The news came this Sunday morning, as news so often does, via Facebook. A mutual friend posted something sad and cryptic, about losing a good friend the previous night, but she named no name. I scrolled down a little more, and came on another post, from his longtime close friend and gallerist, Charles Froelick, along with a picture of Rick looking not lean and energetic and on the brink of sideways laughter, as I suspect I’ll always think of him, but gaunt and reflective, as if moving slowly to somewhere else, someplace private and unbreachable.
“I’m gathered with incredible people who have broken hearts and strong spirits,” Charles wrote. “Rick Bartow passed away last evening after bravely battling congestive heart failure. His family and close friends surrounded him with love as he exited Earth. His poetry and genius will live on. More info and service plans will be announced.”
So there it was. And I found myself responding not first as a journalist – here is news, and it needs to be told, and I must tell it – but viscerally. This wasn’t just a public loss, but a personal one as well. I had written about Rick, this extraordinary Oregon artist and man, several times, and I knew him, not well, but in certain ways deeply: He had told me things and shown me things that people don’t always tell and show when a stranger asks to step into their lives for a while, and that humility and generosity created some sort of bond.
I’d been expecting the news, in the back of my mind, for a few months, although I also held out hope: Rick had been down before, and reconvened. He’d had strokes, and they’d knocked something out of him, but he’d knocked right back. Back in late November, when photographer K.B. Dixon showed me the portraits for his book Face to Face: 32 Oregon Artists, for which I wound up writing the introduction, I was struck by how worn Rick looked in his photographs, and how his shirt, a glossy cowboy thing with skulls and roses on it, seemed to be wearing him like a loose and telltale skin.
Then, a few weeks ago, I dropped into Froelick Gallery, and Charles asked me to come see him in the back room before I left. I did, and found Charles distressed and, it seemed, deeply sad, working hard on pulling together Rick’s inventory. “Is Rick in bad shape?” I asked. Yes, Charles said. He told me Rick was tired all the time, and hadn’t been able to work the past few weeks, which was alarming, because Rick could be obsessive about work. It was the congestive heart failure. Rick had a pacemaker, but that could only regulate the heartbeat. His heart wasn’t getting enough of a blood flow to keep it pumping sufficiently. And so he was listless, and Charles didn’t know if, this time, he’d be able to pop back.
Here are the facts you should know about Rick Elmer Bartow, the pertinent information that in an ordinary obituary would be right up at top. He was 69 years old, and was born in Newport on the Oregon coast, and that is also where he died. This vital information comes from Froelick Gallery: He is survived by his children Booker Bartow, Lily Malcolm Bartow, Ronda Kossow, her husband Mark Kossow, their children Evan, Kaniesha and Rayce Kossow; Rick’s brothers Doug and Howard Mekemson, their life partners, and an extended family. He is preceeded in death by his father Richard, mother Mabel Mekemson, and her husband Andy. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at the Newport Performing Arts Center. All are welcome.
Rick’s father was Native American – Wyot, Yurok – and his mother was European American, and Rick walked through both worlds, although his art worked Native themes and much of his personal life wove through Native connections, too, including his friendships with people from the nearby Siletz tribe. He regularly replenished himself in a sweat lodge that he helped build, and his art, which freely blended European and Native influences, was mostly about transformations: animal spirits, human spirits, meeting, mingling, becoming expressions of one another. This was fascinating, and somehow reflective of an inner turmoil, because, as he once told me, “I don’t deal well with change.”
He had a little bit of Egon Schiele and Odilon Redon and Francis Bacon in his brushes and pencils, and also a lot of Coyote the Trickster, and Raven, and Owl, and his art was equally admired in contemporary and Native art circles. It was eagerly collected by private collectors and museums alike, among them the Peabody Essex, the Heard, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Portland Art Museum and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. In the early 2000s he started fooling around with little carved pieces from scraps of wood, sometimes pounding nails into them or attaching other things, and gradually they became an important part of his work. He also worked, sometimes, in large scale. His carving The Cedar Mill Pole was displayed in 1997 in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House, and his 2012 sculpture We Were Always Here, a pair of 20-foot-tall carved poles, is on permanent display in the National Mall, across from the Washington Monument and beside the National Museum of Indian Art. Once a year or so he’d embark on a self-portrait, always including the sharp curve of his hawk’s-beak of a nose, always part one thing and part another, always in the act of becoming. He was also a regionally noted singer and guitarist, fronting his own blues band for many years: along the central coast, where he lived most of his life and was rooted as deeply as a Douglas fir, a lot of people knew him more for his music than his art. Years ago he married his bass player, Julie Swan, who died from breast cancer in 1999, and they had a son.
