I was driving in the night through the city of Melbourne, Australia, when I received a message from my mother. It said, “Rick Bartow has died.” I have not seen or spoken to Bartow in nearly two years but the news hit me like a Pacific wave in the winter. I stopped the car to let it come over me. In the gallery of my life, Bartow looms large.
My parents went to work in Oregon during the ‘80s through a teacher exchange program. It took them, of all places, to Yachats. Their love for that little jewel was the beginning of life-long relationship between my family and the Pacific Northwest. I returned to study at OSU in 2010 and lived in Newport, during which time I had the good luck to call Rick Bartow my friend.
Some days I sat with him in his workspace, carried wood for his sculptures and played slide guitar on a cedar stump while he chiseled at wooden masks. Behind him, towering over us as he worked was the sculpture of a giant bear. He fashioned it from a whole tree. “Old mother,” he said as I studied it one day. Like so much of his work, the bear brought news from a place between worlds, its human hands searching for something beyond reach.
People who knew Bartow better than I did will have ideas about him that are more accurate than mine. But I did know him, in a small, private way, during the late years of his life. What I write here is a way for me to cherish those days and to pay tribute to Rick as I remember him. Probably it is a mark of the man that he could compel me to such sentiment with a single brushstroke or carving, or the raining of his voice that to me seemed an echo from a world forgotten.
What he said to me on those days in the shop, and what he sang, left an indelible mark on me. Not on every part of my life, but on the part inside a person that longs to sing out, to write, or to otherwise make more of this world than the drudgery of surviving it. His work came from a place that is more interesting than the daily sum of our lives, and that is arguably the measure of all good art.
I saw that Bartow had this effect on other people in Newport as well, other artists and thinkers who seemed in his presence to lean in on each other against the coming wind and fill the place with big ideas. Newport, so full of dreams, even in the face of small town living, even while the crabbing boats ploughed on and the 101 screamed south toward California and Silicon Valley. Here’s to Joey’s bakery, and 50c refills on coffee. Here’s to Nana’s pub, and to Deep Sea John in the corner. Here’s to the fisherman on the Bay front, and the blessed American salve of the Bay Haven Inn. Here’s to the South Beach surfers. Here’s to the lost souls on the jetty. Here’s to Café Mundo on Saturday nights, where the dreamers gathered, danced and drank in the sound of Bartow and the Back Seat Drivers. Here’s to you, old boy, for letting the magic out when you could’ve kept it in. Here’s to Reservation Radio, a song I called Reservation Rodeo to make you laugh.
So far as I know, Bartow never reached Australia, but he did see New Zealand. He said during his visit there that he met a native elder who taught him a traditional Maori song. The name of it eludes me but that doesn’t matter. Like most good songs the melody was more uplifting than the lyrics, the tone more important than the word. He sang that song one night in the fall of 2011, during a traditional ceremony he invited me to attend on the Siletz River. It was a sweat, the old Native American kind where the steam comes up from heated river-stones splashed with cold water. The session I attended was populated by a group of hard drinkers and injured spirits. Together, we crouched around the pit inside the closed wigwam in our underwear and listened to Bartow speak about reciprocity. “We give to the earth that we might receive from it,” he said. And out from the deep galaxy-black of that closed space, beside the green-running Siletz, Bartow sang that Maori song in a stunning voice. Even now through the veil of memory I can hear it, the honesty, the awesome clarity with which he delivered every syllable.
I’m at danger of romanticizing things beyond reality but at such a distance as I sit to write this, and with the great man gone, I feel possessed by romance. Perhaps because I was an outsider in Newport, or simply because he felt like it at the time, Bartow did tell me about some things in his life that were ugly to him, and not so romantic. One of them was the treatment of a woman he was seeing when he was drinking and crazy after Vietnam. He said when he came out of that period he poured what was left of him into his artwork. The other thing he told me about was a recurring vision from Vietnam, and a soldier with severed legs that lay in agony on a bed and listened while Bartow sat next to him and sang the blues.
Here in Melbourne, in 2012, a bouncer hit a friend of mine one night and nearly killed him. He fell on the pavement and hit his head, stayed comatose for at least a week and, according to doctors, was on the precipice of this world. When he eventually woke and began his recovery, I gave him an iPod that contained a Bartow album. In the fog of those months he listened to Bartow every day. This happened in the same year that Bartow was commissioned to create the giant cedar poles now erected at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, across the way from the Washington Monument.
The brother of the injured friend and I visited Bartow in his studio in Newport, nearing the end of that project. We told him about his near death, and how his music had featured in the recovery. Bartow didn’t say much about it but handed us tools, showed us what to do, and let us make our mark on his project, the most significant of his life.
It is a fun joke for us to say that we, two white men from Australia, have contributed to an artwork that now stands as a beacon for Native American art at the world’s largest museum. But I see now there is nothing particularly funny about it. There is only the idea that Bartow was a man who knew things we didn’t, and where it fell on to him to share that knowledge and he did so with remarkable beauty. It is our good luck to have his voice on record, and his art in museums to view at our leisure.
I have with me in Australia one original Bartow drawing of a Rhinoceros beetle, sketched by his signature hand, somehow more interesting to look at than a beetle ought to be. The mad Newport baker, Joe Danna, who knew Bartow better than most people, gave me that drawing. Along with Bartow’s voice, it will stay with me for as long as I live.
So that is it. Farewell Bartow. A genius I took the liberty of calling my friend.