“OK,” Rick Bartow says, putting a chisel and mallet in my hands. “Now, you make your mark.”
I reach across the smoothed round of old-growth fine grain softwood, bending my back toward the spot that I’m about to hollow out. “You’ll be on the Raven pole, up near the top,” Bartow tells me. “People look up there, they’ll see what you did.”
The chisel is light, even in my unsteady hand, and the wood gouges easily. Chop-chop-chop, like skimming the surface from a gallon of rocky road with an ice cream scoop. Just like that, I carve my notch for future generations to see on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Come September 21st, when the two 20-foot-tall carved poles now lying in pieces in Bartow’s Oregon coastal studio are installed and dedicated on the National Mall outside the National Museum of the American Indian, my mark – and many other people’s, but mostly Bartow’s own, because he’s the mastermind and primary carver – will be standing sentinel about a block from the White House, a small piece of artistic democracy in the shadows of political power. And it’ll be there for a long time to come.
Soon the carving, We Were Always Here, will be trucked cross-country for the equinox dedication. The twin figures – one pole a raven, the other Grandmother Bear – will rise at the back entrance of the museum, where there’s a pool. “They’ll be standing there with their arms open,” Bartow says, “welcoming people on the water side.”
A lot’s shifted in the nine-plus months that Bartow and his team have been working on what might be the most prominent project of his career: an emblematic sculpture that consists of two pole carvings fashioned from wood roughly 300 and 1,200 years old. They are not, he takes pains to point out, totem poles. Totem poles come from the traditions of people to the north. When the museum asked him to create poles for the mall, “Patently I said, ‘I don’t want anything at all akin to Northwest Coast. This is ours. It’s from here, not there.’ And they said, ‘We just want you.’”
Now, amid the construction-site clutter of this concrete-floored room, the end’s in sight.
The project’s gone remarkably well, if you discount the numerous design changes, the struggles to align art with engineering for the permanent installation, the steep learning curve, and the occasional flareup of vision problems from Bartow’s unexpected stroke about a year and a half ago. Originally each pole was to feature a big glass disc – sun on one, moon on the other – designed by Bartow’s partner, glass artist Nancy Blair. That changed when Corning Glass scientists looked the plans over and declared that at some point the constant stress of sun, rain and wind would cause the discs to burst. Government engineers, not surprisingly, blanched at the prospect of glass showering over tourists on the mall below.
So, things have shifted as the project’s moved along. To satisfy demands for permanence and safety, for instance, the poles have been carved out and will be fitted around huge steel rods rooted into the ground. In Bartow’s world the vision is sure but the process is provisional. 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.”
Bartow is Wiyot and Yurok as well as European American, and he’s admired internationally for his drawings, paintings and wood sculptures rooted in Native American transformation tales. His influences range from Maori and Japanese traditional art to his fellow Northwest Indian contemporary artists and such important European figures as Chagall, Odilon Redon, Francis Bacon, and Horst Janssen. His hometown, where he’s a popular fixture when he’s not on the road, plays a role in the making of his art, too. Born in Newport in 1946, he still lives on the family homestead at South Beach, just across the Yaquina Bay Bridge from downtown.
He’s had success in galleries (Froelick Gallery represents him in Portland) and has work in several museum collections, including the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. He’s had a solo show at the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, and his carving The Cedar Mill Pole spent a year in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House in the late 1990s. The prominence of the current commission is a kind of confirmation, at least officially, of his importance as an artist. “The best thing is, they came to me,” he says. “God, after 65 years, that’s a good thing.”
We’re standing among the hand tools and shaved-wood smell of Bartow’s rented studio, a simple industrial space just off the Corvallis highway near its conjunction with U.S. 101 in Newport, around the corner from the Eagles Lodge and not much more than a spit and a whistle above the Pacific Ocean. My wife, Laura Grimes, the photographer for this story, and Bartow’s low-key and blessedly competent assistant, Jon Paden, are here, too. Other people wander in and out, among them Evan Peterson, the young drummer in Bartow’s folk/blues band, which played the night before at Nye Beach’s venerable Café Mundo. It’s a pretty big space, and other artists are using it for small projects, too.
The studio, Bartow observes, is too big for his taste. After the warren of small shack-sized studios he uses on his South Beach property, he’s not sure what to do with it all. He likes to be cocooned when he’s working. But with those big slabs of wood he needed a big space, and now it has all sorts of stuff in it, from his own wooden side projects such as a series of masks to pieces by friends to his collection of hand tools, several with distinctive handles he’s carved, for working the wood. For a while sweeping up the wood chips was a daily chore, but now they lie there like a slightly spongy turf. This way, he explains, if a blade slips out of his hand and falls to the floor, it’s cushioned and doesn’t chip.