In a 2011 review of his exhibition Coyote’s Road at Froelick, I described Rick’s art: “His drawings, prints and paintings, which were once mainly black and white, have long since evolved into a fluid and colorful palette, set down with an almost scrawled sense of urgency that suggests the painful and illuminating moment when a being realizes it’s becoming someone or something entirely different, yet somehow also the same. In European terms, it’s the werewolf moment, with all the turmoil of otherness and connectedness that that implies. The enduring astonishment of Bartow’s art is that somehow he captures the almost unbearable beauty of the moment of transformation – that moment at which we come to realize that we are more than what we realized we were. It is, strangely, a moment of birth, and a moment that can be experienced many times.”
My connection with Rick came about sideways, sometime in the winter of 2001 and 2002: It was shortly after 9/11, and the world was jittery, and innocent of things that were yet to come. I’d admired his paintings and drawings for some time, and I got an invitation to the opening of his exhibition My Eye at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, curated by the talented and perceptive Rebecca J. Dobkins, and so I went. The art, as I expected, was vivid and stimulating. But something else was going on, too. Bartow and his band played the event like a gig, singing and picking and entertaining as the wine glasses clinked, and eventually the evening became a ceremony, a ritual. Rick spent a long time thanking people who had helped him get to where he was, and he thanked them not just with words but with gifts, like a potlatch: to several people in attendance, with appropriate words of blessing, he gave Pendleton blankets. It did not feel like showboating. It felt like genuine kinship, flowing through ritual. It was breaking the ordinary ritual of the art opening, but not provocatively; it was simply observing a different set of rules. Something about this made me want to plunge deeper, to find out more. The art, yes, but the connections: where did the art come from? I asked Rick if I could visit him for a few days at the coast to do a longer story, and he said yes. And so, a couple of weeks later, I did.
Driving around Newport with Bartow was illuminating. Everyone knew him, it seemed, from breakfast-café waitresses to bookstore clerks, and everyone seemed to like him. He pointed out what was old and what was new, some of it better and some of it worse. He showed me the beach where he would run as a kid. He stopped to chat with people, the way small-town folks do. A young local musician dropped by his house to visit, and mentioned he had a gig coming up but he didn’t have a decent guitar. Impulsively, but not thoughtlessly, Rick gave him one he wasn’t using. Someone else visited, and angled baldly for a freebie work of art, figuring flattery would do. “Visit my gallery in Portland,” Rick said laconically. “They handle all my business. Anything I have is for sale there.”
He pointed to the spot in the road where, one night when he’d been particularly drunk and obnoxious, he’d been beaten senseless and left to live or die. He lived, and began to think that maybe sober was a better idea. He talked about being drafted into the Army and going to Vietnam, where he was assigned to be a teletype operator and a musician at a soldiers’ hospital, and the gruesome things he saw in the hospital – “guys’ legs cut off below the genitals” – and the survivor’s guilt that sent him spinning into deep drinking, and how he drew himself – literally – out of it. He drew and drew, always ferociously, and most of it, when he was done, he burned. At one point, as the story I wrote then relates it, he opened a drawer and revealed the few he’d kept: “old weary men, Punchinellos with heavy backs, self-portraits. Variations on Monet, with the beginnings of the erasing technique that would become so important to his work. The first tentative signs of color breaking through the black. ‘Most of these were ’79,’ he says. ‘That’s when I quit drinking. I drew myself straight.’”
Pain was always part of Rick’s transformations. Pain and endurance. And something else, too: grace, humility, openness. Something sweet. “I want to say that Rick is a big man, but that doesn’t sound right,” my wife, Laura Grimes, once wrote about her own encounter with him. “He’s a big spirit. At once gentle and rough.” She was right: He was a man of extraordinary strength and admitted weakness, just another human trying to stumble through, and the weakness, contrarily, made him stronger in ways that strength is not always measured. He had a lot of friends internationally, other artists; he traveled to Japan, and to New Zealand to visit Maori friends. One night he told me about happening on a collection of skulls in the basement of a New Zealand museum that had been donated by a military man who had collected them, somehow, in the American West. They were the skulls of Indians who’d been killed, and when he entered the room, Rick said, the skulls began to scream, to shriek, to cry “help us,” and he was shaken. He related this so quietly and matter-of-factly that whether it was metaphor or dream-state or simple reality I had no reason to disbelieve him; and he began a process that eventually saw the skulls repatriated to the dead men’s own tribes. History was a circle. The past was present. Things that needed to be done needed to be done.
