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Rick Bartow
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Newport, Oregon
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Newport, Oregon
An artist who responded to his Native American heritage and leading masters from the history of Western art, Rick Bartow was a sculptor, printmaker, mask-maker and painter, but is best known for his powerful drawings and pastels. His paternal grandfather John Bartow, a member of the Mad River Band of the Wiyot tribe of Humboldt County, Calif., had walked to the central Oregon coast in 1911 and settled in South Beach, across Yaquina Bay from Newport, Oregon. The family developed a relationship with the Native American community in the nearby Siletz Reservation. Bartow’s father Richard married Mabel Nelson, who was not a Native American, and Bartow was born in 1946. After Richard died when Bartow was five, his mother married Andrew Mekemson, who became a second father to Bartow. He showed talent for drawing from an early age, and in high school discovered music, becoming a life-long blues musician. Bartow’s interest in art was encouraged when he attended a summer art workshop at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. One of the instructors was chairman of the art department of Western Oregon University, where Bartow enrolled after his high school graduation, graduating in 1969 with a degree in art education. Soon drafted into the Army, he served in Vietnam, where one of his duties was to perform with a band at a military hospital to entertain the wounded. The gruesome injuries to the wounded and dying soldiers had a profound emotional effect on him, leading to “survivor’s guilt,” divorce and alcoholism on his return home. He battled his demons through drawing, and worked as a bartender and at other odd jobs, while taking a few art classes at Western Oregon. He took a job as a teacher’s aide in classes of developmentally-disabled students in 1977, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stayed sober while continuing to draw. He counted Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992) as artistic influences. Bartow began experimenting with color, and by 1980 his works often combined graphite and pastels. In the early 1980s Bartow met Portland art dealer William Jamison (1945-1995), who agreed to show Bartow’s work at the Jamison/Thomas Gallery, one of Portland’s leading galleries, which he ran with Jeffrey Thomas. The gallery mounted a solo show of Bartow’s works in 1985, followed by solo exhibitions almost every year at either the Portland or New York City Jamison/Thomas Galleries (or both) until Jamison died in 1995 from complications of AIDS. Bartow began exploring Native American masks during the late 1980s and was soon making his own masks and using masks as imagery in his pastels. By 1987 he was able to leave his school job and concentrate on art full-time. His works were included in the Portland Art Museum’s Biennial Expositions in 1987 and 1989 and in Phoenix’s Heard Museum Fourth Biennial Native American Fine Arts Invitational in 1989. Saks Fifth Avenue commissioned him to create two murals for its new Portland store in 1990. Travel to attend solo exhibitions of his works in Germany and Japan brought new influences to his art. He began creating more three-dimensional works, monotypes and lithographs during the 1990s. After Jamison’s death in 1995, an employee of the gallery, Charles Froelick, opened his own Portland gallery and began representing Bartow, placing his works in several museum collections. The felling of a large Cedar tree in the Portland suburb of Cedar Mill led to a public commission to create “Cedar Mill Pole” in 1997, a 26-foot pole with Maori designs from New Zealand topped with a human face. It was shown at an exhibition at the White House in Washington, D.C. in 1997-98, before placement in Cedar Mill. In 2001 Bartow was awarded an Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis and an Award for Visual Artists from the Flintridge Foundation in Pasadena. A retrospective exhibition of Bartow’s works entitled “Rick Bartow: My Eye” was held by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, in 2002. While continuing to play music in regular appearances and to create art in a variety of media, a notable event was the 2012 dedication of his work “We Were Always Here” in the gardens of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., two pole sculptures, “Bear” (27 feet tall) and “Raven” (23 feet tall). Then in 2015 the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, mounted “Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain,” a retrospective exhibition of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures. Bartow and his band “The Backseat Drivers” entertained the crowd at the opening preview party. Burdened by increasingly poor health, Bartow died at home of congestive heart failure on April 2, 2016. (TNB 4/2016) Selected bibliography: Dobkins, Rebecca J. “Tears and Rain: One Artist’s View from Sea Level,” Oregon Historical Society Quaraterly, vol. 107, no. 3 (Fall 2006) pp. 435-443. Dobkins, Rebecca J. Rick Bartow: My Eye. Exhibition catalog, with a foreword by Barry Lopez. Salem, Oregon: Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. Hartz, Jill. Rick Bartow: Things You Know but Cannot Explain. Exhibition catalog. Eugene: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, 2014.