Fourteen years ago, I was reporting a news story when I encountered a man weed-whacking. His back was turned and he wore a headset meant to protect his hearing. Few things are more awkward — and possibly risky — than approaching a stranger who can’t hear you, can’t see you, and has no idea you are there. I managed to get his attention. He greeted me with a smile and, reaching for my hand, introduced himself: Rick Bartow. He invited me inside the family home, offered me a glass of something cold, and introduced me to his wife and child.
That’s how I met Bartow, an everyday guy who just happened to be a world-renowned artist. In Newport, it seems everyone has a story about Bartow, who died in 2016 at age 69. He was the guy you saw in the gym, jamming at the local café, perusing the library shelves. He was a member of the Northern California Wiyot Tribe, with close ties to the Siletz tribes of the Oregon Coast. He was kind, generous, straightforward, multi-talented, and possessed a certain instinctive wisdom, both enviable and humbling.
That’s the man Portland writer Merridawn Duckler set out to portray in her new play Rick Bartow: In Spirit, which concerns an imaginary encounter between Bartow and three writers who inspired him. The play, directed by Marc Maislen, premieres at the Newport Performing Arts Center Dec. 14-16. Tickets are $20 and $25.
Duckler never met Bartow, but describes herself as a “huge fan always.” The path to writing a play based on Bartow’s art is a one-thing-leads-to-another tale, beginning with her work years ago as a writer for Tom Webb at a Portland arts magazine. Duckler went on to write an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Informer; Webb moved to the coast to manage the Newport Visual Arts Center. Bartow had donated a collection of 17 portraits of acclaimed writers to the Newport Public Library, the drawings were subsequently displayed at the Visual Arts Center, where Duckler’s adaption was performed. The conversation — plays, portraits, artists, shows — began and In Spirit was born.
Duckler’s first task was choosing which of the 17 writers to include in the play. The drawings included Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, Joseph Conrad, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Bridges, Leo Tolstoy, W.H. Auden, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, A.E. Housman, Elinor Wylie, William Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Archibald MacLeish, and Emily Dickinson.
“I couldn’t do 17 writers, so I picked,” Duckler said. “It took a while.” She first whittled the list to nine, including Brecht for his links to the theater and because she had adapted his play.
The collection included only two women. Duckler chose Dickinson, a poet who she said is sometimes “oddly represented.”
“Housman was a favorite,” she said. “Growing up, my father read poetry and he loved Housman. I knew those poems by heart.
“I had to ask the tantalizing question. Why these writers? When you see the list, it’s like, Wow. It’s a diverse list. Who knows why he picked the writers he picked to draw?”
Duckler said she started thinking about the relationship Bartow might have had with each writer. “He didn’t just read their work; he painted their portraits. What was the connection? That was a lot of fun. It was a place where my imagination could go, because he never really said why he selected them.”
In this production of the play, which runs about 50 minutes, Rich Hicks portrays Bartow, Linda Haggerty plays Dickinson, William Webster is Brecht, and Jeffrey Wilson is Housman. The drawings will be on display in the arts center lobby during the weekend of the performances.
Duckler’s goal for the play was to “spread the word of the amazing life and work” of Bartow. To that end, she read interviews, studied videos on YouTube, and talked with the people who knew him best.
“I wanted the guy, the man,” Duckler said. “I know he had a lot of struggles and overcame them. I really wanted to celebrate what an incredible artist he was. I wanted to show that you could bring visual art on the stage and have it be dynamic, fun, glamorous.
“When we see visual art, it can be static, where theater is more communal. In that way, it reflects Rick’s life and also shows a different way of looking at art. He was someone who just gathered people.”
This activity is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.