In another place and another time, Rick Bartow might have been taken for a holy man. Even in the here and now, he seems the part: eyes that see sharply into the world around him, a gentle but probing wit, and easygoing wisdom born of hard experience all lend his hawk-like face and graying hair an otherworldly presence.
Such woo-woo talk aside—and Bartow himself suffers none of that kind of acclaim—he is, at the age of 68, one of the most acknowledged and accomplished visual artists working in Oregon.
Between his compelling personal history, his Native American ancestry, and his prodigious output of visionary images, Bartow has made an indelible mark. He’s still at work, nearly every day, at his rural home south of Newport, creating images that weave together iconic representations of coyote, raven, skulls, teeth, and antlers with haunting human forms, all amid seas of bright color and primal marks.
Things You Know but Cannot Explain, a career retrospective, runs through August 9 at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Featuring more than 100 pieces, including prints, paintings, the giant pastels for which he is mostly known, and even some sculpture, the show is curated by Jill Hartz, the museum’s executive director, and Danielle Knapp, MA ’10, the JSMA’s associate curator.
Bartow, in conjunction with printer Mika Boyd from the UO Department of Art, is creating a series of prints that will be offered as a gift to tribal communities and museums in Oregon. A documentary short on the project will be released this summer.
Born in Newport, a member of the Wiyot tribe, Bartow studied art at Western Oregon State College—now Western Oregon University—in Monmouth, where he graduated in 1969 with a degree in secondary art education. That same year, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Overseas, though ostensibly working as a clerk typist, Bartow—who is also an adept musician—began playing rock ’n’ roll guitar for friends, parties, and ultimately badly wounded soldiers in military hospitals. He came home with a Bronze Star and a bad drinking habit.
After a dark period lost in alcoholism, he dried out and became serious about his art, primarily at the urging of his late wife.
Today his work can be seen in Washington, D.C., where in 2012 Bartow installed his monumental We Were Always Here, two large carved western red cedar poles reminiscent of totems, on the National Mall at the National Museum of the American Indian.
His work is also at the Portland Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, and at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
He has worked with printmakers around the world, including his friend Seiichi Hiroshima, and has traveled as an artist to Japan, Germany, Mexico, and New Zealand.
None of this has gone to his head. “I am not precious,” Bartow says. “I can tear things up right in front of you and it won’t bother me at all.” In fact, he’s done this a number of times—each time enjoying the shocked expressions of onlookers.
Bartow suffered a serious stroke in 2013 that left him, for some time, nearly unable to speak or write. At the hospital, he grabbed a nurse’s pen and a scrap of paper and worked out a quick sketch.
Then he called Charles Froelick, his long-time Portland gallerist. “I’m going to be okay,” he told Froelick. “I can’t talk, but I can still draw.”
—By Bob Keefer