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‘The Bartow Project’ addresses the life and work of Oregon artist Rick Bartow

The pandemic turns a theater project by Dell'Arte International and the Wiyot Tribe into an online effort by four filmmaking teams.

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"Dream Voices (Crow Talk)" by Rick Bartow (2015, acrylic on canvas, 36 by 48 inches)
“Dream Voices (Crow Talk)” by Rick Bartow (2015, acrylic on canvas, 36 by 48 inches)

UPDATE: Dell’Arte International plans to add another week of online streaming for The Bartow Project from May 23-30. Check the website for details.

There is an urgent, unfixed nature to the life and art of the late Rick Bartow. In both his biography and mark-making, one is confronted with a sense of estrangement combined with a profound desire to belong – to locate the collective, but also a yearning to become compatible with one’s own skin.

Bartow’s drawings, paintings, and carvings are often forms of graphic assemblage, with more than one identity present, where each interlocking persona flirts with and haunts the others without ever being fully soluble inside the whole.

This chimeric structure is borrowed by The Bartow Project, a new collection of short films about the Oregon artist. Each filmmaking team worked independently from the others, three out of four employing radically different intentions and storytelling strategies. Two are educational, two are artistic, and the packaging of the four self-contained films as one viewing experience generates notable synergies and dissonance.

“It’s like a Rick Bartow film festival,” said Nanette Kelley, the writer-director of the included short Rick Bartow The Man Who Made Marks. “You put them together and you watch them back-to-back, but they’re not connected, other than they’re all about Rick Bartow.”

As a shared story about the same man, there is a cumulative and general benefit to seeing the films en masse, and the screening order set by the project’s artistic directors Zuzka Sabata and Michelle Hernandez makes sense. They have also given the audience the weakest entry first and saved the best until last.

In fact, if a viewer streaming The Bartow Project at home is most interested in seeing something cinematic rather than explanatory, they might consider skipping to the 48-minute mark to start with Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie, and screen the project in reverse.

Film still from Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie by  Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2021)
Film still from “Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie” by Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2022)

Because it is the most explicitly narrative, Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie is also the film that may be closest to the project’s original intent, which was initially meant to be a stage play about Bartow written by Sabata.

The play was set to be produced through a collaboration between the Blue Lake, Calif., school and theater company Dell’Arte International and the Humboldt County Wiyot Tribe. Bartow was an enrolled member and traces some of his ancestry to the tribe.

“The partnership is meant to expand consciousness of Wiyot culture,” said Sabata, who is a staff and faculty member at Dell’Arte. “For me, that was the purpose and still is.”

The play was scheduled to premier during the Baduwa’t Festival in the summer of 2020, but then the COVID pandemic struck. Public performances were shuttered, but Sabata already had funding secured from the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the James Irvine Foundation. She didn’t want to give up and just shelve the project.

“Because of the pandemic, this was happening to everyone who had received funding for the 2020 fiscal year,” Sabata said. “They essentially told us: We’re not going to be nitpicky about how you transform your project. We just want you to be able to do it.”

She looked at the shifting theater landscape, where everything was migrating online, and wondered if she could produce a film project instead. She reached out to Hernandez, a Wiyot tribal member with a filmmaking degree (whose father is the tribal council chair), to ask for help rewriting the grant proposal.

In the end, Hernandez not only partnered with Sabata to oversee and help shape the broad strokes of the project, but also co-directed two of the short films, including Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie.

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Bartow thought of himself as both white and Indigenous. “How can you be anything but what you are?” he asked. He was part Wiyot and had a white mother, but Sabata and Hernandez ideally wanted their filmmaking teams composed of native artists. This presented some curatorial challenges.

Sabata described the difficulty of finding local native artists and filmmakers who have been fortunate enough both to receive training and to secure enough professional opportunities to make art their career.

“There aren’t that many around,” said Sabata. It’s one of the factors that led Hernandez to take a direct hand in crafting two of the films.