Almost three months before the poles are due for delivery, things are in good shape. The pieces will need to have a finish applied, but that’s easy. One stretch of pole where the wood was flawed will need some epoxy filling. But the parts have been calibrated well. “The animals all go together and everything fits right,” Bartow says. “There’s just minor problems to fix up.”
One thing to understand about Bartow is that, yes, he’s an important American contemporary artist, but he’s also a part of his place. He fits in Newport, and Newport fits him. He has the freedom here to just be who he is, and that includes making music. In some circles around here he’s better known for that than for his artwork. And that seems just fine with him.
On a Saturday night at the organically topsy turvy Cafe Mundo, he seems nobbled into the woodwork. Bartow’s been playing here, sometimes every Saturday night, for years, back to the days when the band played outside on the patio while a series of fires burned around the tables and the rain might drizzle down onto the musicians’ necks. A Bartow piece hangs above the balcony bar here, and he’s done paintings on a few of the tabletops. Most people don’t know, or stop to think, that they’re setting their beer glasses down on a surface worth thousands of dollars.
To Bartow, Mundo is part of the community, part of home. Once somebody came in and offered to buy one of his paintings off the wall for $4,000. The café wouldn’t sell it, because Rick had given it to them. “I told ’em, ‘You shoulda sold it!’” he recalls with a grin. “I can always do you another one!”
Bartow and keyboardist Leon Forrest have been playing together for more than 30 years, or about as long, he likes to point out, as Bartow’s been sober. The most recent iteration of the band is called Rick Bartow and the Backseat Drivers, and with his hawk nose, blue jeans, white T-shirt, black leather jacket and baseball cap Bartow sits in the driver’s seat, leaning into the microphone and playing an electric guitar that’s as shocking pink as a Mary Kay Cadillac. His voice is sharp, like a high-pitched knife, and it drives.
The driving’s easy, like a fishing town’s groove, breaking into an occasional yowl. “Used to ride on a Greyhound when I was young,” he sings. “Got me a bird that whistles, got a bird that sings.” “Well if you ain’t comin’ then your sister will.” “I got a rocket in my pocket and baby, it’s aimed at you.”
In the tiny space between the tables and the stage, a toddler gets up and twirls. Later a young couple in lust gets up and slow-dances, closely, to whatever music the band’s playing, uptempo or down. Just another Saturday night in Newport. And Bartow, the artist, is the soundtrack, too.
In the studio on Sunday morning, Bartow runs his hand across the straight vertical grain of one of the main logs, a marvel of old-growth tightness that he knows is disappearing from the woods. “We’ll never see the likes of this again in our lifetime,” he says.
The logs come from the S’Klallam Tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. The prominent carver Duane Pasco, who did most of the prep work for the carvings, had the wood for 15 years. He and master carver Loren White worked the logs’ backs, which are heavily patterned, rather like an owl’s feathers or an alligator’s skin. “Suffice it to say, those two guys are masters,” Bartow says. “They’re just incredible carvers.”
They’re also evidence of the interweaving of communities that is central to Bartow’s art and his view of the world. His poles pointedly aren’t totems. But he knows and learns from the people who keep the totem traditions. The links are close. Joe David, Bartow says, “roughed out the salmon and then I carved ’er up.” Joe David is the son of Hyacinth David Jr., also an artist friend of Bartow’s, who is a British Columbia carver of the Clayoquot Band. Hyacinth studied with carver Pasco, who supplied the logs. Pasco and White, elders in the form, are non-native. Hyacinth David Jr., from a Nootka band, learned part of his traditional craft from White. Bartow is Wyot, Yurok, European. It all comes together in the work.
Although carving and small wooden figures have become important parts of his work in recent years, Bartow still thinks of himself as primarily a flat-surface artist. Most of his carvings are for indoor display, and because they don’t get whipped by the weather, structural integrity isn’t a big issue. Twenty-foot-tall poles in a crowded outdoor space are a very different story. For those, you need not just a wing and a prayer but also a good deal of experienced help. “It’s an act of faith from top to bottom,” Bartow says. “You tell somebody, ‘Sure, I can do that,’ and they say, ‘OK.’ And then the wood shows up and you say … ‘Now what?’”
