As the crow flies


Painter Rick Bartow (Wiyot) died on April 2 af­ter years of fail­ing health, but as long as he could con­tinue mak­ing art, he did so. Bartow was known for his raw, an­i­mal­is­tic im­agery, in which trans­for­ma­tion is a ma­jor theme. In his art, he drew from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and indige­nous tra­di­tions, cre­at­ing a body of work that con­veys a sense of ur­gency. Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Can­not Ex­plain — A Ret­ro­spec­tive Ex­hi­bi­tion, opens Fri­day, Aug. 19, at the IAIA Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts. Another Bartow show opens con­cur­rently at Chiaroscuro Con­tem­po­rary Art, a se­lec­tion of his works on pa­per. On the cover is Bartow’s CS In­dian, 2014, col­ored pen­cil, graphite, tem­pura, and acrylic on pa­per.

IN 2013, artist Rick Bartow suf­fered the sec­ond of two strokes that left him with a blind spot in one eye, mem­ory loss, and speech dif­fi­cul­ties. But his health did not dampen his artis­tic spirit and he re­turned to his prac­tice with en­thu­si­asm, cre­at­ing works on a scale rarely seen in his ear­lier paint­ings. In the ex­hi­bi­tion Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Can­not Ex­plain ,a ret­ro­spec­tive on view at the IAIA Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts, a paint­ing ref­er­ences this time in his life, when he strug­gled to main­tain his con­nec­tion to all that he knew and re­mem­bered. The com­po­si­tion, called Deer Magic, is a re­turn to the theme of hu­man-an­i­mal trans­for­ma­tion that he ex­plored through­out his ca­reer. The paint­ing de­picts a hu­man body with the head and hooves of a deer. Sur­round­ing the fig­ure in nu­mer­ous it­er­a­tions and sizes are let­ters and num­bers writ­ten as ABC 123, a ref­er­ence to a phrase he re­peated over and over af­ter his stroke, along with his birth date and other facts he could re­mem­ber, to help him res­cue his own mind, which he feared would slip fur­ther into obliv­ion. “He felt vul­ner­a­ble his whole life,” Bartow’s long­time dealer Charles Froelick told Pasatiempo. “It was clear to him what frail­ties there were to hu­man­ity and his own life. He felt very lucky and very for­tu­nate to be alive. He kept say­ing, ‘Here I am again. I sur­vived.’”

Bartow, who died of con­ges­tive heart fail­ure on April 2 at age sixty-nine, was a pro­lific artist whose work broached univer­sal themes while of­ten ref­er­enc­ing per­sonal nar­ra­tives. “He was om­niv­o­rous, re­ally, in look­ing for com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences, but his work was def­i­nitely rooted in his per­sonal life,” said Froelick, whose Port­land, Ore­gon gallery con­trib­uted sev­eral pieces to the trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tion. “Rick was made to make art,” he said. “He didn’t love pa­per­work, an­swer­ing phones, do­ing email. He didn’t want to be the or­ga­nizer. He didn’t like run­ning er­rands. He just wanted to make art. It was his work ethic from the get-go that you don’t wait for the muse. You go into your stu­dio and you paint and you paint and you paint and you draw and you carve.”

Bartow’s com­po­si­tions were so steeped in per­sonal his­tory that self-por­trai­ture, even when it wasn’t os­ten­sive, was ha­bit­u­ally present. “He of­ten uses the bear in his trans­for­ma­tion pieces,” said Manuela Well-Off-Man, the IAIA mu­seum’s chief cu­ra­tor. “You think you see an an­i­mal face, but if you look closer, you can see Rick Bartow’s eyes or his eye­glasses. He used self-por­trai­ture a lot in his work, from the early ’80s to the present day. He was re­ally known for his ex­pres­sive pas­tels on pa­per, but he was also an ex­cel­lent drafts­man. Be­fore he passed away, he vis­ited our mu­seum here and he gen­er­ously do­nated 13 re­ally nice works. We have an en­tire wall ded­i­cated to this do­na­tion. He strug­gled with sev­eral tragedies in his life, and art was a tool for heal­ing. He some­times said, ‘Art is an af­ford­able ther­apy.’ ”

The ret­ro­spec­tive was or­ga­nized by the Jor­dan Sch­nitzer Mu­seum of Art at the Univer­sity of Ore­gon and cu­rated by the JSMA’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Jill Hartz, and JSMA McCosh as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor Danielle Knapp. They iden­ti­fied five ma­jor com­po­nents of Bartow’s life and work, along which the show is ar­ranged: ges­ture, self, di­a­logue, trans­for­ma­tion, and new work. “We ar­ranged the show the way we did, in themes rather than be­ing strictly chrono­log­i­cal, be­cause he would talk about what was hap­pen­ing at the time he cre­ated a work, and so much of it re­mained con­sis­tent through­out

his prac­tice decades later,” Knapp told Pasatiempo. “Where you have some­thing from the 1980s next to a more re­cent work, it felt as though time was elim­i­nated be­tween the two be­cause it was re­ally all about his ex­pe­ri­ence where art and life were in­ter­twined.” The ex­hibit opened at the Jor­dan Sch­nitzer Mu­seum in 2015 be­fore trav­el­ing to the Gil­crease Mu­seum in Tulsa. “The open­ing was mag­i­cal,” said Hartz. “When it came time for Rick to ad­dress a crowd of 800 peo­ple, he went into the crowd with his arms open in a kind of a prayer and he chanted. It was an aus­pi­cious start to the event.” In ad­di­tion to the ex­hibit at IAIA MoCNA, Chiaroscuro Con­tem­po­rary Art, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Froelick Gallery, is mount­ing a solo ex­hibit of 19 works on pa­per and can­vas, Rick Bartow: Big Crow. The ex­hibit fo­cuses on im­agery re­lated to the themes of the ret­ro­spec­tive, and opens with a 5 p.m. re­cep­tion on Fri­day, Aug. 19.

