Persistence – Russell Chatham – Ep 25
April 13, 2022
ON TODAY’S EPISODE
On a typical day when I get frustrated with the progress in my art, I try to remember that it’s always better to measure progress over many days. Or months. Or better yet, years. Struggle is always a part of art-making. What also helps me is thinking of those who have struggled WAY more than I ever will…but also pulled off making spectacular art.
When I get frustrated, I think of one artist in particular: Russell Chatham. I had the good fortune of interviewing him a few years ago before he passed. Russell’s realistic but imagined landscapes take my breath away. But that’s just part of the story. In fact, Russell’s life…being given a paint box at 8 yrs old by his artist grandfather, eschewing the art world altogether, and then becoming one of the most sought after, high-priced landscape artists…is nothing short of extraordinary.
Russell was the poster child for finding his way as he went. His attitude and fortitude will inspire you to possibly take a bit more of your art and life into your own hands. It certainly inspired me.
Listen if you are interested in…
- Exploring Russell’s background [2:28]
- The moment it all clicked for Russell [ 9:54]
- Russell’s art business and art-making process [19:15]
- Defining the authentic quality of Russell’s work and his path to success [32:26]
A beautiful beginning
The year is 1947. Russell Chatham and his family are spending yet another summer at his grandfather’s picturesque ranch in Carmel Valley, California. This is where young Russell picked up a paintbrush for the first time and began his art journey. Growing up during World War II meant children didn’t have access to things like the internet, television, or other forms of entertainment like we do now. Instead, eight-year-old Russell and his cousin (and fellow artist) Tom Wood were encouraged to learn how to paint by Tom’s parents. The two would spend hours together sketching while hiding from the sun under an old canvas umbrella belonging to Russell’s artist grandfather.
Even his siblings were encouraged to paint. But art became a part of who Russell was at his core that summer. However, it hadn’t occurred to him yet to pursue art as a profession. Russell struggled to figure out what direction to take his life. He continued to paint throughout grade school, even taking a few art classes at the local college (despite being a terrible student). There, he met his first wife and art teacher Doris Meyer, who wisely told him: “Why are you wondering what you’re going to do? You’re already doing it.”
Finding solid ground
Russell’s passion was always his art. When he first started out, friends would ask him how he expected to provide for himself as an artist. Russell’s response? “I always assumed I would be poor.” Russell knew being an artist might mean enduring struggle…he didn’t care. He loved it THAT much. And as fellow artists, I’m sure we can relate to the sentiment. Unsurprisingly though, Russell didn’t stay a “starving artist” forever.
In 1981, Russell was invited to Seattle to learn how to make lithographs. He was hesitant about the idea because print-making had always been a struggle for him. Traditional stone print-making methods require the artist to draw backward or have the final image turn out backward. That struggle, combined with the limited number of colors available due to cost, pushed Russell away from lithographs for what he thought would be forever. Luckily, then commercial printer Daniel Smith reached out to Russell to show him a new way of doing lithographs. This method didn’t require him to draw backward while allowing him to use an unlimited amount of colors cost-effectively. On his first attempt, he made two 35 x 45 inch lithographs with 275 copies of each for a publisher to try and sell at an art expo. Every copy sold out in 15 minutes.
Practice makes perfect
While the art expo showed Russell his potential, he knew he had not arrived. It would take him 8 to 10 more years to feel like he was a lithographer. That’s one of the things I loved about Russell. Everything he did had such intentionality behind it. But he also notes that not all of his paintings were equal. Sometimes as artists, we have bad ideas. Or good ideas with poor execution. That’s why it’s called an art PRACTICE. But other times, an idea comes out of our subconscious that just works. Russell calls these gifts, but they just don’t happen. They require a lot of hard work and consistently showing up to your studio. That’s the kind of artist he was. Even in his absence, he’s still teaching us what it means to be an artist. Thank you, Russell.
Resources & People Mentioned
- Tom Wood (Artist)
- Daniel Smith (Art Supplies)
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