Rick Bartow’s graceful artwork adorns the walls of two of Opsis’s recently completed projects – the University of Oregon Ford Alumni Center and the Western Oregon University Health and Wellness Center. He was recently profiled in the Oregonian as he is soon to install a sculpture on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Read the full article below and watch a video of Rick at work at the bottom.
Newport artist Rick Bartow’s ‘pole sculptures’ will stand in place of honor in Washington, D.C.
Published: Tuesday, August 21, 2012, 3:10 PM Updated: Thursday, August 23, 2012, 2:55 PM
— by Lori Tobias
“We Were Always Here” is a pair of 20-feet-plus tall wooden poles chiseled and carved and coaxed for nearly a year, now ready for their debut next month at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
They will face the Washington Monument overlooking the National Mall on Jefferson Drive, says Eileen Maxwell, museum spokeswoman.
“You have the Washington Monument at one end of the mall and Rick Bartow’s poles at the other end of the mall,” she says. “It’s designed that way. It’s a signal. It’s a welcoming pole, which is a tradition in Native American culture.”
Bartow is no stranger to acclaim. His drawings, prints and mixed-media sculptures have been shown worldwide and his Cedar Mill Pole was displayed in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House in 1997-1998.
But how this Newport artist came to win the bid to create the book-end to the most prominent landmark in D.C. is “a lot of magic and a lot of mystery and a whole lot of spirit,” says Bartow, 65. “But first of all, it is a real scary job.”
The story begins a few years ago with a humbled Bartow returning from D.C. after being invited to take part in a competition at the museum. He made the short list, but failed, in his words, to win the cake. The hotels, the travel, the time, all for naught.
He moved on. But then Bartow got a call.
While his work hadn’t won the prize, the maquette — or small model of his work — had caught the eye of the museum staff.
“We’re always looking for the opportunity to work with Rick,” said David Penney, associate director of museum scholarship. “What’s appealing about Rick’s work is it has a very broad range. It’s very accessible. We appreciate his animals and figures, they have character, identity. He uses a kind of indigenous vernacular in using animals, although it’s very much his own language. The larger issue is about the fact that from an indigenous perspective, animals are our relations. That plays to the mission we have here of reminding people of the values indigenous people bring to the world.”
And so there was Bartow — still recovering from a stroke he suffered about a year and a half ago — with this amazing opportunity, but also a massive quandary to go with it:
Where would he get the wood and how was he going to pay for it? While the Smithsonian commissioned the piece for $200,000, they hadn’t paid him yet, and Bartow had to move fast.
“It’s a goofy process where somebody makes an offer and you say yes and then try to figure out how to make yes happen,” says Bartow.
Bartow’s partner, Nancy Blair, also an artist, put out a call to friend and renowned carver Loren White, who in turned called Duane Pasco, also a highly regarded artist. Pasco just so happened to have a 350-year-old tree he’d bought from the S’Klallam Tribe near Olympia.
“We didn’t have any money,” Bartow recalls, “but on a lick and a promise were able to get a 20-foot tree.”
But they still needed more wood to make the center plates for the back of the poles. White made another call, and there it was, wood from a 1,200-year-old tree, found at a mill in Vashon Island.
“1,200 years old,” says Bartow. “We’ll never see that again. It’s just amazing wood.”
Now, to get the logs home. Calls to commercial trucking firms were fruitless. Then Bartow’s assistant, Jon Paden, showed up. “He said, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”
Nearly a year later, the carvings await only the finishing touches. They are 22 and 27 feet tall, and weigh, by Bartow’s guess, about 1,200 pounds each. The name on the work will be Bartow’s, but it will be infused with the spirit of a tapestry of friends.
White and Pasco helped dress and shape the 350-year-old tree into two pieces. Joe
David, whose whale design adorns the tail of the British Airway jets, rough-cut the salmon carvings and Japanese printmaker Seiichi Hiroshima prepped one of the poles.
“The community came in, friends and family came in, and at one time we had 10 people working on this log, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers,” says Bartow.
“Jon became indispensable because his mind is good at engineering and he is also young and strong and everything I am not. He was able to take my ideas and manipulate them. He was aware of climate, wind shear, of water and snow, things that would shorten its life span.”
By the time the work is done, all the money has “pretty much all been spent, buying a $12,000 tree an $5,000 for the back pieces and for other materials and artists …”
They aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures,” says Bartow, a member of the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California.
“We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”
Ultimately, the poles are about water, says Bartow.
“Water is so very misunderstood, so necessary for life, but very crudely used as a resource. It is more appropriately one of our greatest medicines. The waste and misuse of our water resources is criminal as its impact falls to our children and grandchildren.
One pole represents the bear — the original doctor in native beliefs; the other the raven, and both feature salmon. There is also an eagle, which in native lore, flies closest to the face of the creator.
“We have the sun and the moon and we chose the raven — the trickster, rascal, comedian,” Bartow says. “But also in many Western mythologies, native stories and beliefs, the raven is concerned with the West and the water, the ocean, lightning, thunder, energy. Also, we chose the raven just as kind of as a symbol of the West, seeing how we’re going to go east.”
Around Labor Day, Paden will set out with the poles for Washington, D.C. People invited to the Sept. 21 dedication include President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the Oregon congressional delegation, Hillary Clinton, various Oregon VIPS and — of equal import, at least in Bartow’s mind — his blues/folk-rock band, The Backseat Drivers.
“I can’t believe it,” says Bartow. “There is no reason why somebody should give a rip about the way I work, but they did and here we go and it’s the top of the heap. I just have to say thank you from this point on, I guess. Like my mother said, ‘Just say thank you.’ It’s a thank you of a magnitude I’ve never known.”
Newport sculptor Rick Bartow talks about his $200,000 job to design two poles (don’t call them totems) for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Watch video:
A Photo Essay of Rick Bartow’s studio: http://photos.oregonlive.com/photo-essay/2012/08/rick_bartows_sculptures_to_gra.html
The article above originally appeared on Oregon Live.