The second film in The Bartow Project’s lineup is an 11-minute animated short Hernandez co-directed called Things You Know But Cannot Explain.

Film still from Things You Know But Cannot Explain by Michelle Hernandez and Chantal Jung (2021)
Film still from “Things You Know But Cannot Explain” by Michelle Hernandez and Chantal Jung (2022)

That great title is a quote from German Idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which Bartow borrowed for one of his graphite drawings in 1979. Thirty-six years later, the drawing was included in an expansive career retrospective that received the same title, organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in 2015, the year before Bartow died.

Hernandez’s co-director on the film was Chantal Jung, a multimedia artist who handled the animation chores, assisted by artist Lena Parker Vassel. The film primarily animates cutouts from various Bartow artworks, mostly paintings or drawings of birds, dogs, coyotes, and fish. The characters travel, congregate, and transform on a journey that would read much more ambiguously if there were not intermittent text cards that instruct the audience to interpret all the zaniness as directly connected to a central theme of cultural homecoming.

The overall energy of the visuals is cheerful, though the style is somewhat unsettling, and the details can be macabre – an enjoyable contradiction Bartow likely would have appreciated. In his paintings, he repeatedly liked to combine antagonistic imagery with what he called “nursery-room colors.”

Sweat lodge imagery in the film provides a key to accessing a deeper reading of the symbolism Hernandez and Jung have assembled. But first one must understand more about Bartow’s journey from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s to a Siletz tribal sweat lodge in the 1980s.

Bartow was drafted in 1969 and served as a teletype operator and hospital musician in Vietnam until 1971.

“Somehow he ended up in the hospital where wounded soldiers were coming back from the frontline,” said Charles Froelick, a longtime friend who represents Bartow’s work at his Portland art gallery, Froelick Gallery. “He was seeing them dismembered and injured mortally. And he would sing to them to try to calm them down. He saw men coming back with everything blown apart. Every kind of wound. And then experienced them dying.”

Bartow came home from the war with PTSD and a dangerous alcohol addiction.

“When I returned from Viet Nam, like so many others, I was a bit twisted,” wrote Bartow in 1989. “I was a house filled with irrational fears, beliefs, and symbols… I wore bells on my wrists so I could hear my parts when they moved; I slept in my clothes so I’d be ready to go nowhere at all. And I once recall answering when asked my name and where I was from, Nobody. Nowhere.”

He also spoke of suffering from intense survivor’s guilt. And destroying his own artwork while he was drunk.

“I would get something done and then I would go out in the backyard and burn everything,” Bartow said in an audio recording Sabata included in a Bartow Project podcast in which he describes burning his drawings, paintings, and anything else that was in the studio. “Including ashtrays and floorboards, if I could pry them up.”

In the same recording, he talks about feeling chronically sick and being unable to get well. Because of the constant drinking, his teeth were starting to fall out. In other interviews, he described waking up in the street after nights of hard drinking and violent physical altercations.

In 1979, he was able to find sobriety. His art-making played a pivotal role in that recovery.

“I started drawing purely as a therapeutic tool,” Bartow said. “I drew myself straight.” The graphite drawing Things You Know But Cannot Explain was made during this period.

Things You Know But Cannot Explain by Rick Bartow (1979, graphite on paper, 24 by 19 inches)
“Things You Know But Cannot Explain” by Rick Bartow (1979, graphite on paper, 24 by 19 inches)

“Every day you must get up and decide whether you’re going to continue to pick up the responsibilities of life, or throw everything away and indulge again,” said Karen Murphy, who considered Bartow family. Murphy is a licensed clinical social worker and medical social worker, and a fellow recovering alcoholic.

She is also a trustee of the Bartow Trust, which provided The Bartow Project filmmakers access to countless images and music.

Murphy and Bartow first met in the 1980s, but began to truly get to know each other in 1992, during her time working at the Siletz Community Health Clinic in Lincoln County.

