Master Interpreter Rick Bartow, Interpreted by a Friend
This Sunday, Rick Bartow (Mad River Wiyot, b. 1946) will be teaching a drawing workshop at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. (A few places remain. To register, follow this link and click the "Sign Up" button at the bottom.) The museum will also post a short photo essay about the workshop on the blog next week. Bartow's drawing Deer Dancer for Hyacinth (right) is on view at NMAI through August 7 as part of the exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Art Collection. His art can be found in many other prominent institutions, including the Heard Museum, Phoenix; the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis; the Denver Art Museum; and the Berlin Ethnological Museum. His honors also include a traveling show organized by the Hallie Ford Museum (2002–2004); a solo exhibition in Continuum: 12 Artists at NMAI's Heye Center in New York (2003); the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art (2001); and an installation in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House.
Northwest imagery, Japanese prints, and Maori and African art inspire Bartow's drawings, paintings, sculpture, and prints. Oral traditions, especially Native American transformation stories, are also at the heart of much of his work, as are themes of loss, addiction, and personal transformation. Of the many influences or sources reflected in his work, Bartow—who lives in Oregon, near where he was born—has said, "I'm an artist who happens to be Indian. I'm involved in what I can find in my culture, and I use that in my work. Wisdom is wisdom." Here, Charles Froelick, whose gallery represents Bartow, offers insights into his friend's creative process.
Hello, I’m Charles Froelick, posting from Portland, Oregon. I’m honored to write about Rick Bartow, an artist I’ve worked for since 1992. Rick and I met through Jamison Thomas Gallery, the pioneering Portland and New York City art gallery that gave Rick his first national representation. Rick was a pillar of that gallery and he is in my gallery, too. After William Jamison’s untimely death in 1995, I opened Froelick Gallery and humbly began representing Rick. Rick is an artistic omnivore, constantly searching the internal and external worlds for emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and poetic inspiration. It is thrilling to work with someone who just doesn’t stop, but who also knows how to carefully observe. I consider him a genius on many levels, and I hope you can take a moment to get to know him. Rick’s work Deer Dancer for Hyacinth (above) is on view through August 7 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, as part of the exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Art Collection. Here, I want to write about a few aspects of Rick that I don’t see covered so much in the press.
Once, while we were discussing the broad range of artistic trends, Rick said that he doesn’t think of himself as “a conceptual artist”; he “tells stories through marks and images.” He is definitely an interpreter—he draws, paints, assembles, and carves. His references span a worldwide range from ancient myths to the present moment, and he filters everything through his personal experiences and family heritage. He is also a voracious looker, poring over art books like no one I know, and working/growing through these references in the studio at lightning speed.
When asked about his artistic motivations, Rick likes to quote the explanation offered by the writer Raymond Carver: “Because sometimes only the sound and vision can sustain us.” We have discussed how he hopes his relationship as an artist can unfold with the audience. Rick wants his stories to open up to the viewer, like an unfolding book—not to thrust “one truth” on the viewer, but to allow for different viewings and meanings every day; not to read as only Pacific/Northwest Coast, but to be personal and somehow universal. I believe that the best stories give us broad clues and leave many details unspecified, allowing for our own personal interpretation. Like Zen kōans, they can also obscure the mind for a while, so that we must center our thoughts or think of the situation from an oblique angle. We must find meaning that speaks to us where we are today.
Many people know Rick as a visual artist, but he has also been an active musician since his teens, writing and performing songs. I think this adds a wonderful facet to viewing his art—he thinks so lyrically, whether he’s drawing or singing. Drafted into the Army when he graduated from college in 1969, Rick served in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star; the oak leaf cluster on his award recognizes his distinguished service playing the guitar and singing to the wounded. Since the 1970s he has been a lead singer and songwriter in many bands. I have asked him about the relationship of his artwork to his music. He says it’s all about creating a visual. And it is all spiritual in motivation—to find meaning in the eloquence of living and breathing. Whether it’s music or drawing, the premise is very basic—those motivations are the same now as they were for people 1,000 years ago. His work is as elemental as the earliest gestures known.
Paradoxically, issues of “modern motivation” can get in the way of the perception of indigenous artists’ works. Some people expect contemporary indigenous art to look like it did centuries ago, and that romanticism for ancient, archetypal iterations can wreak havoc on understanding contemporary indigenous artists’ authentic inspirations. We live at a fascinating point in time when modern indigenous artists combine their traditional heritage with their individuality. Outstanding craft and the beauty of creation are present in Rick’s work, as they have been present in indigenous works since the dawn of time. He tries to learn from the past, and his work is absolutely inspired by a collective past, yet his individual view is firmly planted in life today. Rick goes into the studio and writes or draws his way through life. Can’t you just imagine the earliest people going back to their families to paint on the wall and saying, “You wouldn’t believe the wild beast I saw today with my buddies! It was like this. . . . ” Rick goes into the studio and writes or draws about today’s wild beasts. Sometimes they are just the same as eons ago. Sometimes they are very, very different. One of my favorites quotes among the things Rick has told me about his artwork is, “Once it begins, the battle is on! The many marks go back and forth until the war is done. It must play out until resolution, and make cognitive the blindly thrashing marks, line and color.”
Art, in the order in which works appear:
Rick Bartow, Deer Dancer for Hyacinth, 2001. Pastel, charcoal, and graphite on paper; 87 x 203 cm. Museum purchase, 2003 (26/2871).
Rick Bartow, Mythic Lovers, 1994. Pastel, graphite on paper. 102 x 66 cm. Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery.
Rick Bartow, Surprise, 1995. Pastel, graphite on paper. 102 x 66 cm. Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery.
Rick Bartow, Raven’s Question, 2008. Pastel, charcoal, graphite on paper. 76 x 112 cm. Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery.