Photos by JOE CANTRELL
A collection of seventeen drawings by the late Oregon artist Rick Bartow, From the Heart: Author Drawings by Rick Bartow, is on view through September 29 in the Upstairs Gallery of the Newport Visual Arts Center, and it includes work that’ll look both familiar in style and distinctive in content to followers of Bartow’s career.
Bartow, who was born in Newport and lived and worked in South Beach, just across the Yaquina Bay Bridge, died in 2016 at age 69, of congestive heart failure. Of Native American and European heritage, he was a member of the Mad River Band of Northern California’s Wiyot Tribe, and had close ties with the Siletz tribes on the Oregon coast. The drawings in this show, which he donated in 2000 to the Newport Public Library, haven’t been exhibited as a group in public until now.
In tandem with Times of Our Lives, an exhibit of large-scale watercolors by Henk Pander, many from his series on the 1948 Vanport Flood, the Newport center is featuring work by two of Oregon’s most prominent contemporary art figures. Pander’s show, which ArtsWatch’s Lori Tobias wrote about here, continues through September 2 in the center’s large Runyan Gallery.
Photographer Joe Cantrell, a longtime close friend of Bartow, took in the new exhibit for ArtsWatch and filed this report along with his photos:
“There’s a metaphysical, rhyming, rhythmic context to Rick’s choice of subjects, and in the artistic connections of the documents and media on which he drew, painted, carved. This exhibit features portraits Bartow made of writers. Flattened Japanese stamped envelopes from Japanese masters Naoaki Sakamoto and Seiichi Hiroshima, for instance. A.C. Swinburne’s portrait on a paper made from wild fibers, using processes over 1,500 years old. John Steinbeck on a letter from Geraldine Pope Bidwell acknowledging a Bartow donation and a discussion of Buddhism and corporeal transience with a Catholic priest. Normal Rick Bartow stuff from the books and people and love surrounding him still.
“Bartow’s writers’ portraits will travel to libraries, perhaps other venues, for a year. Maybe two or more, and there’s a high possibility of them going out of state. Who knows? Bartow would like that.”
“The Bartow drawings presented in From the Heart reflect the artist’s distinctive sensibility in mark-making,” Tom Webb, the Newport center’s director, noted in his catalog essay, adding: “Where they depart is in size, a missing narrative drama and the focus on an extended series particular to a genre of fellow artists.”
The drawings, each smaller than twelve inches square, include portraits of W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Bridges, Joseph Conrad, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, William Emerson, A.E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Archibald MacLeish, Edgar Allen Poe, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, A.C. Swinburne, Leo Tolstoy, and Elinor Wylie.
“Rick lived surrounded by books, piles of books, stacked about his perch at the edge of a second story picture window that encased a chryon of the Nye Beach neighborhood” of Newport, Karen Murphy, Bartow’s longtime friend and a trustee of his estate, told Webb. She added: “In the abyss following the death of his wife, Julie, Rick expressed his gratitude for the authors’ companionship in the form of the drawings in this exhibit.”
Ted Smith, the library’s director, noted that the Bartow portfolio was “something I inherited in 2009, as the incoming Newport Library director.” The library had not had space to display the entire collection, but will do so beginning in 2020, after it finishes its run at the Newport Visual Arts Center and returns from traveling around Oregon to other venues in 2019. “It’s a fulfillment to Rick to see them as a full collection,” Smith said. “It feels like opening an artist’s creative time capsule.”
“These are different than his regular drawings,” said Bill Avery, a collector of Bartow’s work and trustee of his estate, “but they still feel very much like his style. Rick probably did them in a short period of time between larger projects. All of the pieces in the series have a similar look and they use similar media.”
The scrawl is key to Bartow’s art – a visual action taken in haste, with years of thought and practice and emotion behind it. The author drawings are a bit like his self-portraits, which he undertook roughly once a year, checking in on himself, dropping down into his core. The drawings in this series are quicker and less probing, but in a way they’re about his life, too, which he built from many influences: Each of these writers, for one reason or another, meant something to him, and the drawings are his response to the silent conversations he must have had with them.