When Bartow stopped drinking, he also decided to engage with his native heritage and culture. Bartow was not Siletz, but he was born and raised in Newport, where the Siletz tribe was the closest Indigenous community. He bonded meaningfully with Siletz elder Walter Klamath, who was a veteran of the Korean War, and a strong leader.

Bartow and Klamath built a sweat lodge together that became an essential part of the Siletz Tribal Alcohol and Drug Program. It was also an essential part of Bartow’s continued sobriety.

Bartow attended sweat lodge there every week, as did Murphy, and they would often drive out together, week after week, year after year. Sitting in the dark. Linked by a circle. Inside the sweltering clasp of the lodge. A place of sacred assembly. A place without masks.

The gravity of that history sustains Hernandez and Jung’s use of the sweat lodge in their film, and supports the theme they intended. It further informs the journey of the crow in their film, who falls into the fire used to heat the igneous lodge stones, and then – instead of burning up – flies out rainbow-colored.

Film still from Things You Know But Cannot Explain by Michelle Hernandez and Chantal Jung (2021)
Film still from “Things You Know But Cannot Explain” by Michelle Hernandez and Chantal Jung (2022)

This imagery is an inversion of a native parable Bartow enjoyed about how a previously colorful crow became charred black, although it isn’t clear the filmmakers completely understood this inversion or conceived of it as anything more specific than the phoenix-like suggestion of being reborn in fire.

“The image of the crow going into and coming out of the fire was something that we had in mind to put into the short film, but we don’t know why,” Jung said. “It was just something that Michelle and I both liked.”

Bartow may have had a more complex relationship to crows, which are ubiquitously present in his artwork. A 2020 press release from Froelick Gallery claimed the birds used to trigger his PTSD. And in his own 1989 statement, Bartow calls the crow “my old nemesis.”

An inversion of the crow parable aligns with a reading that Bartow moved beyond experiencing crows as a source of anxiety or a symbol connected with war or death.

According to Hernandez, the animals’ homebound journey in the film not only expresses Bartow’s instinct to connect with his ancestral roots – but also her own. Hernandez, who said she is also Mexican, moved to the Table Bluff Reservation with her family when she was 12, and has been influential in reviving traditional Wiyot ceremonies within the community since she reached maturity.

“I feel like the longing to go home is a very Indigenous thing,” Hernandez said. “You know who you are, and you always want to go home. There’s a piece of home in you, but it’s so much better when you’re on your ancestral territory.”

The first finished version of the Things You Know But Cannot Explain did not have text cards. The filmmakers initially were against adding them, but they seemed necessary when a large enough percentage of test audience members expressed confusion about the meaning of the film.

The noteworthy thing about the way the text cards were created is not necessarily what they say, but that they (for example) say it first in Soulatluk: “Ghuli lughurruk vulh dadal,” and then in English: “I belong to this land.”

Soulatluk is the traditional Wiyot language, and there are no fluent speakers left. The tribe is trying to revive it, but the last fluent speaker died in 1962.

“I speak it a little,” said Hernandez. “We have a whole bunch of recordings, both in audio and writing.”

The grammar is complicated and some of the documentation is contradictory. To attempt to get accurate translations, Hernandez worked with linguist Lynnika Butler, whom the tribe hired in 2008 to help them organize, digitize, and make sense of their Soulatluk records.

For a future version of the film, Hernandez and Jung plan to add voiceover so the audience may hear what Soulatluk sounds like.

Film still from Coming Home by Chag Lowry (2021)
Film still from “Coming Home” by Chag Lowry (2022)

Both preceding and following Things You Know But Cannot Explain are two fairly straightforward documentary shorts. The 13-minute Coming Home, directed by Chag Lowry, is the first film an audience will see during a Bartow Project screening, and unfortunately it feels a little unpolished and poorly edited.

