An artist panel honored the phenomenal Rick Bartow today. Each panel member told a story about their Rick Bartow: their friend, elder, uncle, and inspiration. The event felt more like a celebrity roast, if celebrity roasts were loving gestures conducted by genuine friends.
The dominant culture could learn a lot from how this Native artist launched his retrospective at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. The opening event, held outdoors in front of the museum to bless the entryway, was a gathering of laughter and bright spirits, singing and ceremony, tribal and civic leaders, and a large audience gathered solely to show respect. I’ve never experienced such a warm approach to fine art. I hope I’ll never forget Rick Bartow shaking his finger at the crowd in mock warning, “And the old people! Watch out. We are not so dead yet!”
Bartow’s work reminds the viewer of powers and presences no one speaks about in common conversation, an idea reflected in the exhibition title, Things You Know But Cannot Explain. (April 18, 2015 – August 9, 2015 at the JSMA.)
James Lavadour described how Bartow is able to, “gather pieces of reality that become a creature.” These art creatures now dominate the museum, curated from the profusion of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints produced over four decades of focused art-making. To say that Bartow’s creatures are otherworldly is inaccurate. They have always been a part of this world, appearing in dreams and intuitions, tamped down with reason and defying definition. Bartow gives them glinting eyes that pierce through dimensions and convey a refusal to be ignored. It takes courage to spend time with some of these creatures; one can only imagine the courage it took to paint them.
As Frank LaPena said, “The first time I saw Bartow’s work, it was like someone had dropped a piano. It kept resonating. It had music. A cacophony of color.”
Bartow at 68 has lived through more than one stroke and continues to make art and play music. His humor is contagious, as when he thanked his panel of artist friends. He said, “I had an old uncle who used to tell me I was like a baby bird – all mouth and full of poop. Just like my friends here today. Telling their lovely lies.”
I met the artist as I stood in line to have my exhibition catalog signed. I held up my phone to take his picture and said, “The museum asked us to use social media, so I’m Tweeting you.” Bartow replied, “That’s great! I have no idea what you’re doing, but it sounds great!” Then we each sang out “Tweet” and laughed.
He signed my catalog with wise elder counsel: