8 Prints + 4 Variations is a work that encapsulates many of Bartow’s interests and concerns. The works that comprise this volume are psychological, expressionistic, and sometimes surreal. The prints feature a familiar cast of Bartow characters from the Animal Kingdom – bear, dog, wolf, crow, hawk, sparrow – that function as personal symbols. The many creatures that Bartow portrayed were routinely employed to express a particular emotion or used as stand-ins for various aspects of the artist’s personality.
Although 8 Prints + 4 Variations is beyond my reach financially, I was so taken with this work that I decided to write about it. I wondered how the collaboration on this volume came about so I contacted Seiichi (Seii) Hiroshima who wrote back that Bartow scratched eight small acrylic plates for drypoint etchings. Seii explained, “. . . I wanted to print the drypoint works back in Tokyo because I could test them with a variety of papers. . . . . so I editioned these eight prints and put them together in one book. I remember the book was the first one that I bound.”
Charles Froelick, the owner of the Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon, kindly contacted Seii Hiroshima again for more information about the creation of the book. “When I visited Rick in the fall of 2009,” Seii wrote back, “Rick didn’t want to work on monotypes and he seemed to be a bit ill. I had plenty of time unless I worked on monotype together with him. I started binding small sketchbooks with various pieces of paper in stock and finally, I bound five large books. He eventually made eight drypoint plates; I usually print Rick’s drypoints in Tokyo, but I had time so I printed at the South Beach [Oregon] workshop. I asked him to make small drawings for the books and he drew 20 images of Indians, 14 birds, and he hand-colored 4 drypoints from prior years. These prints and drawings became the six hand-bound books of 2009: two titled 10 Little Indians, 8 Birds, 6 Birds, and two versions of 8 Prints + 4 Variations. I don’t know why or how he [Rick Bartow] chose four prints for hand-colored variations. We changed the edition “AP” to “v/e” (variable edition) for the 4 hand-colored prints.”
Rick Bartow’s art, particularly his drypoint etchings, explore a wide range of themes and subject matter as well as reflecting the artist’s many interests and influences such as his Wiyot heritage, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, Expressionism and Surrealism, and the work of numerous composers, writers and artists to which he frequently alluded, many of which are represented in 8 Prints + 4 Variations.
8 Prints + 4 Variations by Rick Bartow, cover. Book hand-bound by Seiichi Hiroshima (2009). Cover: Kozo with Kaki Shibu. 16 x 12.75”
Title page of 8 Prints + 4 Variations, mixed media book on Indian paper (east Indian) paper containing 8 drypoint prints all edition number 3/16, plus 4 etchings all VE and hand-colored in 2009. Prints editioned and book hand-bound by Seiichi Hiroshima, 6 1/2” x 12 3/4” x 1” (2009).
An important part of Seii Hiroshima’s personal collection, 8 Prints + 4 Variations consists of eight drypoint etchings, all from 2009, plus four variable edition hand-colored etchings of prints from various years that the master printer and close friend of artist Rick Bartow hand-bound into book form.
#1 Bear Coming by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 10” x 11”; image size: 4” x 4” (2009).
#1 Bear Coming by Rick Bartow (detail).
Of the creatures that appear in Bartow’s work, the bear is one of the most frequently used by the artist as a surrogate. This creature is often employed to represent the sluggish, brutish aspects of human nature as well as the use of brawn over brains. In Bear Coming, the animal’s image is superimposed over a human one as if the viewer is seeing two aspects of one nature, suggesting the darker, more volatile emotions that lurk just beneath the surface in all of us.
#2 Daydream of Dog by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11” x 10”; image size: 4 1/4” x 4” (2009).
#2 Daydream of Dog by Rick Bartow (detail).
For the most part, when we think of dogs a gentle, loving, loyal creature comes to mind. However, these animals can also be vicious and territorial, especially when it comes to protecting the humans they have come to see as their “pack”. Daydream of Dog shows a snarling canine that seems to be emerging from a man’s face, which bears an X-like mark on its forehead. The image may reflect the aggressive side of Bartow’s personality as well as the violent nature of humans. However, since the print is titled Daydream of Dog, it is open to interpretation and suggests that the dreamer may, in fact, be the dog, not the human. Perhaps Bartow is suggesting that, although dogs can be vicious, they may have developed gentler qualities by living in close contact with people.
In addition to the X on the forehead of the human figure, there are a number of other lines that appear to be “stray marks”. Bartow’s drypoint etchings often contain what can best be described as “dots,” “splats,” and “scribblings” that give these prints a spontaneous feel. Mark-making was the essence of Rick Bartow’s creativity. He believed that “In the mark . . . you can’t lie . . . .” What these marks mean, if anything, is anybody’s guess. However, such elements create a tone of mystery.
# 3 She Loves the Wolf by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11.5” x 10”; image size: 4 1/2” x 4 1/2” (2009).
