Western artist Russell Chatham gave sound direction to artisans with his essay, “Advice for a Young Painter.”
It’s hard to believe that the wondrous Western landscape artist Russell Chatham is no longer amongst us. He died in the fall of 2019 at age 80, and while he may be gone, he left us with a treasure trove of art and writings.
Gifted both as an artist and a writer, he communicated with equal skill. I met him in the early 1990s at an exhibit of his landscape paintings in Los Angeles, California. Very approachable, he and I struck up a conversation.
He’d grown up on a small family ranch in Carmel Valley, California, where he was influenced by his grandfather, painter Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945). Piazzoni was an important part of a group of Northern California artists who worked as “tonalists,” landscape artists who sought to depict certain times of the day and the light it reflects. From an early age, Chatham was captivated by the depth and color of his grandfather’s work.
Chatham also was a passionate angler and would ultimately write about his experiences to help support his painting with stories in sports journals and later books published by his own imprint, Clark City Press. I don’t think he ever made the jump to a computer, as the occasional letters I received would arrive freshly typed with those lovely accent holes made by a period being sharply struck on a typewriter.
Amongst his numerous works and writings was an essay that he had assembled through the years. It was about his personal experience as an artist trying to survive and operate in a customer-driven universe, one that included the sometimes-uncomfortable world—for him—of art galleries. He had set about writing a short essay that he had hoped would satisfy the many questions he would receive through the years about “becoming an artist.” In Chatham’s view, it was a dubious undertaking, especially if one was looking to eat on a regular basis and pay the rent. His choice of taking that road was seemingly pre-ordained at a young age by the exposure to his grandfather’s artwork and his love of nature and the landscapes of the West.
His essay “Advice for a Young Painter” was written and shared with many to the point that he had it set in type via letterpress—a process he loved as a writer and publisher. He sent me a copy several years ago in all its elegant letterpress form.
In the essay he starts by directing aspirational artist-types to ask themselves an important question: “…determine if wanting to be a painter is just a passing romantic or otherwise fanciful notion, or whether in fact it is a genuinely primal calling you must follow to be whole.” His warning was real as he went on the say, “the number of people in America today who can understand and appreciate real painting, was about the same as the number of wild condors in California.” Ultimately the commitment, like anything of value, takes time, “a minimum of ten thousand hours of actual painting.”
Next, he admonishes any struggling artist to “choose your heroes carefully.” He tells us to remain suspicious of art less than 100 years old and to only “identify with those whose sensibilities have spoken to your own.” Further, he notes that a piece of art’s price means nothing: “…work to see through the fabric of manipulated reputations as crocheted by the unholy alliance of art dealers, so-called collectors, critics and museum personnel, all of whom are perched before grinding wheels of their own designs, axes poised.”
Then, make sure you read. And study. “Read as much good classic literature and poetry as you can. You need to be fluent in the realm of verbal ideas and concepts to balance the essentially non-verbal ones you use in your work.” In addition to reading, he demands that the artist get outside and see the world and all its wonders and diversity. It not only broadens your ideas but “will help with your sense of humility.” Something very important for artists of all genres who will be faced with “endless bloodletting and rejection.”
Chatham reminds the young artist, “you are a sworn enemy of the state.” This includes those in not only positions of political power but of those “charlatans, knaves, liars, frauds and flat out criminals” in power at institutions and museums with their “endless smokescreen of artspeak.” Being naïve and hopeful is good in the studio, but leave it there in your work.
He continues on with a spirited retail rant about the fact that you as an artist must, “Never lose sight of the fact that a gallery is a store and nothing more.” Further, the artist must keep his ego holstered at all times and that it is more important that the gallery, if you must use one, be clean and pays its bills on time. “Work diligently with seriousness of purpose.” But in reality, “expect to be poor. Don’t plan on it like some whining loser, but think about how you are going to survive when it happens.” His view is that money happens, but it can also disappear. In the end, either condition doesn’t truly affect the “inherent and true value of art.”
He closes with some general life advice, “Identify where you came from, where you are and where you wish to go.” A sense of place matters as does the companions you choose and the way you live. “Travel only in healthy and intelligent company, immerse yourself in great music and enjoy good, clean food, learning how to gather it and how to prepare it.” This nod to his own fishing passion and preference for fine culinary adventures. In Chatham’s view, that can only enhance one’s life experiences. He finishes the essay with, “Live skillfully, and never watch television.”
While one might expect Chatham had written this essay with tongue planted firmly in cheek, one would be partially correct. But the actual advise within the essay surely applies to anyone in the creative arena whether one is a painter of landscapes or of horses and cattle, or builds bits and spurs. Success in any creative process is cumulative, built on a foundation of previous experience and the persistence of one’s own direction and purpose. Above all, it requires a solid sense of humor. Chatham may be gone, but the legacy he leaves and his passion and wonder of the West will live on with the many who will follow.