On the bright side, Lowry’s first interview subject is Hernandez. She introduces viewers to the concept that Bartow’s artwork is pregnant with trauma, and suggests this is due not only to his direct experience of war, but also and equally his indirect experience of historical colonial violence. Surprisingly, she also refers to him as “Uncle Rick.”

Lowry’s film doesn’t explain this, but Hernandez and her family first met Bartow in 2012 during a dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., when two of his wood carvings, We Were Always Here, were permanently installed outside the National Museum of the American Indian. Members of the Wiyot tribe were invited to perform a traditional brush dance, led by Hernandez’ father, which Bartow participated in.

“My dad and him had hit it off,” Hernandez said. “They created this friendship and called each other brothers. In our culture, family friends or special people become our uncle, and so that’s how he became Uncle Rick to me and my family.”

At times, Coming Home is a good primer for introducing a viewer to elements of Bartow’s history, such as when it touches on Bartow’s medical problems and the hardship of multiple strokes that required him to relearn how to hold his art-making tools.

The strangest choice Lowry makes is to interview at length a man named Darrell Sherman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from 2004 to 2008, and a council member at the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria. Sherman never met Bartow and is not connected to him in any discernable way. He talks about his own experiences coming home after being in the military and theorizes what it might have been like if he had been able to spend some time with the artist. He suggests they would have connected over topics like military food rations. It seems somewhat irrelevant.

The film closes with an extended song-and-end-credits sequence that can linger on single still images for an unexpectedly long time. The soundtrack is great, though. It’s a catchy, forlorn pop song written and sung by Bartow called Reservation Radio.

The film doesn’t fully address that Bartow was a musician who was well known for his concerts in Newport, but it does showcase a few photographs of him playing guitar.

Film still from Rick Bartow The Man Who Made Marks by Nanette Kelley (2021)
Film still from “Rick Bartow The Man Who Made Marks” by Nanette Kelley (2022)

A dramatically more thorough and satisfying documentary is found in Kelley’s Rick Bartow The Man Who Made Marks. Unlike the other three films that make up The Bartow Project, Kelley’s documentary was in the works before Sabata figured out her project wasn’t going to be a stage play.

“I got this idea that since California has a new ethnic studies mandate for ethnic studies curriculum in the schools, I would make films of Indigenous artists,” Kelley said. “I wanted to start with Rick Bartow, because he’s the most well-known Wiyot artist.”

Kelley had heard that Dell’Arte was doing something about Bartow and wanted to know if they’d help connect her with people she could interview for the modest five-to-ten-minute educational video she wanted to do. They offered her considerably more than a spreadsheet of email addresses.

“They turned around a week later and said, hey, we want to meet with you,” said Kelley. “Would you like to do a 20-minute film and have a $20,000 budget?”

As a first-time filmmaker, Kelley was floored by the invitation. She had originally thought she was going to have to do everything herself, and now she could afford a crew. She could hire a cameraperson. A sound editor. Even an animator.

Her ambition bloomed, and once she finally got in the editing room with her footage, even a runtime that had doubled from her original conception didn’t seem like enough space to include everything she wanted to do.

“It was supposed to be 20 minutes max, and they let me go 21… I could’ve gone an hour.” Kelley is donating her unused footage to the Bartow Archive at Willamette University.

Kelley filmed a full roster of Bartow’s living friends and colleagues. They are all enjoyable and informative subjects, but the most compelling is Seiichi Hiroshima, a master printmaker from Japan, whose restrained sadness about Bartow’s death is quite moving. When he learned Bartow, whom he called “big brother,” was sick in 2016, he hurried to the United States to see him.

“He passed away just one day after I returned to Japan,” Hiroshima said. “I can’t forget how he looked through the window, and saw me off.”

Another highlight is the revelation that Bartow didn’t find out until quite late in life that his native ancestry was Wiyot, not Yurok. That is not what his family had told him his entire life.