#3 She Loves the Wolf (detail).
Wolves are complex creatures, displaying a wide range of responses to those in their pack, other animals, and the environment in general. One might even say that the wolf displays emotions. These intelligent beings are playful and loyal, protect and educate their young, care for those in the pack who are injured, and form strong attachments. When they hunt, they cooperate in order to bring down large prey.
As with many of Rick Bartow’s drypoint etchings, She Loves the Wolf functions on a symbolic level. The print consists of three figures – on the left a woman with “scratched out” eyes and an X on her forehead; in the center a wolf, which dominates the piece; and below the animal’s chin, as if connected to it, is a man’s face. The woman is kissing the wolf, suggesting that she is drawn to the man’s many wolf-like qualities. What the artist has done to her eyes may suggest that he believes that love is blind. The work may be an oblique reference to Bartow’s marriage to Julie Swan. He may very well have felt that she loved him in spite of his imperfections.
#4 Hawk Vision by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11” x 10”; image size: 4 1/2” x 4 1/2” (2009).
#4 Hawk Vision (detail).
While many of Rick Bartow’s paintings are strongly expressionistic, many of his works on paper, such as Hawk Vision, have a decidedly surrealistic quality. The human face, particularly eyes, play an important role in numerous Bartow etchings. Quite a number of these prints are portraits or self-portraits. However, sometimes, as in Hawk Vision, it is not possible to determine whether the faces are of real people or simply imaginary. Over the two faces the artist has superimposed the image of a hawk’s head, which gives the print a surreal and mystical tone. Referring to hawks, Bartow stated, “They’re auspicious. . . I think they are quite special. They are cautionary: warn of impending danger . . . They remind me to be vigilant.” Hawk Vision is not the only Bartow drypoint etching to contain the word vision in the title. The use of this word suggests that the work is deeply symbolic. Bartow’s art is intensely personal and often reflects the artist’s difficult inner struggles.
The blending of imagery also gives the piece a transformational quality, another important aspect of Bartow’s work. As the artist put it, “. . . what later came to be referred to as ‘transformational’ arrived at the end of my #2 Ticonderoga pencil . . . .” Although transformation plays an important role in many Native cultures, Bartow expands the conceit from the traditional concept of humans and animals being able to change into one another to the idea that everything is in a constant state of change.
#5 Crow Story by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on dyed Okawara Washi paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 1.5” x 10”; image size: 4” x 5 1/2” (2009).
#5 Crow Story (detail).
Among the most intelligent of species, crows can easily outsmart other creatures and have been known to circumvent any obstacles devised by humans. This clever, mischievous bird has been a consistent subject in Rick Bartow’s work, often used as a symbolic self-portrait. Crows are considered part of the song bird family in spite of the fact that they are not noted for singing. They are so smart that they can mimic the calls and songs of other birds; the sounds made by mammals, including humans; and they can even imitate a car alarm. In many Native American stories Crow is a character who is a trickster, but he is also wise and often helps humans. Crow is credited with bringing light into the world.
As with much of Rick Bartow’s work, Crow Story has an air of mystery. By superimposing the crow over the human faces, the artist may be suggesting that the theme of the work is intelligence. Ironically, humans can’t seem to outwit crows, but crows frequently outsmart humans and other animals as well.
Who the faces in the print represent is unclear. They may be faces of actual persons or they may be wholly imaginary. They seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. So I queried Wilder Schmaltz, Assistant Director of the Froelick Gallery, about it. “This is an interesting question,” Wilder wrote back. “I agree that the faces seem specific enough to suggest that Rick was referencing something. It’s possible that they could have come from his stacks of reference images, newspaper clippings and such (or wholly imaginary, as you say), but I suspect (and Charles [Froelick] does too) that they may be sketches of portraits by Northern European painters like Bruegel and Hans Holbein (the round features seem similar to work of that kind).”
#6 Memory by Rick Bartow, Wyot, drypoint etching on dyed Okawara Washi paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11” x 10”; image size: 5 1/4” x 4” (2009).
#6 Memory (detail).
Memory is yet another of Rick Bartow’s fascinatingly mysterious works. Whether the theme of the work is the concept of memory in general, a specific memory, or both is open to interpretation. From 1969 to 1971 Rick Bartow was in the military in Vietnam. Although officially he served as a teletype operator, the use of his musical talents to sing and play guitar for men as they died in a military hospital earned him a Bronze Star. Bartow returned to Oregon suffering from PTSD and lost most of the 1970s to alcoholism and drug abuse. Little of his work pre-1969 and from the 1970s survives. In addition to his own health issues, Bartow lost his beloved wife Julie to breast cancer in 1999 at the age of fifty. It had been his wife who convinced him to give up his day job and become an artist. After his wife’s death, Bartow did not work for a year.
