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Ink and water
Ink and water

Art-and-essay project will attempt the impossible - capturing the Clark Fork Basin on paper

ROCK CREEK - This is the original. It cannot, the artist said, be reproduced.

The creek swelling, slowly, with snowmelt. The cobbles smoothed by springtime immemorial. The perfume of cottonwoods, sweet and thick. The fisher men and women. The herd of bighorn sheep attending the cliffs above.

"How do you paint a riffle? You can't," said the artist, a master of his craft. "It's like painting someone laughing. Only one person's done that in 2,000 years, and even he didn't do it right. It's impossible."

Yet Russell Chatham will, over the next eight weeks, attempt to put Rock Creek - one of Montana's most vaunted trout streams - onto paper as part of a four-piece portfolio of lithographs from the Clark Fork River basin.

The goal, he said one afternoon earlier this week, will be to convince people that they are looking at a particular piece of river. "I know that place."

They will be wrong.

Each lithograph - of Rock Creek, the upper Clark Fork, the Bitterroot River and the Big Blackfoot - will be scenes created by Chatham, impressions and emotions collected while walking, driving, floating and fishing the streams.

Their release will coincide with the publication of a collection of essays, historic and contemporary, that do the same work in words.

Together, the lithographs and the book will attempt to build an affinity for the Clark Fork River and the rambunctious basin it drains by telling stories about life along its banks.

"When I set out on this project, I thought the Clark Fork was this poor, beat-up, maligned river," said Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition and co-editor of the book of essays. "My sense was that people looked elsewhere for inspiration."

She was wrong.

"What I found was that people steal away moments of their day to spend time with this river," she said. "That sort of surprised me, and delighted me. And while as human beings, we tend to lack humility and think that we guide the river, in fact it's quite the opposite. The river guides us. It really touches our lives quite deeply."

"Our move gave us three great rivers just minutes from our door," wrote novelist David James Duncan. "The Bitterroot, in whose valley we live; the lower Clark Fork, home of the steelhead-sized rainbow trout; and the Big Blackfoot, scene of Norman Maclean's masterpiece. Our move also gave us the upper Clark Fork, a 100-mile-long, billion-dollar-damaged, multiple Superfund site.

"Strange to say, I was immediately drawn to the Superfund river."

"Most people probably would agree that nearly all free-flowing rivers, especially those that meander naturally, have a sensual feminine feel," wrote Duncan Adams, a former Montana Standard reporter, now a journalist in Virginia. "But the upper reaches of the Clark Fork pack a weightier punch.

"The river remains beautiful, defiant and strong in spite of all that's happened to her. As rivers go, the Clark Fork is like a biker chick with heart. Leather and lace. She is the Angelina Jolie of rivers, simultaneously curvaceous, vulnerable and tough as nails."

Chatham brings a fresh set of eyes to the project, having never spent much time on western Montana's waters. More commonly, his landscapes are those of the Paradise Valley and its great river, the Yellowstone. A wide-open flat bounded by the spires of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountains, a place of great light and shadow, an immense canvas.

This week, Chatham was indoctrinated in the more confined landscapes of the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers, and of Rock Creek.

On Tuesday morning, somewhere between Drummond and Warm Springs, he found what he wanted of the upper Clark Fork. A meandering stream, not so far from its headwaters, its legacy of misuse and pollution largely unrecognizable.

Maybe his rendering will show the scene in winter, he said. Or maybe it will be autumn, and a fisherman will be at work on the water.

"I want to be believable, but I don't want to tread on silly ground," Chatham said. "I'm not a calendar illustrator. My lithographs convey emotions, not specific times or places."

By afternoon, he was dodging potholes and raindrops on Rock Creek Road, looking for the blue-ribbon stream hidden between cliffs, rock fields and forests. "You can't see the water," he said, stopping alongside a backwater to take a snapshot and sketch "the germ of an idea."

This is how a lithograph begins, Chatham explained. With a sketch of black and white. The sky and water - here, three threads of lower Rock Creek - are the light. Everything else is dark: the fattened roadside pine, the willows bunched tight along the creek, the blocky cliffs where Rock Creek's resident sheep take refuge with their newborns.

"Let's say the sun is going down behind the hill," he said, his pencil quickly shading the scene.

The finished product will be neither a realistic depiction of the scene, nor a painting, said Geoff Sutton, owner of Missoula's Sutton West Gallery, president of the Clark Fork Coalition's governing board and coordinator of the art-and-essay project.

What comes of these stops and sketches along the river will be a lithograph, an original work of art created by making a series - probably 40 - of handmade plates and printing one atop the other until the landscape is revealed.

Chatham will begin that process this weekend, sketching four scenes, one each from the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Rock Creek - two big ones, 16-by-20 inches; two smaller, 10-by-14 inches. Then each day for 20 days, he'll try to produce two more plates to lay on top of the original sketch. New colors. New elements and emotions.

"You've got to allow at least 20 days for making the plates," Chatham said. "And you've got to allow for depression in there somewhere, that's probably five more days. And I have a few trips coming up, probably 10 days in California and six days in Seattle. And there'll be days when things just don't go like you'd want them to. Pretty soon, you're up to 60 or 70 days."

And until that last day, no one - not even Chatham - will know what the river landscapes look like.

But everyone will know how they feel, said Sutton. And that's the whole idea behind the project.

"I proposed this Clark Fork suite two or three years ago, but Russ and I were both too busy," Sutton said. "Then I became president of the coalition's board and Tracy started talking about a book, and I knew the lithographs would be a perfect fit."

So Sutton hired Chatham and they agreed on a limited-edition portfolio of river scenes, and a book of essays published by Clark City Press - which Chatham owns, but which has not published a book for six years.

Sutton will donate 50 sets of lithographs to the Clark Fork Coalition. Chatham will do the same with the book. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to the coalition to finance what Sutton calls its "David vs. Goliath work" in the upper Clark Fork River basin, the nation's largest Superfund cleanup site.

The coalition will sell the lithographs and book as a $2,500 package. (For advance orders, call the coalition at 542-0539.)

"The thing I like most about it is that the Clark Fork, as beat up as it is, is a real story of hope," said Stone-Manning, the coalition's executive director. "It's nice to tell that story in a different way."

Environmental groups, she said, will fail in the years ahead if they "sit in their own little corner in their own little box, telling one story." They need art and music and poetry. They need history. They need new stories.

"It's definitely something new for the coalition," Stone-Manning said. "For the last 16 years, we've focused on how to best protect and restore water quality in the basin. Now we want to broaden that, to build an affinity for the river, and we're doing that in part by telling the human story of life and work in the Clark Fork basin."

The book will feature historical essays, including a river diary published in Harper's magazine in 1867, and poetry and essays by a number of modern-day Montana writers - Richard Hugo, James Lee Burke, Rick Bass, Caroline Patterson, Bill Vaughn and others. Many of those writings will be illustrated with black-and-white photographs by Missoula free-lancer Mark Alan Wilson.

"When I read it all, back-to-back, I get a real sense of how both important and small are our particular lives at this particular moment," Stone-Manning said. "I feel such a part of history, and that's a fairly awesome thing all by itself. I would hope everyone in the basin feels a responsibility to that history and to these rivers."

Because, she said, there is but one original. "Called at various times the In Mis sou let ka, the Spetlum, the Southern Branch of the Flathead and the Missoula River," in writer Patterson's telling. And it cannot be replaced.

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