Artist, Writer, Angler: Russell Chatham Passes
I last spoke to Russell Chatham three years ago. He was working on the PR for Roger Keckeissen’s book on Art Flick and bemoaning–with my full cooperation–the trajectory of fly fishing away from an art form closely connected to protection of wild places to a mere occupation where trophyism and greed prevail.
Russell had a habit of aiming at a target and leaving it up to you to get out of the way. “Something called a blog seems to be just fine with everyone anymore,” he wrote to me, “and about that allow me to say I have notarized a document explaining that should I ever be caught reading one, let alone be tempted to write one, there is a twenty dollar bill pinned to my letter, and that needs to be turned over to the first hit man willing to shoot me in the balls for it.”
His skills as a writer were never truly recognized, but I count him as one of the most gifted angling writers ever. He was a risk-taker and a finisher, his deftness with words a mirror to his fine brush strokes, or perhaps vice-versa. If you’ve never read Russell Chatham’s book “Dark Waters” now would be a good time to do it.
I’ve recently wondered if art could save fly fishing, or even hunting and fishing generally, and with Russell’s passing I’m feeling a crushing weight. Russell was in a select and unfortunate group: those who had the chance to experience first-hand the glory of the great wild salmon and steelhead runs of the West coast, on places like the Russian River, and then watch them shrivel and die. And all for what? For cheaper, tastier wine? The bulkheads creak and groan.
If you don’t know Chatham’s art, the painting “Crazy Mountains in March” in this San Francisco Chronicle obituary says it all. Like all his work it echoes a deep serenity that I think probably escaped the artist in daily life. It’s subtle and marvelous and tells the truth about light, for which he had a special gift.