Two Pole Sculptures by Rick Bartow Headed for National Mall

Two Pole Sculptures by Rick Bartow Headed for National Mall

Eliza Murphy

Raven and bear are on their way across the continent from Newport, Oregon to Washington D.C where they will land to welcome visitors with their open arms to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Carved by Oregon native and internationally known artist Rick Bartow, Wiyot/ Mad River Band, the two pole sculptures have yet to stand upright.

“I’m going nuts with anxiety to see them upright,” Bartow recently confessed from his studio in Newport, where he and his assistant, Jon Paden, worked on them while they were horizontal. Carved out of old-growth western red cedar, a tree native to the Pacific Northwest, split lengthwise with its heartwood removed to prevent cracking, the Raven and Bear poles will stand 23 and 27 feet high, respectively.

A natural storyteller mindful of his elders and influences, Bartow spoke with relish about finding the right tree for the job. Once he found it on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the blessings began. “We met the tree. We put out tobacco. We prayed. We stayed on the site. We sang our way in and we’ll sing our way out. We gave thanks for everything going well.”

Estimated at anywhere from 400 to 1200 years old, Bartow delights in the tree’s age since it predates Columbus landing in North America.

Chuckling, Bartow said the title of the piece, “’We Were Always Here’ is sort of a joke -- it refers to the animals, the animal spirits, the nature spirit that certainly exists in that city -- the crows, worms in the ground, the geese that travel through, the animals that were there, probably still there, just further out.”

Animals from the Northwest are common motifs he uses in his sculptures, paintings and drawings. “Raven is tied up with water, with the direction of the West. He’s a rascal, a nincompoop, he provides the comic relief like the jester in Shakespeare. Raven is filled with foibles, he’s a teacher.

“Bear is wise, a healer. My daughter, Lily, was born too early, she was tiny like your hand. The ambulance driver who took her to Portland said she growled like a bear. The bear is protective, feminine, powerful, ferocious, shy. She’s medicine. And she’s also a memorial to Walter Lawrence, Klamath, at the sweathouse. This is the sweathouse bear.”

A salmon heads upstream on the back panel of the bear pole and another runs downstream on the raven pole. “Bear and raven are focused on water and salmon for serious reasons. The salmon are an indicator species reflecting the health of the environment, in particular, water -- the source of life,” Bartow wrote in his artist’s statement.

Water is suggested by rows of ripples reach from the base of the poles up, nearly to the figures. “They’re waves just like on the mud flats where my uncles took me clam digging in Yaquina Bay when I was three or four. They’re like the ridges glistening in the mud as the tide goes out.”

Bartow acknowledges the tremendous collaborative spirit surrounding this creation. “Jon interpreted what we sketched out on napkins over lunch. He figured out how to put it together, to account for wind shear, snow weight, temperature changes in assembling the poles. Jon is as close to genius as I’ve ever been one. He speaks the language of engineering, carving, Japanese joinery. He’s a wonderful carpenter. I can’t say enough about him -- he’s an incredible young man.”

Jon will assemble the poles on location once they arrive. Using interlocking mortis and tendon joinery, the parts will hold without the use of glue or hardware.

Seiichi Hiroshima, a printmaker from Japan who works with Bartow as often as he can come the states, carved the ripples on the bear pole, and dressed the raven pole to prepare it for community members who carved it in a day. All three of Bartow’s kids “put their hands on these poles.” His partner, glass artist Nancy Blair, also collaborated with him, although the original plan to incorporate glass in the design had to be scrapped due to technical concerns.

Blair called this project Bartow’s “life time achievement.”

Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon that has represented Bartow for twenty years, considers the sculptures Bartow’s “master work.” “This is going to the nation’s capitol. It symbolizes the continuity and endurance of Indian culture, it demonstrates how crucial artistic expression is, this is at the heart of it. These allow viewers to explode into Rick’s all-consuming narrative and playfulness,” he said.

Born Richard Elmer Bartow in Newport, Oregon in 1946, Bartow grew up in neighboring South Beach where, as a kid he turned over lots of rocks to look for bugs and beetles, taught himself how to play guitar, how to draw and developed an interest in carving while watching "some old fellows who whittled" and a stepdad who was a wood worker.

According to Bartow, art has been with him since he arrived in this world. “I drew in feces on my grandmother’s wall when I was a baby,” he laughed. “In the Army when I was in the field I made things out of sticks and grass on cigarette breaks.”

After earning a degree in secondary arts education from Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, he left to serve in Vietnam for thirteen months. When he got back home, drawing and playing guitar helped stave off the damage of the war. He tried drinking away his symptoms, but discovered that art was a far more effective, potent medicine, especially when supplemented with the sweat house. “Through sweat house we all receive a gift, mine was to be creative.”

He married twice and fathered three children. Humble and understated, he said when he started making art he had no idea that he could actually make money doing it. His work has shown in galleries in this country as well as Japan, Germany, Canada and New Zealand and it is on permanent display at NMAI.

The Smithsonian’s NMAI on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is one of three sites the museum operates. NMAI cares for the world’s largest holding of native artifacts from the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierre del Fuego.

An opening reception will take place on September 21, the autumnal equinox. Bartow invited an elder friend, Frank Le Pena, to bless the sculptures. Afterward, his band, Bartow and the Backseat Drivers, will play.

Sitting on a couch surrounded by masks, the floor strewn with wood shavings, Bartow looked at the sculptures that took nearly a year to bring to fruition. “The Big Mystery will reveal itself if you do the work. I hope that people like these,” he sighed, smiling.

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