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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Very Special Art Event

Here’s from my yesterday--


Last night was a very special event at the Dennos Museum on the NMC campus in Traverse City. Montana painter Russell Chatham was there in person for a reception, book signing, and formal, on-stage “conversation” with Suttons Bay gallery owners Harry and Piper Goldson and a huge and enthusiastic audience.

A collection of 28 of Russell’s paintings has been on exhibit at the Dennos for many weeks now. David made at least four visits to the show before last night’s event, and I toured it twice. A long, detailed video presentation of Russell’s lithography process ran continuously in a small auditorium throughout the weeks of the show. Last night, then, was the culmination of 30-40 years’ of Chatham’s life work, long and loving effort on the part of the Goldsons and the collection’s owners, and a great deal of anticipation from artists and art lovers in the Grand Traverse area and beyond. At least two Grand Rapids artists made the trip to Traverse City solely for this occasion. Another man, a regular summer visitor with his family to Dog Ears Books, drove from Chicago to see the show and to hear Chatham speak. It was not an event to miss!

David and I met Russell Chatham years ago through writer Jim Harrison. Chatham and Harrison are fishing buddies and share a love for good food as well as for poetry (and, I’m sure, many of the other good things in life), and Russell could always be counted on to appear in Leelanau County during hunting season, when the table at Jim and Linda’s old farmhouse, surrounded by guests, groaned under the weight of carefully prepared food and expensive wine. (The Harrisons now divide their time between Montana and Arizona.) Always, however, Jim and Russell were workmen first, putting time into their respective arts with almost monastic discipline. It’s not what the world at large imagines when conjuring up a picture of the artistic life. Excess and indulgence, the gossip of that life, are only part of the story: you don’t stumble around in a river, flailing away drunkenly with a fly rod, and catch trout.

Chatham’s answers to questions were down-to-earth and prosaically technical—what colors of paint he uses (mostly red, blue, yellow), how he achieves transparency, the process of transferring a moment in nature to a painting on canvas. Asked by Piper Goldson to expand on what he meant by a painting being “untranslatable,” like a poem, Chatham related his experience of seeing a painting in the Hermitage and then seeing it in a book, not recognizing the image in the book as the painting. He also observed that no end of describing a painting comes close to the experience of seeing it.

Russell’s technical explanations reminded me of a talk David and I heard years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by painter Elmer Schooley, who charmed us both with his generous and unpretentious descriptions of how he achieved certain effects on canvas. When Chatham talked about untranslatability, I was reminded of my first visit to the Art Institute in Chicago and seeing at an imtimate distance famous paintings I had before then only known as pictures in books. Unprepared for the difference in experience, standing before one small painting by Monet, it was all I could do not to break down in tears.

Chatham’s final, on-stage remark of the evening was perfect. Earlier, someone had remarked about looking at landscape and recognizing a “Chatham moment.” Russell said he’d heard that many times. Looking slightly surprised, he almost shrugged as he tried to say what the comment meant to him: “I guess it means I did okay.” Thunderous applause followed. I’m so glad we were there.

The exhibit continues through tomorrow, Sunday, closing at 5 p.m.

You who have been reading this site for a while will have already noticed that I am usually posting a day late. That is, the post on any given today is about its yesterday. Well, here’s why—and if you can get through this next sentence and make sense of it, you have too much time on your hands: If blogging were my only job (ah, if it paid my way in the world!) and if I weren’t also running a business and teaching (which involves commuting), these paying responsibilities falling on top of “running” a house (albeit ineptly and haphazardly) and training a puppy (lots of effort going in this direction, because Sarah deserves it, and a well-behaved dog and its family all have better lives) and still trying to carve out time to read books, which (as my sister Deborah kindly reminds me when I admit to feeling guilty for neglecting other tasks to sit down and read) is part of my JOB, postings would appear in more timely fashion, and fewer photo ops would be missed. What can I say? C’est ma vie! A rich stew!

5 comments:

Maiya Willits said...

I made it through your last sentence, and was reminded of Mark Twain's wonderful comment after one of his own similiarly rich and twisting constructions. He said it
showed that he was "acquiring that sort of mastery of the art and spirit of the language which enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars."

Maiya Willits said...

Oops, this was supposed to be a comment on the previous post!

P. J. Grath said...

No, Maiya, you got it in the right place. And I'm not surprised you made it through my sentence, as you've been working on so many of your own this past week. We eagerly anticipate your Mississippi River book!

Lisa and Gary... said...

P.J., the fact you are acquainted with Mr. Harrison puts you in even higher esteen. He is, by far, one of my favorite authors. My, oh my. I'm star struck.

It certainly sounds as if you have much on your plate. But, better a rich stew than a hungry belly.

Hope you're enjoying spring on The Peninsula.

Lisa

Anonymous said...

Do you know if there is a place to see images of the Chatham paintings that were at the exhibit? Wish I could have been there but Montana is too far away. I enjoyed reading your summary of the evening. Thanks. Speaking of images, there is a very nice older oil painting (1981) of Chatham's for sale at Broschofsky Gallery (in Idaho). I have no connection with the gallery or the painting but I thought you might enjoy visiting their site just to see a picture of it. As you know, it is not so often to run across Chatham's oils, even just pictures.