“Now what” is, Jon Paden shows up.
“He just came out of nowhere,” Bartow says with a smile.
Actually, Paden, 30, arrived in the Northwest from South Carolina through Ohio. He’d been working at Pilchuck Glass, the school that Dale Chihuly founded, and had done a little curating of glass art in Seattle. A practical guy with an artist’s eye, he understands Bartow’s vision and helps make it work. His father was an auctioneer, and from an early age Paden learned to be thoroughly comfortable with valuable objects, holding them up for display while the bidding was going on. When Bartow met Paden he knew him as a master printer, and didn’t know he also did woodwork. But Paden had worked with Bartow’s friend Joe David, the pole carver. On this project Paden’s been the go-between with the federal engineers, the guy who figures out, literally, how all the pieces fit and come apart, how to make it work structurally. Come September, he’ll also be the guy trucking the poles cross-country to Washington for the installation.
Bartow paces around the studio, eagerly pointing out how Paden has devised ways to fit the various sections together Lincoln Log style, so they interlock securely yet can also be broken down easily for transport. “My stuff is just all knocked together and crazy and stuff, y’know, and all of a sudden we’re lookin’ at longevity, at being outside,” he says. “He’s figured all this stuff out like a giant puzzle. It slides together and locks.”
Paden made his entrance theatrically, just when he was needed. Bartow had the commission and found the logs, but he didn’t have any money yet to pay for them and he didn’t know how to get them from the Kitsap Peninsula to Newport.
“We started with a lick and a promise until the money came in,” Bartow says. “Jon just showed up on Day Two of the job and told us he could move it. So he used his own money to get it down here to us, because we didn’t have a dime. He had two dimes. He rented a U-Haul truck, stuck in the poles, and showed up here at 2 in the morning. And Nancy (Blair) said, ‘Well, here we go.’”
A commission like the National Mall piece is very different from the flat-surface drawings and paintings, often created three at a time as he moves from sheet to sheet on the studio wall, that make up Bartow’s best-known work. The pole carvings are big and complex, and like most pieces of public art they come with strict requirements.
At times the process has been frustrating for an artist used to working on his own, doing what he likes. When he’s feeling a little committeed up, he likes to remind himself of just who’s boss. Scrawled in pencil on a studio wall, over a chalk drawing of what looks like a bear’s head, is this reminder:
Them rip this job
from the living cloth
Here in the studio, among the clutter and the carved creatures, the living cloth seems alive and healthy. The carvings, even unfinished, are potent with energy. Raven suggests the trickster and also water, “which is a huge concern” to Oregon tribes. A friend donated pristine Port Orford cedar to use for the wings. Grandmother Bear is a protective and healing force, and suggests motherhood. The poles and ancillary pieces are swiftly taking on the form of preliminary sketches tacked to the walls. Bartow’s carved masks sit to the side, observing, providing ambiance.
All is going well, even though Bartow’s been dealing for the past year and a half with the vision problems that arrived with his stroke. “Woke up blind, basically,” he recalls. “Never had Symptom One. So I laid around for a few days and sorta got the eyesight back in my left eye. I still got these things going on. But I feel good. Change your diet, change your life, get rid of stress as much as you can. … With stroke, you use what you lost, and the more you can use it the better it is. So. My eyesight is changing. … There are holes in my visual field. I notice now that things are not disappearing. I used to sit at the house and watch birds go across the sky and then just disappear. It was kind of fun for the first few days but then it got boring.”
Fortunately, artists don’t see only with their eyes. Bartow’s eye remains superb, and part of what makes it so distinctive is that it attaches to a spirit that encompasses many things, including the broad swath of people he thinks of as his community. He’s the boss, but he looks on Blair and Paden as crucial partners in the enterprise. And a lot of other people have made their notches in this wood – often, as in my case, literally. “People thought I was nuts,” he says, playing a toothpick absently around his jaw. “But I’m in love with stuff like that. The whole community’s been so supportive of me over the years.”
Laura sets down her camera and picks up the chisel and mallet. Her hand has always been surer than mine, and she chips at the wooden flesh confidently, laying down a neat row of ripples. Bartow smiles approvingly. My own row is a little more tentative, sloshing over a bit, wandering uncertainly outside of what ought to be a straight line. Bartow grins. “Don’t worry,” he says with a hint of sideways humor. “Anything you mess up, Jon can fix.”
That’s the genius of the thing.