Greg Berman never met the late artist Rick Bartow, never sat in on a music set to hear Bartow play, never heard him speak. But he is friends with Bartow’s close friend and gallery owner Charles Froelick, and that made him privy to details of Bartow’s life.
Berman was taking a class on writing for stage and screen, when the instructor suggested students with a close connection to good source material might want to think about adapting it for the stage. The little bell in Berman’s head gave a resounding ding. Next month, Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria will present a world-premiere staged reading of Berman’s play, Bartow, in three performances, Oct. 6, 7, and 8.
Bartow was a Vietnam veteran, artist, musician, and member of the Wiyot Tribe. He made his home in Newport, where he died in 2016 at age 69. He is considered a leader in contemporary Native American art.
Described as a “theatrical exploration of recovery,” Berman’s play centers on the characters of Bartow and a young med student who, according to a synopsis of the play, “attempt their own form of therapy by entering Bartow’s art as expressions of prior traumas, lost Indigenous heritage, abstract animal paintings, sculptures, masks, and lost songs.” It is adapted from Bartow’s retrospective and accompanying book Things You Know But Cannot Explain.
Oregon ArtsWatch talked with Berman, who by day is a Portland psychiatrist, about creating Bartow. His comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Once you decided on adapting Bartow’s art for a performance, where did you begin?
Berman: Charles Froelick is the expert on Rick Bartow, and I just started meeting with him and interviewing him. I got to hear the origin story of Rick Bartow’s art-making. I went to LA to the Autry Museum and went through the retrospective, and did sketches and photographs and brainstormed. I went to the Smithsonian in D.C. to find all his work in the Museum of the American Indian. There are two really good books: obviously, Things You Know But Cannot Explain, and another [My Eye] that is out of print. I used the texts from those books. Also, Charles gave me all of Rick’s song lyrics – a giant binder of all his songs.
What is your process in creating something like this?
I’m a psychiatrist and I’m interested in mental health stories. I have a lot of respect for not co-opting the story. I’m very against having an analysis of someone psychologically. I am more interested in observing things. Rick was a Vietnam veteran and it’s well known he had alcoholism after the war. There is a story where he worked in black and white mainly. He would make a fair amount of work and would burn it all. One day he got sober. After he got sober, he worked in color.
What did you hope to achieve with Bartow?
My intent is really to experience art or theater as a viewer and to use it as an opportunity to explore my own mental health challenges, questions I have about life, my clients’ mental health challenges. I’m interested in using art to experience the full person and the full person’s experience through mental health crises.
What can you tell readers about the performance?
Rick had a couple of strokes…. I took the moments after the strokes. I came up with a hypothetical hospital experience and created a character I could relate to. I think as a viewer, we are only going to know so much when we look at a piece of work. When you go to a retrospective and read the descriptions, spend time with the art, you get most of the story.
Unfortunately, if you see this as a fully staged play, you’re not seeing his art, but you are seeing kind of a campfire story of the experience. How can that help us grow? Maybe there are opportunities and potential to explore how art can help our own mental health. It’s overly simplistic to say that creativity heals psychological wounds, but I think it does.
What did you learn about art and healing as it related to Bartow personally?
He didn’t know what his capabilities were going to be after having a stroke. So, what did he do? He insisted on getting back to the studio as fast as he could. And he was making art. After a stroke, you have a very big deficit. You’re locked in for a bit, in terms of your motor functions … the blood vessels are reorganized in your brain. Your blood vessels have to find new connections after a blockage.
So, I was sort of playing with the idea of, OK, so now you’ve had a stroke, how do you create those new connections, and could those new connections even potentially be better or different? Could new disability potentially be helped by creativity? And certainly, Rick is a role model for that, because he had a huge hit, and his art changed in those years, but he made quite a lot of work between 2013 and 2016. The amazingness of this story is that he actually went back to making art and the art changed, and the changes ended up being very successful.
What do you want the audience to take from this?
This is an Oregon Coast story and I really do want it to have a home on the Oregon Coast. All these people have these experiences with Rick Bartow. It’s a gift. My main interest here is cementing Rick Bartow as a role model for creative people everywhere. How can we use role models in our lives? That really is the question.