Bartow’s paint­ings, draw­ings, prints, and wood­carv­ings, which com­pose the bulk of the MoCNA ex­hi­bi­tion, are fig­u­ra­tive and nar­ra­tive, but ren­dered with the spon­ta­neous, dy­namic en­ergy of an ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist. His works are pow­er­ful, emo­tive, and some­times fright­en­ing glimpses into the hu­man condition that in­cor­po­rate drawn lines with bold, ges­tu­ral ap­pli­ca­tions of paint. Deer Magic is one of sev­eral late-ca­reer paint­ings that hang side by side along one wall of the ex­hibit at MoCNA. Another is Bird Bird Bird Crow Crow, in which a fig­ure lies prostate, a ges­ture that for Bartow rep­re­sented death or sleep, be­neath the fig­ure of a crow. The hor­i­zon­tal fig­ure seems caught in a lim­i­nal state, per­haps dream­ing or trans­form­ing into the crow, a mes­sen­ger be­tween worlds. Dot­ted lines, a mo­tif that reap­pears in Bartow’s work, em­anate from the crow’s beak as though it is speak­ing in some un­fa­mil­iar tongue. It is a haunt­ing and sug­ges­tive com­po­si­tion, es­pe­cially com­ing so close on the heels of his strokes. “He was frail. He couldn’t stand all the time, but he had to stand to make th­ese works,” Hartz said. “He was still push­ing him­self. I don’t think he would have re­cov­ered if he couldn’t make art. It kept him sane, or as sane as he wanted to be.”

“It aided in his re­cov­ery,” added Knapp. “I saw th­ese larger works he cre­ated dur­ing that pe­riod as th­ese acts of de­fi­ance against the lim­i­ta­tions of the body, but also as a celebration of be­ing able to re­cover that im­por­tant part of him­self. Charles has an anec­dote he shared about Rick in the hos­pi­tal, grab­bing a pen­cil and start­ing to draw, and call­ing Charles and say­ing, ‘I can still draw a bird. Ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be OK.’ ”

Bartow, a mu­si­cian as well as an artist, was of Wiyot her­itage on his fa­ther’s side. He was raised in Ore­gon in a com­mu­nity of Con­fed­er­ated Tribes of Siletz In­di­ans, and adapted cus­toms and tra­di­tions of not only the Wiyot and Siletz, but also of other Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes into his paint­ings — as well as global myths and lit­er­ary and mu­si­cal ref­er­ences. In 1969, he was drafted, spend­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice work­ing as a tele­typ­ist and a mu­si­cian, play­ing for in­jured troops in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Viet­nam. His ser­vice earned him a Bronze Star, but left him suf­fer­ing from symp­toms of post-trau­matic stress. “He was in the hos­pi­tals when th­ese sol­diers were com­ing back from the front lines with com­plete dis­mem­ber­ment from the waist down: no legs, no arms, in their dy­ing mo­ments,” Froelick said. “When peo­ple hit rock bot­tom, ei­ther they fall apart or they pull them­selves to­gether. Rick re­mem­bered what it was like to be at rock bot­tom, and he knew what a pow­er­ful place of vul­ner­a­bil­ity that is. It’s a po­tent ex­pe­ri­ence to feel your com­plete mor­tal­ity, but also see op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue the rest of your life.”

Af­ter the war, Bartow strug­gled with al­co­holism and a failed mar­riage. The ear­li­est piece in the ex­hi­bi­tion, from which the show’s ti­tle is taken, is a graphite draw­ing of hu­man fig­ure, mouth agape in a silent scream. It dates to 1979, the year Bartow be­came sober. “Hav­ing art as a way to ex­or­cise his own demons was re­ally im­por­tant to him, and it gave him a life­line not just to phys­i­cal re­cov­ery, but emo­tional re­cov­ery dur­ing dif­fi­cult times,” Knapp said.

For Bartow, mak­ing art was about process. It was also an in­tensely phys­i­cal act that was as much about trans­for­ma­tion as was his sub­ject mat­ter. But he avoided tech­ni­cal pro­cesses that were ex­act­ing — such as lithog­ra­phy, bronze cast­ing, and glass work — in fa­vor of the more im­me­di­ate and vis­ceral acts of mark-mak­ing. “He tried his hand work­ing with glass, but there are so many tech­ni­cal as­pects,” said Froelick. “We made one bronze cast­ing to­gether and that was from a wood sculp­ture. He made the large wood piece and had a mold made to turn it into a bronze, but the process was so dis­ori­ent­ing to him that he didn’t want to do another bronze af­ter that.”

His stu­dio was di­vided into sep­a­rate build­ings, each one ded­i­cated to a par­tic­u­lar medium. He main­tained a paint­ing stu­dio, a wood­carv­ing stu­dio, and a print shop. “He could sit in the mid­dle of his carv­ing stu­dio and he could reach the wall on three sides to find the right tool and they were all hang­ing over his head,” Froelick said. “He’d spend a cou­ple of days in the carv­ing stu­dio, then he’d work in the print shop, then the paint­ing stu­dio.”

Bartow also loved to work with words, was fond of Shake­speare, and was an avid reader. “It’s typ­i­cal of his work that you find text in­cor­po­rated in his com­po­si­tions, and sym­bol­ism bor­rowed not only from Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tures but also from indige­nous cul­tures world­wide,” said Well-Off-Man.

“He had to make art, and it was a bless­ing and a curse,” said Froelick. “He said it was what he knew how to do. It was what he was al­ways good at: mak­ing im­ages and, at the same time, be­ing tuned into some­thing else go­ing on in the uni­verse.”


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