“Rick was an enrolled member of the Yurok tribe in Northern California, as his family was,” Froelick told Kelley. “It was not until Rick was in his 50s that Rick was reassigned.”

Bartow’s friend Murphy, who was not interviewed on camera for Kelley’s documentary, has Bartow’s Certification of Indian Blood that confirms Bartow is one-eighth Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe. One day, out of the blue, he was notified by the Department of the Interior of his changed status.

“The Wiyot tribe had an organizing energy,” Froelick said. “They were reawakening their cultural traditions and were very actively engaged in that. They found a treasure in Rick and they latched on, and he latched on, so they really bonded.”

The animations in Kelley’s film by Amy Uyeki, which irreverently goof on Bartow’s imagery, are well executed, but seem unnecessary. Even if they do add some visual interest in between the talking heads.

Film still from Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie by  Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2021)
Film still from “Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie” by Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2022)

Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie is a grand departure from the film language of the rest of the project. It is a narrative with cast actors. It is a symbolic reenactment with symbolic treatment of time. It has a roaming camera and carefully crafted location shots. It is also a dance film.  

Hernandez co-directs with Samantha Williams-Gray, a psychologist and artist who studies trauma and movement therapy. They took on this film after a previous version of it was abandoned by a different pair of collaborators.

The film depicts the story of Bartow’s relationship with a woman named Julie. In contrast with the information-driven shorts that precede it, it is naked of almost all context and contains no text or dialogue within its scenes.

Aside from her name appearing in the title, a viewer will not immediately know anything about Julie. The face of the real-life Julie has anonymously appeared a few times across the other shorts in photographic stills, but no one has spoken her name.

Similarly, the viewer is given no assurance that the man on screen is intended to be Bartow, although it is rightfully tempting to think so.

Though subsumed in this ambiguity, Work is Ceremony has a powerful emotional engine.  Cinematographer Johnathon DeSoto’s lyrical use of light, depth of field, and movement enables the sincere performances by Cleo DeOrio and Evan Grande to become sculptural, and it is all held together by the timing of editor Richie Wenzler, working alongside an unapologetically impassioned score.

Whoever this onscreen man and woman are, the viewer believes in their love immediately. Their bodies rotate around each other and fold over each other as if wanting to fuse. The horns and strings of the score propose a pleasing, but almost painful fragility.

The dying light at the end of the day on the beach mirrors the couple’s internal struggle to hold on to moments that have already departed.

Next, the man’s playful interruption of his partner’s work at the kitchen sink is rebuffed. But not for long. Her frustration fades.

As they dance through scene after scene, being silly or tender, recurring shots of the ocean suggest tireless, indifferent forces, powerful and unyielding. The music is charged with both energy and inertia, but also with a clear sense that time is passing.

In a scene where Julie performs a solo dance, there is an exquisite lighting decision where a blast of light coming in through window, mimicking the sun, is echoed by a lit bulb in a desk lamp in the foreground. When her dance is over, she delicately offers up a basket, looking into camera, before we cut back to the ocean.

The score warns us that something inevitable is unfolding. Julie looks strong, but something is wrong. Her strength is transforming to resignation. In one way or another, she’s preparing to depart.

Her partner is attentive and then distracted. She briefly comforts him before she leaves. DeOrio’s performance is wonderful.

Grande is good in every other scene – but the actor lets the film down in this moment. He is supposed to be struggling to register Julie’s absence, but his acting meekly limps forward without any clarity. The score stays sturdy, but he doesn’t mirror its intensity.

After the scene ends, the film goes back to being spectacular. We’ve returned to the beach with the familiar opening music. There’s a matched shot of Julie from the beginning, but the couple is separated now. The man walks in the waves carrying her empty basket. He is alone and remembering.

In the final moment of the film, he lifts up a mask and places it over his face. The sound of the ocean has become overpowering, and we cut to black.

It’s a perfect ending.

