‘Without Limits’ review in Pasatiempo

“Sweating the Big Stuff”

by Paul Weideman for The New Mexican

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rick Bartow, a member of the Wiyot tribe and an artist who is represented in Without Limits: Contemporary Indian Market Exhibition at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, experiences little joy in his successes — his life story has more than the usual share of hard edges — but he finds some calm in knowing that his work is undertaken with honesty.

            The observer will intuit a quality of emotional presence in Bartow’s more dramatic pieces and in surveying the scope of his catalog. In some of his paintings of coyotes and other fanged creatures, rage and darkness are embodied, but in his hawks, the viewer sees intent, awareness, dignity, and even peace.

            “The birds are a large part of the body of my work because of a lot of observation,” Bartow said in an interview from his home in Newport, Oregon. “Where my studios are, we see eagles, hawks, osprey, ravens, and other birds as well as deer and elk.”

            The artist has a tremendous variety of work in many mediums, and his paintings, sculptures, and prints are informed by the stories he hears in a weekly sweat lodge. “It’s a recovery lodge, run under the wing of the Siletz Tribe’s drug- and alcohol-prevention program.

            This lodge is peculiar in that it’s dedicated to recovery, and what that means is left blank, so it could be chocolate cookies or heroin. I’ve volunteered there for almost 15 years, and the different stories present images. I myself have been clean and sober for 29 years,” he said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but there is no alternative.”

Back in the ’60s, Bartow earned a degree in secondary art education at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) and then was promptly drafted and sent to Vietnam. After his war experi­ence, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

            His achievements in recovery — a permanent feature of his life, he emphasized — are owing, to a large degree, to his artistic practice.

            “I have no bones about not understanding my gift,” he said. “I feel sort of like Noah building his ark in the desert. The Creator gave me this weird gift to make these skewed pictures that don’t even look like things, and I make money, and I survive. I don’t have a clue. I just work. I make a big mess, then I try to clean it up and find resolution within that mess to find a bird or an animal or a story or a person or a feeling, you know? It’s pretty unschooled. It’s pretty raw. And in my house I have Fritz Scholder, Leonard Baskin, Joe Feddersen, Horst Janssen, Kenneth Callahan, and Drake Deknatel and a whole wall full of masks from Oaxaca, Mexico, but I do not have a piece of my work up here. I’m just not that enamored of my own work.”

            There have been good times, of course. He lovingly recalled his friendship with artist Harry Fonseca, who died in December 2006.
            When asked if he was familiar with Santa Fe, Bartow replied, “I’ve been in and out of there with shows over the years at LewAllen and other galleries. My friends Lillian Pitt and Joe Feddersen and I would go down and sleep on Harry’s floor and laugh all night.”

Bartow said that working in many mediums helps pay the bills.  “The Creator has given me a choice of things, and Froelick Gallery in Portland — Charles Froelick is my longtime friend and representative — allows me the freedom to change from pink kitty cats to green kitty cats if I want to.”

One of the artist’s studios is a barnlike structure that was financed by a mural commission from Saks Fifth Avenue’s Portland store.

            Bartow believes Saks is the largest corporate collector of his works.  “That’s pretty laughable, because I’m definitely no slave to fashion,” he said. “I couldn’t afford a pair of socks from the place.”

            He has a print shop for Seiichi Hiroshima of Tokyo, who has made inks and done the printing for Bartow on about 200 drypoint etchings and countless monoprints over the years. Bartow also has an open­air carving shed. “I do up to 26- foot poles. I was one of 11 Native American artists who had work at the White House for a year. It was Nora Naranjo-Morse, Doug Coffin, Doug Hyde, Roxanne Swentzell, Bob Haozous, and some others, and we were invited to tea, don’tcha know, with your little finger up and clean clothes on.”

            He described the time he endured a long bout of artist’s block.  It got to the point that his financial deficits were getting downright embarrassing. “When I finally went into the studio, I made these angels with bloody noses, and it was like, What kind of market is there for this, some nincompoop making angels with bloody noses?  Sometimes the artist’s job is just too bizarre to comprehend.

            “I don’t pretend to understand how this works, but I don’t have any alternative at my age,” Bartow said. “I’m making marks, and they’re sort of delineating the realm of my experience. I don’t think that I’m making too much up. I think it’s pretty straight-up.”

Without Limits also features works by Norman Akers, Fonseca, Lisa Holt & Harlan Reano, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Naranjo-Morse, Rose B. Simpson, Kade L. Twist, Kay WalkingStick, Emmi Whitehorse, and Yatika Starr Fields.

            Fields (of Cherokee, Creek, and Osage heritage) has been a resident of Brooklyn for the past four years. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. One of his earliest accolades — when he was 9 years old — was an award for a video project he did with his father, photographer Tom Fields. “It was about the different drum groups and styles of dance,” Fields said.  “It was like a life of my family at a powwow in Stroud, Oklahoma.”

            During his high-school years, he explored drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, work in clay (his mother is noted clay sculptor Anita Fields), and Etch A Sketch landscapes. “Yeah, I was pretty much trying to get my hands on anything, seeing what I could do,” he said. “I was coming up with some pretty interesting stuff, but as time went on, I focused on painting.”

            After graduating from high school in 2000, he had the opportunity to do a self-guided study of art in Italy and then attended the Art Institute of Boston for a time. During his first semester, he was chosen to represent young Native American artists at an international program held in Brunei. “I got to work with all these indigenous artists from the Pacific Rim,” Fields recalled. “We did a collaborative mural, and we met all the leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton.”

            Another collaborative project Fields participated in was Pop Life.  “That was a group of us, indigenous pop artists, working in graffiti and a live, spontaneous skateboarding atmosphere, and we went to places [the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2004 and Princeton University in 2005], and we did a performance piece.”

            Chiaroscuro shows a 2008 oil painting by Fields titled Collision on Central Park South. “I’ve been a bike messenger in New York for four years, and one of the things I see is horse carriages here and there, and I don’t think the horses standing there waiting for people to ride them are in very good condition,” he said. “It’s kind of sad, and I wanted to paint them, give them some kind of support, but at the same time, there are stories about the horses getting scared from noise and breaking away and running into traffic and getting killed.

            “I ride right next to the horses, and if there were a collision like this, there’d be dust and trash and plants from the cracks in the street, all broken up, so I wanted to convey that feeling of movement and chaos and sound.”

            It’s the most New York City- oriented painting Fields has done. “I try to keep my paintings more personal, and I had feelings about this, and I wanted to convey that, especially for the horses.” ◀