When I arrived in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, it had been 11 years since I’d spent an afternoon with Native American artist Rick Bartow in a rented storefront on a back street in Newport. It was the summer of 2012, and Bartow was putting the finishing touches on the pole sculptures he titled We Were Always Here, a commission by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He called the project “the cherry on my lifetime cake,” and liked to say it happened “on a lick and a promise.”
Bartow was referring to the fact that somehow, with no money and recovering from a stroke the year before, he had managed to “buy” two cedar logs – 350 and 1,200 years old. Then, even as commercial shippers refused the job, he managed to get them delivered to Newport.
That July afternoon, the poles awaited transport to Washington, D.C., where they would be dedicated outside the museum. Just recently, Bartow had learned his band, The Backseat Drivers, would play at the ceremony — an invitation that seemed to tickle him almost as much as the commission itself. We hoped I might also attend the ceremony and write about it, but newspaper budget cuts killed that plan.
I carried a recorder with me that day, something I rarely do, having learned the hard way about the perils of dead batteries, failed mechanics, human error. But on this day, I knew I’d be walking, listening, observing, and my longhand is often illegible as is. Later, the story written, I did something even odder: I put the memory chip in an envelope and dropped it in my office safe.
More than a decade later, seven years after Bartow died in 2016, I’d yet to see the completed poles. But I figured I’d hung on to the recording of the interview long enough and gave it to a friend who was close to him and would appreciate hearing his voice. I didn’t even think to listen to it first. Then, as I planned my spring visit home to Pennsylvania, I added a stop in D.C.
Not long after, my friend sent word that she’d dropped the memory card off at a shop to be copied, but there was no Bartow interview. There were other voices, but not his. Had I perhaps sent the wrong one? No. I’d never before or since sealed a memory card in an envelope and stashed it away. I still had no idea why I’d done so in the first place. But how had a hour-plus interview left untouched in a safe simply disappeared? I had no idea, but it was a great reminder of why I didn’t trust recorders.
So, I looked up my old story from The Oregonian, and searched my memory for details of the day – the ones you wouldn’t read in a news story. What had always stuck with me, clouding the whole experience, was my editor’s insistence that we reveal how much Bartow was paid and how disappointed Bartow was in me. The sum of $200,000 sounded like a lot, but after paying for the logs, the transportation, the assistance of his team, and all the other miscellany involved in creating 20-plus-foot poles, there was little left. But he knew most wouldn’t see it that way.
I remembered his tale of the New York Times critic who enjoyed bashing his work, his dismay over the Smithsonian engineers who he believed nearly cost him the commission with their constant demands for reports and other red tape, and his appreciation of my recording our conversation because he’d had a terrible luck with reporters. Also, that he refused to call his work “totems,” because as a member of the Mad River Band of the Wiyot, not Haida or Tlinglit, he didn’t have the right. But it seemed his actual words, his laughter, the wonder that lit his voice as he replayed the story behind the commission and shared the inexplicable events that had allowed the project to happen, were gone.
I arrived in D.C. on April 2, which I later learned was seven years to the day Bartow died. The next morning, chilly and bright, the Uber driver dropped me at the entrance of the National Museum of the American Indian. Moments later, I stood beneath the poles, 22 and 27 feet tall and weighing, Bartow had guessed, 1,200 pounds each. Set against a grove of leafy trees on the National Mall, the poles face toward the Washington Monument, meant as a welcome, a tradition in Native American culture, a museum spokeswoman told me all those years ago.
I sat on a bench beneath the gaze of grandfather bear and the trickster raven and thought about Bartow’s explanation of the various icons: the raven being a symbol of the west; the hands welcoming; the textured pattern representing water and the slightly grumpy sun “because in a lot of the stories the sun and moon were always bickering over who should have control over the sky.”
I knew that the raven’s wings are “married” inside the body, like a “giant Japanese puzzle,” locked in place by the “big whack” of a giant mallet and removable only by chainsaw, and that the red lines symbolize the inspiration, passion, and creativity spanning down through the generations.
That day in 2012, Bartow and I covered a lot of ground: his rejection of the expectation that Native American art should be beads, feathers and bells; the difficulty of making a living as an artist; the “crapshoot” of putting your work out to the public; spirituality; his 33 years of sobriety; and the “crazy” idea that there was something “fiercely woo woo” about the project.
As indeed, there continues to be – something I glimpsed not long before flying east, when the memory chip was returned by mail. Curious, I popped it into the recorder, hit play, and there, as if sitting next to me, was Bartow, all wonder and awe and gratitude. Not lost, just temporarily missing.
“So,” he said, as we finished up our 2012 visit. “It’s a lot of magic and a lot of mystery and a whole lot of spirit. There’s no reason why it should be here today and yet here it is. No reason why somebody should give a rip about the way I work, but they did and here we go. It’s the top of the heap. I just have to say thank you from this point on.”