The Inspiration for Alta

Publisher Will Hearst credits the late painter Russell Chatham with helping shape the Western sensibility that inspires Alta

Russell Chatham, 1939—2019
Russell Chatham, 1939—2019

One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

—James Joyce, “The Dead”

The October issue of Alta featured painter Russell Chatham in what would become his final interview: “You’re an Artist. That’s What You Do.” Sadly, Russ died a few weeks after the edition came out. With his passing, we have promoted him on our masthead from our Editorial Board to a position on the Our Inspiration roll. This list recognizes people who have shaped the arts, culture, and life of the West, and whose contributions help guide our editorial ambitions.

The western sensibility is like the Grand Canyon, built up layer by layer from those who came before us. For instance, the Native Americans who settled here thousands of years before any Europeans arrived left a legacy of many languages and cultures, a respect for the natural world, and a recognition that we all depend on the health of the earth and sea for our own health.

Those values have endured even as they have been layered over by generations of newcomers. We have not always been respectful of our ancestors and predecessors, but each has left a mark, a sign, a framework for the future.

Russ Chatham lived and traveled across many western geographies, from Bolinas, California, to Livingston, Montana, and many points north and south. He was no stranger to fishing in mountain streams or to boulevarding in Hollywood. Yet he always painted landscapes of the West as if he were seeing them for the first time.

As much as anybody, Russ was also a founder of Alta. He was a fierce advocate for making art, producing a series of beautifully crafted books and even making his restaurant in Livingston a place of original ideas and fresh catch.

I remember one time a group of us were on a long camping trip. A woman asked him what advice he could offer to her daughter, who was interested in becoming an artist.

The main point of his answer was that she should not expect vast wealth or fame. The daughter would likely find projects, clients, and opportunities that could pay the bills. But the foremost benefit of such a life was that she could always say “no.” The freedom to follow your own path was the major reward, he believed, for any aspiring artist.

“The artistic life doesn’t pay well enough to do things you don’t believe in,” Russ said. And he lived his life that way. He had many clients, and money passed through his hands on a regular basis. But not much stayed in his bank account. Russ remained free to paint what he wanted. To be a close friend and an inspiration to his family, friends, and lovers. To create, to perfect his craft, to speak his mind, and to follow his heart.

We have lost the painter, but his spirit and his work will long endure.

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