Readers of Laura Grimes’ recent post “Scenes from a writers’ marriage: How he got that story” have noted that the link to the original story by Bob Hicks, which ran on Sunday, March 3, 2002 in The Oregonian, didn’t work. That was a link to the Multnomah County Library version; the story isn’t available on The Oregonian’s Web site, Oregon Live. So here it is, unfortunately without Stephanie Yao’s wonderful photographs that ran with the original.
GRACE, FALLING LIKE RAIN
“One thing I hold true is that we’re made up as much of what we’ve lost as of what we’ve gained,” Rick Bartow says, smudging out a streak of pastel crayon with the palm of his hand. “And what is erasing but a metaphor for that?”
A winter rain is snapping against the roof and windows of the Oregon artist’s main studio in South Beach, across the Yaquina Bay bridge from downtown Newport. The little building groans in the wind, which bellows and shrieks and cradles the place, rocking it in a rhythm that is fierce and exhilarating and lulling and somehow timeless. Inside is a cocoon.
Moving quickly and efficiently, Bartow tapes three large sheets of paper side by side by side on the wall. “I’ve tried working on a single sheet,” he says, “and it’s really difficult for me. I have scattered energy, sort of like when I’m talking. I jump all over the place.” He puts a few rough pencil marks on each sheet. Lines, dots, straight, curved. Taking a stick of charcoal in his hand, he flattens his palm and smears a streak of gray against the first sheet. “Just to make damn sure I’m not pussyfooting around,” he says. “I have to do something decisive.” Then he slaps handprints on the other two sheets and smears them around.
He’s just eliminated the Big Empty.
Art has begun.
The making of an artist — of any human being — is a careful balancing of contradictions, a reconciliation of things that don’t fit. Bartow is an easy, generous, open man, and he has been in bleak places. He knows great joy and great sorrow. When the two resolve, they find a state of grace.
Grace has been falling like sweet rain lately on Bartow, whose owls, hawks, ravens, coyotes, carvings and scribbled self-portraits have won him an international following in contemporary art circles and among collectors of Native American art. Museum exhibitions tumble one after another, including a major retrospective through March 16 at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. His work sells briskly, which still astonishes him, because to tell the truth, he never really thought it would sell at all.
Sometimes he’s even astonished that he’s managed to make it this far. So much seems erased. Bartow is 55, a time of life that artists, or at least art critics and curators, call midcareer. To Bartow it feels almost more like a new thing built over the fading smear of the old, which lends a silent depth and richness to the new. “I have a second life I did not ask for,” he says with the loping smile of a man who has been both wounded and blessed.
Where has he been, where has he come? Charcoals, pastels, steel guitars, songs. Vietnam and a spill out of control. An entire decade, the 1970s, lost to war, fear and drink. Drying out. A wife and a son. The healing weekly ritual of a sweat lodge, which he helped build, and where he takes his solace and renewal every Monday. The rigor of work, his constant companion. A death in the family. A numbing, and a melting. Joy, amid the mourning, with someone new.
An uncertain life. But a hesitance that has moved from the precipice of oblivion to provisional acceptance of his shifting place in the order of things. “God’s grace,” he sings with his blues band, Bartow Minus Two, “falls on the uncertain one.”
Bartow allows himself the pleasure of singing and playing slide guitar every Thursday night at the legendary chowderhouse Mo’s Annex on Newport’s bayfront, and there you can see the uncertainty slip away. On stage he’s the performer, the leader, the sweet-voiced fellow with the sly strut and the beam of pure pleasure in the moment. His moment, the moment he creates for the crowd, like a gift.
Bartow simply is what he is, a man who lives in a world that is modern and ancient at the same time. He knows intimately the traditions and trends of European art. He loves the African American music called the blues. He likes his coffee hot and strong, with cream.
He moves easily through the white world that is his inheritance from his mother’s side of the family. Much of his art revolves around a reweaving of the scattered strands of his Native American inheritance on his father’s side. He nourishes his circle of friends, some white, some Native American, some German, Japanese, New Zealander. He is at home in a mostly white Oregon coastal town where people mainly figure you deserve to be what you make of yourself.
The Bartows run deep in Newport, and have since shortly after Rick’s grandfather, in the early years of the last century, walked from his Yurok homeland near Eureka, Calif., to the central Oregon coast. Liking what he saw, he walked back and got the rest of the family. He was 10 years old. Timber and fish and hope were his bequest.
