Abby Wasserman
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Portfolio, by Abby WassermanPortfolio: Eleven American Indian Artists
Below is an excerpt
from the book.

R.E. (Rick) Bartow

In their swift, oscillating line and jewel-like gestures of color, R.E. Bartow's mixed media drawings bring to mind the darting flight of hummingbirds.

His drawings and the dance masks he carves from cedar focus on movement and transformation. The drawings are often troubling in their images of violence, pain and loss, yet his work also deals with light and rebirth. Communication is Rick Bartow's goal, not shock. His art has severe beauty and wounded innocence.

The imagery, evolved from dreams, myth and memory, often is concerned with spiritual and anthropomorphic changes. Curator, critic and artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith suggests that the fusion of humans and animals in Bartow's art extends comfort as well as implying power. "Unlike Europeans, Indian people view themselves as part of nature," she said. "They paint the landscape in a tender way, because they feel a part of it. Indians think animals have souls. They fed us; they carried our household goods. We view animals in different ways from whites. I get this feeling from Rick's work, that he and the animals are one."

R.E. Bartow, a Yurok, was born in 1946 in the small coastal town of Newport, Oregon. The two-story house he now shares with his wife and infant son is full of family history. An aunt who instilled a love of art in him was born there; his grandparents died there. A favorite uncle, the twin brother of his deceased father, lives next door and is an indirect source of Bartow's imagery and inspiration.

Bartow graduated from Western Oregon State College in 1969 with a degree in Secondary Art Education, but before he was able to start teaching, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. His transformational images have roots in drawings he began after returning from the war of figures with masks being removed from or falling off the face.

As he dealt with putting the war behind him, masks of his own began to fall away, enabling him to see the masks of others. For the first time, he realized that others, too, were afraid. His experiences in Vietnam left him "a house filled with irrational fears, beliefs and symbols," afraid of wind, in dread of crows. He slept with bells on his wrists so he could hear his body move. He did not want to speak his own name.

Seeking to exorcize the demons that had made him strange to himself, he took up a thick pad of newsprint and began to draw again. He used only graphite, so the images were inky black and broodingly stark. Slowly, color began to enter the drawings, and three years ago, color became dominant. Art continues to be a healing medium for him.

Bartow has been carving masks for four years. He began with European chisels and gouges, but it became apparent that they were unsuited for the curved, symmetrical masks of the Northwest Coast tribe, which Bartow chose to copy in order to learn how to carve. When he finally acquired traditional Native American carving tools, he learned with "the right tool for the right job" meant. He could rough out a mask in half the time.

R.E. Bartow now seeks change actively, believing there is no growth without it. His art is enriched by this understanding.

Jim Schoppert, an artist and curator of Tlingit heritage currently living in Washington, observed that Bartow's art "invites people to share an experience generally shut off from the public, open only to people of the inner circle. The spirituality in his work is very private and personal, expressing a depth of knowledge of a world centuries upon centuries old. The North American non-Native viewer has no frame of reference that old, and something so ancient can feel frightening.

"His work evokes a sense of the Neo-Expressionism coming out of Germany, which is arriving at its expression in a totally different realm. Rick's comes from the heart of his Native understanding. We see a lot of this occurring in Native American art: people are arriving at their own conclusions, which can coincide with that of other Expressionists.

"The startling imagery and bold use of materials are indicative of current trends within the Native art community in general. The work forces you to come into the picture, and into the culture."

R.E. Bartow's work is included in major collections in the U.S. and Japan.

Cover: Jack Malotte, "Electric Indian" (detail), 1985, mixed media on paper.

All text and images © 2005-2016 Abby Wasserman unless otherwise stated