The focal point of Memory is a woman’s face, eyes looking to her right. In the middle of her forehead is a hawk. Among many Native American groups, Hawks are regarded as messengers from the spirit realm and are symbols of courage and strength. Who the woman might be is an enigma. It might be the artist’s wife or, perhaps, a symbol for all women. Below and to the right of the female face is a man’s head, eyes scratched out and also bearing an X, looking up at her. Bartow often used the symbolism of covered or scratched out eyes to represent the difference between what can be seen and what cannot be seen. Because the male head appears to stretch upward it creates in the viewer the sense of seeking and may suggest the artist’s longing for his deceased wife. The X that appears on the head, as it does in many of Bartow’s prints, is one of the many mysterious and unexplained marks he incorporated into his art.
#7 Sparrow Story by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11.5” x 10”; image size: 5 1/4” x 4” (2009).
#7 Sparrow Story (Detail).
Sparrows are small, gentle birds that live among us barely noticed. They are so numerous that they are often associated with the common, everyday person. Sparrows are brave little creatures for their size, frequently darting between people’s legs to get specks of food at outdoor restaurants and even venturing inside if windows and doors are left open. Although constantly on the lookout for danger, they are persistent and will venture among humans in ways that other birds will not.
Sparrow Story is a print with images of a man’s face with a hand held up to it, a sparrow, an outline of the bird, and a large eye. Bartow frequently used the image of a disembodied eye in much of his work. Although it may symbolize the All-Seeing Divine, the eye could just as easily represent the ability of artists to perceive aspects of existence that unseen by the rest of humanity.
The sparrow’s story, like much of Bartow’s work, remains an enigma. The viewer is left wondering exactly who the man may be and what relationship he has to the bird. What makes Rick Bartow’s work endlessly fascinating is that there are no easy answers.
#8 Origin of Song by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching on handmade Mitsumata paper, 3/16, paper size: app. 11” x 10”; image size: 5 1/4” x 4” (2009).
#8 Origin of Song (detail).
A bird with a checkerboard pattern on its back and an open beak, as if singing, appears in the foreground of Origin of Song. To the lift of the bird is a hand with a dark mark across it that resembles a feather. Behind the bird, a group of faces, some superimposed over the others, looks out at the viewer. One of the figures has scratch marks across his forehead and lines, which look like rays, emanating from it. Just who these people are is yet another of the many unsolved and perhaps unsolvable Bartow mysteries. Bartow frequently made musical allusions in his work and also created portraits of his favorite composers such as Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini, and Niccolò Paganini so it is possible that the faces may represent composers or musicians.
Wanting another perspective, I once again contacted Wilder Schmaltz who offered the following thoughts: “My read on Origin of Song is that Rick is going back much further than any or recognized or remembered composer, but to the true origin of musical expression, both in an anthropological, human-made sense, and as it appears in various myths, as the bird suggests (I believe there is a Hopi story, for example, that involves a First Song that brings about the beginning of all life). Rick was deeply fascinated with the emergence of art, depictive as well as imaginative, as made by early humans, and he may have been thinking along similar lines, though in musical terms, here.”
As if his prints weren’t enigmatic enough in black-and-white, in 2009 Rick Bartow chose four from various years – Hunted (2003), For Klimt (2000), Cernunnos (2003), and CH Crow (2007) – that he hand colored.
#9 Hunted by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching, 3/16, paper size: app. 9.75” x 7”; image size: 2 1/2” x 2 /34” (2003).
#9 Hunted (detail)
Hunted – original version of the print.
Hunted may reflect the artist’s personal demons – his Viet Nam War experiences, his PTSD, his alcoholism and drug abuse, the loss of his wife. The image is at once powerful and frightening; yet, like many produced by Bartow it remains largely inscrutable: an antler or a primitive weapon protrudes from a human head seen in profile; the skin around the teeth is pulled back or missing; and around the face there are lines and marks, which may represent cuts or scars.
Although the original version of Hunted is quite unsettling (black marks on an off-white page), the artist’s decision to create a hand colored variation adds another level of disquiet to the print. One would expect that the choice of a blue background would add a sense of tranquility to the work. Instead, it makes the human face in profile stand out, making it more frightening. The object protruding from the skull is white tinged with blue and outlined in black, the top of the head is red; the cheek is blue; the black lines and marks look even more aggressive; and the forehead and most of the nose are a grayish white. Yet, the tip of the nose is pink. This is something Bartow frequently did in self-portraits. It was his way of acknowledging his alcoholism. This specific use of a particular color indicates that Hunted, though symbolic, is another of Rick Bartow’s self-portraits.
Bartow frequently exaggerated or highlighted his features, particularly his nose, but each self-portrait, whether realistic, expressionistic, or symbolic, captures the emotionality of a particular period in the artist’s life and reflects his personal concerns at the time.
