Tears and Rain: One Artist's View from Sea Level

Article excerpt

RICK BARTOW'S WORK AFFIRMS the power of close observation and the interconnectedness of humanity with all forms of life. Accepting his invitation to see more carefully and to feel connections more deeply brings us a greater understanding of this place we now call Oregon. Bartow's source of sight is grounded in close observation of his surroundings on the Oregon coast and in understanding that which is not immediately obvious: the presence of the past, the impact of change, the stories that lurk within every creature and corner.

Bartow's work is provocative, insistent, and engaging. For some, the multiple layers of significance in his images maybe ambiguous or hard to read. But careful looking rewards viewers, who are invited to recognize their place in the network of human-animal kin relations that Bartow reveals. Bartow's embrace of aesthetic traditions across time and place leaves open an invitation for the viewer to meet his work at various intersections. He draws on his Native heritage but defies simple categorization as a "Native American artist." In addition to many contemporary indigenous artists, he counts as influences European artists who work expressionistically with human and animal forms and who explore the fantastic and the emotional, including Marc Chagall (Russian, 1887-1985), Francis Bacon (British, 1909-1992), Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916), and Horst Janssen (German, 1929-1995). Ultimately, however, Bartow's work has its genesis in the land and light of his home place.

Bartow was born in Newport, Oregon, in 1946. His family has been in Oregon nearly a hundred years. In 1911, his grandfather John Bartow walked over three hundred miles from McKinleyville, California, to Lincoln City. The Bartow family eventually settled in South Beach, Oregon, and homesteaded a plot of land near a slough along Idaho Point Road. John Bartow was of Wiyot tribal heritage, though for many years the Bartow family believed him to be Yurok, a neighboring tribe in northwestern California. Such misidentification is not uncommon in families with Indian heritage, because of the complex history of displacement and relocation of Native communities. John Bartow and his family developed bonds with the local Indian community at the Siletz Reservation, itself made up of diverse tribal groups from western and southern Oregon and northwestern California. Rick still nurtures those bonds.

John Bartow and his wife Jessie had six children, including Rick's father Richard, who married a non-Indian neighbor, Mabel Nelson. When Rick was just five years old, his father Richard died, and Richard's twin Bob played an important role as mentor and surviving link to Rick's paternal lineage and Native heritage. Rick's uncle was closely connected to the land, and shared with him observations of--and conversations with--creatures in the slough and near the shore where the Bartow family lived. Rick and his family (son Booker, daughter Lilly, and wife Karla Malcolm) still call that land home. Hawk, eagle, elk, and deer teem around the nearby Yaquina Bay mudflats, even as encroaching development displaces them, pushing them closer to the Bartow front door.

In many ways, Bartow's childhood and early youth in Newport were much like that of any other small-town kid, particularly after his mother married Andrew Mekemson, who Bartow considers a beloved second father. From an early age, he had been drawn to art, and that tendency was encouraged by his parents and paternal aunt. In high school, he began playing the guitar and bongos, discovering the music that remains an important part of his life as an accomplished blues musician. He made important connections with art instructors by going to what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, to take a workshop with Joseph Magnani and winning an art competition that brought him to the attention of Hal Chambers. At the time, Chambers was chair of the art department at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) in Monmouth, where Bartow eventually enrolled to study secondary art education. …