Oregon artist Rick Bartow, a master of visionary imagery that reflects his Native American roots, died last night at his home south of Newport. He was 69.
A Vietnam veteran, a graduate of Western Oregon State College, a recovering alcoholic and a fine rock ‘n’ roll musician, Bartow made big, intense, and sometimes downright weird paintings and sculpture in a wide variety of mediums. Frequently using animal imagery, his work has been shown around Oregon and around the country, from the Portland Art Museum and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art to Arizona’s Heard Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
Last year his career was examined in a large retrospective – “Things You Know But Cannot Explain” – at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. Curated by JSMA’s executive director Jill Hartz and associate curator Danielle Knapp, the show has since traveled to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it runs through April. It will travel to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe later this year; to the Heard Museum in Phoenix and to the Washington State University Museum of Art in Pullman in 2017; and to the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles in 2019.
Bartow, a hawk-nosed man who sometimes covered an inner darkness with his affable demeanor, lived most of his life at the tumbledown homestead that his grandfather, John Bartow, a Yurok Indian from northern California, established on Yaquina Bay in South Beach, south of Newport.
In a series of ramshackle studios there, he continued to paint and draw and sculpt until his heart began to fail last fall. A pacemaker was implanted in September, but it didn’t help much, friends said, and Bartow was often unable to paint or even talk in his last weeks.
He got his bachelor’s degree at Western Oregon State – now Western Oregon University – in 1969, expecting to teach. Instead he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, finding himself in the middle of a war zone with a job – teletype operator – that he was never called on to do.
To divert himself he began playing guitar at officers’ clubs and after-work parties. Soon he was performing for patients in military hospitals, drinking all day long and pounding out Buffalo Springfield songs as the enormity of the war crowded in on him. He never saw combat, but in the hospital wards where he entertained he was surrounded by its aftermath.
“It was years later I realized most of the people were probably already dead that I saw,” he told me when I first interviewed him in 2002. “They were living on morphine. They were doped out to the max to keep them together.”
Bartow came home from the war an embittered 21-year-old drunk; he threw out the Bronze Star he had earned for his service as a musician (though his mother recovered it). Years later, after failed marriages and a life spiraling downward, he woke up one morning after being beaten up on the street.
“A local man saved my life, basically, kicking me pretty well down the waterfront with his cowboy boots,” he told me years ago. “I was horrified and embarrassed to realize I had hit bottom. I stumbled home a bloody mess. I woke up with the pillow stuck to my face. Knots all over the top of my head, one eye closed, teeth busted. Everything you look like after a good drunken brawl. I needed a lesson.” He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began a life of sobriety.
With his extraordinary vision and solid work ethic, Bartow soon attracted the attention of serious art lovers and buyers.
He met his current Portland gallerist, Charles Froelick, in 1992, when he was showing work at the Jamison Thomas Gallery in Portland, where Froelick worked. Froelick went on to open his own gallery in 1995, after William Jamison died, and Bartow was his first solo show. “Rick and I had hit it off well from the beginning,” Froelick said. “He really opened my eyes. He was completely unique, highly articulate in both mark and words, prolific, passionate and committed to making art. He was inspiring; he was intellectually and esthetically challenging, and he was not afraid of making tough work, nor afraid of beauty and engagement.”
The two men went on to become fast friends.
“Rick knew how to compose with graphic and lyric strength and beauty,” Froelick said. “He knew and expressed his vulnerabilities with humor and poignancy. He was an un-assuming fellow and did not have airs of importance or elitism about his art making. He was not desperate for fame.”
Last year, in conjunction with the JSMA retrospective, Bartow and Froelick and I shared a stage in the Hult Center’s Studio. The two men talked, and I moderated – or, more to the point, I was on hand to make sure Rick had opportunity to gracefully recover from the occasional moments of aphasia he suffered after a stroke.
Despite his occasional difficulty finding words, Bartow was as charming that night as ever. He spoke candidly about the effects of the stroke, drawing warm laughter from the audience when he described an episode in which, after being introduced to a woman, he couldn’t stop saying wildly inappropriate things that he didn’t mean or intend.
A few days later he played guitar with his band in a gallery at the Schnitzer during a reception at the opening of his retrospective. His music, like his drawing and painting, were unaffected by the stroke, and the whole room got up and danced.
He also showed work last year at the Karin Clarke Gallery in Eugene. “I am so deeply saddened by this news,” Karin Clarke said. “Rick Bartow was one of the greats of our area. Not only was he a fierce and incredible artist, he was an authentic and kind person. It felt really special to be around him, listening to his stories, like he had a deep knowing about animals and the spirit world. His marvelous work, in all its forms, completely stops you in your tracks and you feel it at your core.”
The Jordan Schnizter Museum of Art sent this statement following Bartow’s death:
“All of us at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art were tremendously fortunate to work so closely with Rick and to spend so much time in the presence of his work over the last several years as we organized the major touring exhibition and accompanying publication.
“Rick was a master of materials, an exceptional colorist, and an artist without pretense. His imagery—ranging from self-portraits to animals and spirits—had celebratory, restorative, and emotionally vital qualities. Rick was the ultimate story-teller and he made work that resonated with everyone who saw it. His mark-making was a physical and intuitive process, drawn from his own memories, traditional stories, world cultures, and other diverse influences. It was an honor to witness this process in action when visiting Rick in his studio in Newport and while observing his collaborative projects with Mika Aono in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts printmaking studio last spring. We knew his health was fragile, but we didn’t expect that he had so little time left. At least we have his work, which communicates so directly, authentically, and powerfully.”
A memorial is pending.