It communicates everything you need to know without anyone – viewer or filmmaker – being anxious about too many specifics.

The film feels markedly different from Hernandez’s animated film Things You Know But Cannot Explain, but there are definite stylistic similarities to her student film Douk, the short that made Sabata interested to work with her.

Both Hernandez and DeSoto admire the work of Terrence Malick, and their repeated use of low-angle, handheld camera setups shooting into natural light are obvious testimony to that. Another homage took place in the sound design. Hernandez combed through Adobe stock music for tracks that could emulate the score to Malick’s A Hidden Life. It worked.

It was a brisk production, with merely three months from start to finish. They shot at Sabata’s home for the interiors and rehearsed over Zoom when both of the actors were sick with COVID.

The real-life Julie, Julie Swan, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, after 12 years of marriage to Bartow. She died less than a month later. They were deeply in love, but it all ended with bewildering speed.

“It was a mad scramble at the end,” said Murphy, who was running a hospice when Julie became ill. She cared for her. “It was absolutely stunning to Rick. It was truly the loss of the love of his life.”

“All of a sudden, Julie’s gone and my world caved in completely…” said Bartow, who couldn’t make art for nearly a year after.

Bartow and Swan had built a family together and had built art together. They sang and played music together. She wrote poetry and he painted. She wove baskets and he carved wood.

“They had this fabulous bohemian lifestyle,” said Williams-Gray.

“The film portrayed those sentiments so beautifully,” Murphy said. “It felt like the filmmakers captured their relationship. It just felt right.”

Swan is also credited with encouraging Bartow to quit his day job and focus on artmaking fulltime. She helped him negotiate socially, pursue galleries, and avoid wasting time.

Bartow quoted her as saying to him “shut up and do it. Don’t talk about it, just do it.”

But while Bartow’s star eventually rose, Swan never quite stepped out into her own spotlight.

“It just seemed like she never quite got her moment to shine as the artist she was,” Williams-Gray said. “That was sort of the momentum behind the film —  let’s turn it into a ceremony where he can honor her.”

After Bartow died in 2016 at age 69 of congestive heart failure, his ashes were taken to the same site in the Cascades where Swan’s ashes had been scattered. It was as he wished. It was a sacred site. The same place where he and Klamath had gathered stones for the sweat lodge so many years before.

Film still from Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie by  Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2021)
Film still from “Work is Ceremony: A Ceremony for Julie” by Michelle Hernandez and Samantha Williams-Gray (2022)

Whether deliberately fostered or not, one of the key things that any lasting artist’s legacy must include is an ability to inspire future work by artists of subsequent generations.

“You have a sacred job,” Bartow once said to a gathering of Newport High School students. “Every time you express yourself there’s someone who cannot, and they’ll need you. They’ll need your voice to speak for them.”

What they sometimes say at the sweat lodge is that the second round is tougher.

But The Bartow Project is a good start.

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The individual films will soon begin to seek their independent fortunes on the film festival circuit, but throughout 2022, The Bartow Project will continue to be screened as a whole, in-person in cities such as Portland and Newport, and online. Visit www.thebartowproject.com for more information.

Jordan Essoe is an award-winning artist and writer who has exhibited and published internationally. His career began as a painter, but his practice broadened to include film, performance art, playwriting, and journalism. His work has been covered by NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, Artnet, Artillery, Art Practical, Art Week, and Rhizome.

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3 Responses

  1. What an engrossing article about a man who truly suffered for his art. It was deeply illuminating of a man so conflicted, affected and frozen in place by his life experience, and could not find a way out, except thru his art. You totally captured him, Jordan Essoe, and made me want to see the films about him and to view his artwork.

    1. Hello Jacquelyn, thanks for asking. Dates haven’t been set yet, as a note at the story’s end indicates. You can keep an eye on the project’s website, https://www.thebartowproject.com/ , for updates. You can also sign up on the site for email updates, which might be handy.

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