A master of bold, dripping color and dynamic composition, Rick Bartow is recognized as one of the Northwest’s most prominent artists. The White House’s website called him “one of the outstanding Native artists of this century” in sharing the display of his sculpture in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in 1997, and his 2012 sculpture We Were Always Here, a pair of 20-foot-tall carved poles, is on permanent display in front of the National Museum of the American Indian overlooking the National Mall.
Now, Bartow’s vivid drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures have returned to his home state at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. The exhibition Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain (highdesertmuseum.org/bartow), open now through April 7, is an extensive retrospective of nearly four decades of his work, an exploration of his extraordinary life and a dive into his complex identity.
Bartow’s work connects the physical and spiritual worlds and explores the passage between the past and the present. Born between two cultures, Bartow learned from an early age to honor and embrace both his father’s ancestry as a member of the Mad River Band of the Wiyot Indians as well as his mother’s European heritage, often spending Sunday mornings at church and afternoons at Native American ceremonies.
Bartow traveled the world extensively in his lifetime and earned a Bronze Star for military service in Vietnam. But he always returned to his family’s coastal homestead in Newport. He died there in 2016.
The trauma he witnessed in Vietnam manifested as what we now identify as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Bartow found his way out of those dark years by reconnecting with Indigenous tradition, immersing himself in the beauty of nature, and by embracing the therapeutic and redemptive power of art,” explained High Desert Museum Curator of Arts and Community Engagement Andries Fourie. “He once described this process by saying, ‘I drew myself straight.’”
Bartow worked intuitively, drawing from his own experiences and memories. Erasure marks—evidence of reworking—are often present in his works, along with fingerprints and handprints. Some works share the pain of his experiences. Others are filled with whimsy.
“Bartow made art that is vibrant, physical and engaging,” Fourie said, noting that the artist effortlessly combined images of shamans, totems, talismans, masks and creation stories with ideas from Western philosophy. “This diversity illustrates that while he deeply valued tradition, Bartow was also a voracious reader, a deep thinker and an amateur naturalist. He had an all-consuming passion for the physical world in all its messy and contradictory glory.”
In all, Fourie said, visitors should be ready for a transformative experience. Rick Bartow: Things You Cannot Explain will be at the High Desert Museum (highdesertmuseum.org) through April 7.