Bartow has stayed here, and briefly gone away, and always returned. The place is in his blood and bones. It’s where he grew up, where he nearly frittered his life away, where he grew up again. “One time I spent a lot of years drinking,” he says. “One time I spent a lot of years doing scrimshaw. One time I spent a lot of years trying to figure out what I was going to do, and then my late wife said, ‘I’m a little bit pregnant,’ and then everything was different.”
God’s grace, falling.
“This is going to be about Dog,” Bartow says, meaning Coyote, the great trickster of Native American lore. First an eye appears, then the black mouth, tongue, teeth. White ears above. Black scrawls outside the mouth. Tan shaping it like thick lipstick. Green. Pink. “Dog-mule-rabbit cross,” Bartow mutters, looking at what he’s done so far.
In the studio, everything Bartow needs is at hand. Paper. Pencils. Pastels. Bruce Springsteen on the boom box. Most of all, the accumulation of experience, ritual, talent, knowledge, passions and beliefs that he holds in the cup of his own life. His sweat lodge friends, he says, have taught him a truth: You have what you need. “At my age it’s a little late to be learning about yourself, but — it gives me a freedom.”
The freedom takes shape on paper. He works swiftly, boldly, with his whole hand. “A larger series of drawings, sometimes I draw until my fingers bleed, and then I have to stop for a few days,” Bartow says, smashing and scraping pigment on paper. “I don’t expect that to be a heroic gesture. It’s just one of the things that happens. And an indicator of the joy I take in it.”
Strong lines shoot out, but everything’s in flux. Borders aren’t fixed. They blend, fade, leak, move.
“You need something to start with,” he says. “It’s kind of spooky when it happens so fast, but this eye just came right out. Telling me what direction to go. I kind of like this one.”
Improvisation and hard-earned technique dance together. “A lot of times you get this wonderful image that you find, and then you have to make the other side match it. You have a wonderful accident and then you have to make the accident happen again. I suppose that’s where experience and discipline come in.”
On the other side of Coyote’s face the second eye takes on a caul, a blank discoloration. Hyacinth David, Bartow’s friend and fellow artist, has taught him that in many Native American traditions a lidded eye is the sign of a seer, of divination. The blank eye sees — what? It is a heavy gift.
Coyote blinks. “It’s a horrifying thing to watch the light go out of the eyes of someone you love,” Bartow says softly. “It’s a hard reality to comprehend.”
Many lights have gone off in Bartow ‘s life. His father, who died when Rick was 5 years old. His father’s brother, who helped take him in hand and kept him involved in his Native heritage. William Jamison, the Portland gallery owner who took a chance on him in 1985 and gave him a career. Those anonymous men in Vietnam. His wife.
Julie Swan was a musician — a bass player, the one who lays down the line and holds the song together. In 1999 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in a blink she was gone. So, for a barren year, was Bartow ‘s ability to work. “Everything came to a stop,” he says. “I could write lyrics, you know. But the visual stuff came back slowly.”
Coyote’s veiled eye stares. The rain pounds. The windows rattle. Bartow labors on.
Coyote explodes in colors and scrawls. Fierce, toothy, tricky. A scribble that knows, feels, where it is going. A kind of focused frenzy courses through the drawing — not madness, but a strict, spontaneous plummet into the deep places where things change.
“I don’t deal well with change,” Bartow comments. Yet change is a huge aspect of his work. The hard but essential process of getting from here to there. The grimacing beauty of opening up. The fluidity of evolution. His creatures are often caught in the wondrous, painful act of transformation — man to woman, woman to bear, hawk or elk or coyote to man.
Color injects vibrancy and pleasure, helping to coax the transmuting figures out of the birth canal and into the light of expanded possibility. But it did not come easily.
A haunted-looking charcoal man with missing body parts stares up from an open cabinet drawer that holds old drawings. Bartow was thinking about Vietnam when he drew it, of the battered men lying in emergency or recovery wards whom he was assigned to entertain by playing his guitar.
“That’s where I got caught, in the hospitals,” he says simply. “Survivor’s guilt. Guys’ legs cut off below the genitals.”
Stories about Vietnam are not stories Bartow wants to revisit. Only to know they happened, they became part of him, they do not need to be all of him. That’s that. Move on. Out of fear. Toward love.