A few years later Laura and I were in Newport and dropped by Café Mundo, where Rick and his band were playing. We chatted between sets, and he invited us to come to his studio – a bigger, rented one, because he needed the extra space – the next morning to see the poles he was carving on commission for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was a huge project, and he had a lot of help on it, from master carvers Duane Pasco and Loren White, who did most of the prep work, to Bartow’s efficient, unflappable, and blessedly competent assistant on the project, Jon Paden. While we were there, people wandered in and out: It was, I realized, a community thing.
“In Bartow’s world the vision is sure but the process is provisional,” I wrote afterwards. “Think about it, fool around with it, make a mark here, move a piece there, invite a few friends, see what happens. An element of chance and a large slice of make-do enter the equation, and the math seems to work. ‘Everything’s a lick and a whistle,’ he says wryly. ‘Don’t buy green bananas but eat ’em if you got ’em.’”
The element of chance and the equations that he made, I came to realize, had to do with people, and his generosity, and his sense that life was made to share. He could be stubborn: he knew his worth, and when to give in and when to be adamant. On the studio wall he’d scrawled these words to himself: “DON’T LET Them rip this job from the living cloth of My Genius.” But he wanted this project to be for everyone, and where he could, he called everyone in. Even me. After we’d talked a while he handed me a chisel and mallet and said, “OK. Now, you make your mark.” I did, shakily. Rick grinned. “You’ll be on the Raven pole,” he told me. “People look up there, they’ll see what you did.” A tiny bit of eternity, right up there. A little bit of a gift, freely given.
I sat down to write this story after printing out a few of the pieces I’d written about Rick over the years. I looked at the one called Grace, Falling Like Rain, the one about my first visit to Rick’s home and studio, from March of 2002. In it, I was watching Rick work in one of a string of tiny shacks behind his house in South Beach, on a slope overlooking the waters of Yaquina Bay. Wind and rain were rattling the little studio, Springsteen was singing on the boom box, three large paper sheets were tacked to the wall. Rick was attacking them all at once, moving from left to center to right and back in an energetic and impromptu dance.
The story starts like this: “ ‘One thing I hold true is that we’re made up as much of what we’ve lost as what we’ve gained,’ Rick Bartow says, smudging out a streak of pastel crayon with the palm of his hand. ‘And what is erasing but a metaphor for that?’”
As it was in the beginning, so it is at the end. We are made up of what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained, and in both cases, Rick Bartow is part of us. Rest, then, in peace.
Other stories on Rick Bartow:
Painter Rick Bartow: 1946-2016. A very good report from Bob Keefer of Eugene Art Talk.
Transformation: The Art of Rick Bartow. A good, unsigned story from the web site Cultural Survival.
Grace, Falling Like Rain. My 2002 story, originally from The Oregonian, on Bartow and his life and art.
Scenes from a Writers’ Marriage: How He Got That Story. Laura Grimes writes about meeting Bartow.
Tears and Rain: One Artist’s View from Sea Level. Rebecca J. Dobkin’s insightful and thoroughly researched story about Bartow and his art from the Fall 2006 Oregon Historical Quarterly.
In the studio: Rick Bartow carves a spot on the National Mall. My 2012 story on Bartow’s commission and process for the twin sculpture We Were Always Here, on permanent display on the National Mall.
Farewell Rick Bartow. A Eugene Weekly piece by Alex V. Cipolle that catches a good slice of Bartow’s personality.
Rick Bartow, Stunning NW Artist, Dies at 69. This piece, by Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer and Aaron Scott, includes links to a long radio interview on OPB’s “State of Wonder” and a video on his life and work from Oregon Art Beat.
Late artist Rick Bartow earned international acclaim yet remained true to Oregon roots. Tom Hallman Jr. writes the obituary for The Oregonian.