Hunter, fly-fisherman and artist since boyhood, be lives what he paints, and paints what be lives. Here, for the first time in any magazine, is a portfolio of this modern master's latest works.
When pursuing Atlantic salmon, says watercolorist Chet Reneson of Lyme, Conn., I like those rough Canadian rivers, like the George and the Whale. The fish are rough, tough and ready, and when I paint the rivers I make 'em just as powerful and rugged, and mean and nasty as I can." Reneson could almost have been describing himself. At 59, he's as fit as a butcher's dog, and every bit as rough, tough and ready as he was when magazine writer Tom Davis told readers of Wildlife An News, "He has a lean, athletic physique that most 54-year-old men would kill for, his muscles are hard and close to the skin."
While not invariably as mean and nasty as a rampaging river in Ungava, Reneson's talk can be blunt to the point of pugnacity. While discussing art, his motto might well be the campaign slogan that Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer immortalized when they ran for municipal office in New York more than 20 years ago: "No More Bullshit!" About Reneson, Davis wrote, "A diplomat he is not. His feuds with captains of the wildlife/sporting art industry are legendary."
This is one artist, however, who need play footsie with no one in any industry. His watercolors of wildfowl-hunting and salmon-angling are so deft and dramatic he sells them as fast he paints them. They show brooding skies, perky retrievers, raised shotguns, curling backcasts, white explosions of water, the blazing foliage and dank marshes of autumn, and winds and snow squalls you can almost feel hitting your cheeks. Gazing at some of Reneson's best work makes you shiver, and want to huddle beside a riverside campfire.
The strokes of a watercolorist, like the shots of a duck-hunter, should be quick, decisive, and expert. He must get the whole scene right the first time, or scrap it, and start over. Reneson is so good at getting it right the first time that many art-loving outdoorsmen regard him as the most evocative painter since Winslow Homer recorded in watercolor his adventures while chasing landlocks in Quebec ("Winslow Homer: At Horne on the Roaring Saguenay," ASJ, Autumn, 1992).
Reneson built his early reputation on his superb depictions of bird-hunting, but as he wearied of "freezing my ass in a duck blind," he concentrated more on fly-fishing. He has the rare distinction of having been named Artist of the Year by Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Reneson likes everything about salmon angling except "its competitiveness, and the fact you have to book so far ahead that it programs your life." Last summer, however, thanks to unexpected cancellations by other anglers, he was able to descend on the Whale River Salmon Club after a mere three days' notice, The results included some superb watercolors of a powerful, rugged, mean and nasty Canadian river, and several furious contests with rough, tough and ready salmon. These fish thought nothing of ripping out 100 yards of line and backing.
While casting on the Whale, Reneson was alone all week. "it was the strangest situation," he said. "I couldn't talk to anyone about what I was doing." About such standard fodder for angling chitchat as the weather, water levels, pools, and fly choices, he could trade opinions only with himself During two days of hard fishing, he hooked nothing, but on the third, he caught a thick, bright, 19-pound salmon. He later hooked seven more salmon, and landed five of them -all bigger than the 19-pounder.
Still I, he was as glad to leave as he'd been to arrive. It's always that way with Reneson. He must get back to his studio in Lyme. "I'm a painter," he says. "I read about painting. I study it. I love it. It's like playing the piano. You've got to do it all the time, especially watercolor. You've got to do it day in, day out," - Harry Bruce