Through the bleak years after Vietnam Bartow drew and drew and drew, always in charcoal, compulsively, ferociously, looking for something. When he was done he’d start a fire, grab most of the drawings and throw them in.
Bartow looks at some other drawings in the drawer: old weary men, Puncinellos with heavy backs, self-portraits. Variations on Monet, with the beginnings of the erasing technique that would become so important to his work. The first tentative signs of color breaking through the black.
“Most of these were ’79,” he says. “That’s when I quit drinking. I drew myself straight.”
Bartow ‘s thumb is glowing. He holds it up, ponders, then with a sudden thrust makes a bold streak of brilliant red that sweeps off the paper and onto the wall behind.
“To interject an element of spontaneity,” he says lightly.
The studio is still, like a hitch in time. Only Bartow moves. Back and forth, back and forth, from his cache of pastel crayons to the wall with its three white sheets. He is not a small man, but he moves bigger than he is, with economy and grace, and things make way for him.
More strokes. A slap of the hand, a satisfying cloud of color. A lurking figure takes shape on the second paper. Broad menacing shoulders sloping down, down, down. A vertical plunge. It is Hawk. Slowly it shifts from fierceness to something that might be humility: the soft blue eye of the seer, the relaxed slump of an off-guard wing.
When Bartow came back from the paralysis of his wife’s death, he did not come alone. With him were memories and friends. A quiet web of people. His circle of artist friends. His 16-year-old son, Booker, with his surprising boy’s resilience. Maybe most of all, Karla Malcolm, the sweet, smart, funny woman who came to Bartow as a surprise and stayed as a fulfillment. Swan’s ghost lives in the house, a memory and a bewilderment. Malcolm seems to understand and accept Bartow’s grieving even as she flows into his empty spaces.
“When you’re in bad shape people always say, ‘If you need anything just let me know,’ ” Bartow says. “But when you’re in trouble the last thing you can do is let people know. Karla didn’t wait for me to ask. She’d come down to check on me and Booker. That’s why she’s so important. I’m really not sure I’d be here if it weren’t for her.”
Once again, slowly, patiently, the soil of his life and art turned.
“William Jamison turned me on to the idea that art is like a garden,” Bartow says. “You can’t only harvest. You’ve also got to plant.”
Bartow has spent his time planting: a decade working with handicapped children in an elementary school, teaching art at MacLaren School, a multitude of spontaneous generosities. At the opening of his Salem exhibition, he makes a ritual of handing out Pendleton blankets designed by his friend Lillian Pitt, who stands against a wall and smiles warmly. It’s his night, but it belongs to his friends and family, too, because without them, where would he be?
“You’d best be doing something now, because you might not be able to later,” Bartow says with a shrug. “I guess that’s kind of a Native thing. You honor somebody when they’re still living. It feels right to be able to do that. To say thank you for sticking by me all those years when maybe I wasn’t so pretty.”
You give as you take. Bartow lives with ghosts, but he is not haunted. Memories of grief are in his work, but they do not consume it. They are part of the circle, and the circle makes a whole.
In the studio, it comes down to this. A final sheet of paper. A drawing of — himself.
A thick thrust of brow, a jangly shock of hair blacker than his actual steel-gray. A whipping arc of wire-rimmed glasses. The sharp bend of his prominent nose. A fluid scribble of things on the move. A shy sideways look, piercing and knowing and modest at the same time.
As in so many of his drawings and prints, large swaths of paper are left blank. The bottom of this self-portrait is a field of white. White like the future. White like what could be. Things have changed. Things will transform again. They need space. They need possibility.
Possibility, after all, has brought him safe so far.
“His life was killing him,” says Rebecca J. Dobkins, curator of the Salem exhibition and author of its superb catalog essay. “If he hadn’t had art, he might not be here.”
But the point is, he does have his art. And the point is, his art holds his life, and spills it forth, and grows it as it spends it. At the same time, he harvests and plants in William Jamison’s garden.
Bartow stands back, looking judiciously at the sketchy, quizzical image of himself he has just created.
“Take things too seriously, you get caught,” he says. “Not seriously enough, you get caught. You gotta go down the middle.”
Outside the wind lulls, and the rain becomes a promise.
A promise falling gently, like grace.