgrim, reveling in his senses.”

Chatham, age 80, died on November 10 in California in a memory care facility where he had, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, been dealing with dementia and other age-related illnesses. 

Chatham was the grandson of an artist, Gottardo Piazzoni, and grew up in Marin County, California. He was a skilled fly-fisherman and an expert on fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead in the rivers of northern California, while also building a career as an artist. In the 1970s, he moved to Livingston, Montana, and that’s where he hit his stride as a landscape artist, with his large, often huge, paintings that expressed moods as much as scenery. 

He also became part of what the Chronicle called “the Hollywood glamour of Bozeman and Livingston.” His circle of friends and patrons would include people such as Robert Redford, Tom McGuane, Ted Turner, Margot Kidder, and Jim Harrison. 

Chatham was a businessman, with an art gallery, Clark City Press, a small publishing business, and took over a defunct restaurant, the Livingston Bar and Grille. While he was an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a good money manager. Writer Rick Bass commented in a profile of Chatham, “No one I know is more of a financial wreck than Russell Chatham.”  In the 2008 recession he went broke, deep in tax debt, and in 2011 moved back to Marin, with, according to the Chronicle, “10 old T-shirts and a pair of overalls to paint in, and he was at peace.”

When I’ve brought home a duck or two from a hunt, and contemplate a duck dinner, I think of Chatham and a story he wrote about duck dinners, which he included in Dark Waters

Dark Waters, demonstrating both Chatham’s art and his writing.

Chatham liked to eat wild duck and he had strong opinions on how duck should be cooked. Duck should be roasted in a hot (500 degree) oven for no more than 20 minutes, then carved and served with a sauce made from duck stock, herbs and spices, and currants. He opens wine bottles, toasts French bread and rubs it with garlic cloves and butters it. “We are ready to eat. Before long, rice and sauce cover the table. French bread is torn loose. Each bite of rare, juicy meat is a new thrill…”

Dinner complete, he assesses the damage.

“Our wine glasses become increasingly grease-smeared as we pick up each carcass and suck it down to bare bone and gristle. We carelessly gulp the fancy vintages. Our shirt fronts are ruined. Juice and blood run from elbows onto knees and the floor. The room is blurred. We belch, fart, laugh and groan.” 

He muses on a date he missed because of the duck dinner. “As the carnage winds down I think about my date and wonder if it’s too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus. I find a mirror and what I see reflected there can only be described as soiled.”

A memorable dinner, memorably described, along with some salacious thoughts about the woman he stood up (not included here). 

Russell Chatham, artist on canvas and the written word. Rest in peace.

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