Dream analysts often say that nightmares about teeth falling out are subconscious reactions to anxiety. In painter Rick Bartow's young adult life, the nightmare of crumbling teeth wasn't a dream; it was a real life reaction to being an alcoholic. He was an artist then, he says, but not a disciplined one. He fought tooth and nail to do something practical, but he always stuck to it.
"I was very insecure about it," he says. "I kept my art really small and when I was drinking I'd get drunk and have bonfires and throw my work all in the fire and burn it up. There's not much work left of the early years, but I don't think it was worth a fig, to tell you the truth."
Now, as a celebrated regional artist in his hometown of Newport, Ore., he makes a living from his art, working in several different studios. (He's currently working on a top secret commissioned piece, which he wants to tell us about but is contractually obligated not to.) With 32 years of sobriety under his belt, Bartow finds that teeth show up everywhere in his spooky, dream-like paintings. In "Coyote and the Myth," an upright, manlike body with a coyote's head bares its row of sharp teeth, as does the bear in "Bear's Journey." A red bull, also standing as if he were morphing into a two-legged devil, shows a white smile, smeared as if someone were trying to wipe it clean, and the teeth here are small but plentiful. Even in "Crow's Creation" the beaked crow is haunted by a ghostly figure with square-pegged teeth peeking through it like a hungry spirit.
Besides the teeth, Bartow's paintings are marked by shadows and a refusal of traditional lines. In his current, nationally touring exhibit Dog's Journey: A 20 Year Survey, now at the Missoula Art Museum, the animals of his creations seem in mid-disappearance (or mid-appearance), as if they're moving from one dimension to the next. The eeriness gives them a certain darkness. Part of that darkness is from the alcoholism, plus PTSD and survivor's guilt Bartow suffered from his service in the Vietnam War.
"It's all a process of trying to reclaim my life," he says. "I'm particularly aware of my shortcomings and I'm trying to change that. So the work is really a big part of therapy in a sort of an obtuse way."
Bartow grew up with a non-Native mother and a father who was a Wiyot American Indian. He uses ancient symbols and iconic animal imagery—the trickster, for instance—and striking color smudges in red, orange, green and yellow. Those images of American Indian heritage aren't done carelessly.
"I never lived on a reservation, so it would be silly of me to go around in buckskin and toot my own horn," Bartow says. "I walk a line in between. I enjoy my involvement with Native American spirituality, which helps me leave what's behind me behind, and look to something better ahead."
The iconic animals go back to caves in Spain and France. They're found in the oldest artifacts and ancient remains of wild Eastern Europe. It's something everyone can trace back to.
"John Trudell, the Native American activist, said that we're all Indians if you go back a number of generations," says Bartow. "We were all sort of back-to-back at night for protection, you know. We all began in a less than graceful manner."
Don't dismiss Bartow's work for sheer seriousness, though. If you don't linger on the darkness, it's easy to see that these mythical animals are funny, too. His piece "May Wit'l Elk" shows a bull elk in a corduroy suit and tie, putting up his human hands as if to say, "Don't ask me!" And so it's not surprising that Bartow's as inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," with its densely packed landscape of bodies topped by bird and pig heads, as he is by Native mythology. "You can either get involved with what the image is saying or you can enjoy the goofiness of it and not have to deal with the seriousness of spiritual pursuit or religiosity," he says.
Bartow's body of work includes sculpture, printmaking, mixed media and ceramics. He's shown work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House, among a long list of other venues. Beyond his collectors and the Froelick Gallery, where he's represented, Bartow has found other meaningful things to do with his work. On his third sober birthday, he had a new tooth put in. His Newport dentist, a patron of his work, gave him two new front teeth in exchange for paintings. His work continues to change as he gets better—spending time at a ceremonial sweat lodge, talking with a therapist, keeping himself busy. His paintings, he says, range from ghastly to corny, depending on the way his life is going. "I don't pretend to understand it," he says.
Several years ago he nearly died of a heart condition. Six months ago he had a stroke and woke up blind. It was shocking but temporary. To Bartow, it's a parable for life and work. You make sense out of chaos and sometimes you're successful. "I've been extremely lucky," he says. "I've kind of been knocked to my knees in order to figure out what gratitude is."
"In Native America," he adds, "if we have the temerity or wisdom to ask for help then we put out a little offering—tobacco, or something. I've found that art is that system of reciprocity: The more you put in, the more you gain. Still, a lot of times the gifts we receive aren't the gifts we want. People still die and get sick, and people still change. Sometimes what we're a part of isn't pretty—and sometimes it is."
Rick Bartow gives a gallery talk for MAM's Artini night Thu., Nov. 17, at 6 PM. Free.