#10 For Klimt by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint on handmade Japanese paper, 3/20 paper size: 12” x 19”; image size: 8” x 4” (2000).
#10 For Klimt (detail)
For Klimt – original version of the print.
The list of fellow artists that Rick Bartow admired was long and varied: Hieronymus Bosch, Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hans Holbein, Gustiav Klimt, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon, Odilon Redon, Horst Janssen, Edward Hopper, Käthe Kollwitz, and Georg Baselitz. Bartow’s art is filled with allusions to the work of these artists. He also created a number of artist’s portraits. Some of these works are representational, but in Bartow’s unique style, while others are expressionistic. Bartow also created symbolic works that referenced the work of an artist he admired. Such works were an homage to a particular artist, but done in Bartow’s iconic fashion. For Klimt is a work which falls into this category.
Gustav Klimt, an Austrian, was a Symbolist painter and a prominent members of the Vienna Secession (Vienna Art Nouveau) movement. Klimt’s chief subject was the female body and much of his work is characterized by an explicit eroticism. Although Rick Bartow frequently focused on the female body, this was not his main theme. The paintings of both artists are distinguished by the use of brilliant colors and both frequently employed the repetition of spirals, swirls, and circles in their art. Also, both Klimt and Bartow were influenced by Japanese art.
For Klimt references the Viennese artist through the use of swirls, but the skeletal deer head, elongated dark neck, and legs result in a strange, surreal creature that could have only from the mind of Rick Bartow. The addition of color in 2009 only adds to the intensity of the piece.
#11 Cernunnos by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching, 3/16, paper size: 8.5” x 7.5”; image size: 4 1/4” x 2 1/4” (2003).
#11 Cernunnos – detail.
Cernunnos – original version.
Cernunnos is a dark and troubling work. It is Bartow’s interpretation of the Celtic deity Cernunnos who is usually portrayed with antlers or horns and is connected with fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld. Associated with the regenerative power of the forest, this being’s horns symbolize power, sexuality, and fecundity. Among scholars of Celtic lore, Cernunnos is often referred to as “Lord of the Animals” or “Lord of Wild Things.” Rick Bartow was clearly fascinated with this mythic being and on April 5, 2013 wrote, “The cernunus or elk man came after I met the Irish ambassador down in San Fran in the 80s. We discussed salmon cycles and the rest just followed.”
Referred to as Uindos in Old Irish Literature, this deity is today more commonly known as Cernunnos. Also sometimes called Finn, he is the hero in a myth cycle about the Fianna who were bands of warriors in ancient Ireland. This elk/man was associated with stags, horned serpents, rats, bulls, and dogs. His artistic appeal may have been his animal/human nature, an aspect that suggests transformation, a frequent theme in Bartow’s art.
The original version of the print is darkly powerful, but the addition of color heightens the print’s disturbing quality. The antlers are more striking in white; there is a pink ear; and the exaggeration of the nose (something Bartow often did in his self-portraits) appears more pronounced. The prominent nose suggests that Bartow may have identified with facets of the Cernunnos myth. The eyes, now a dark blue, look directly at the viewer, as they did in the original version of the print, but evoke an even more unsettling response.
#12 CH Crow by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching, black ink on tan paper, 3/18, paper size: app. 11” x 9.5”; image size: 4 1/2” x 4 1/2” (2007).
#12 CH Crow
CH Crow – original version of print.
CH Crow typifies what Rick Bartow termed “mark making”. The print has an amazing textural quality and a sense of movement, making it seem that the crow is flying across the page. There are a number of unusual aspects to this work. The imprint on the bird’s lower wing as well as on part of its body resembles patterns on fabric. The upper wing, however, is made up of a series of lines as if they were scribbled on the page. This is something that the artist frequently did when drawing on the printing plate, which imparts a sense of spontaneity. The print contains a number of other mysterious marks: an X in the middle of two circles, the letters C and S scratched out, and four small crosses in various places on the page.
I was curious as to what the letters CH stood for in the title so, once again, I e-mailed Wilder Schmaltz who wrote back the following: “I don’t have an idea of what CH might mean off the top of my head, perhaps a dedication to a friend, an artist? He’s being a bit obscure by using these initials… I do see in the initial record that he had not titled the piece at the time he brought it in, so he must have decided on the title and passed it along to us at some later time. CS might refer to Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, though as far as I know he did not produce print work there that year. . . . This is a fairly mysterious one!”
Bartow’s addition of color adds another element to CH Crow, which causes the bird to “pop”. The image seems even more alive than before and the crow’s eye, which can now clearly be seen, appears to be looking at the viewer.
Bartow’s inspirations and influences were extensive. He clearly had an insatiable curiosity as evidenced by his immense knowledge of music, the visual arts, and literature. These interests are reflected in much of his art in the form of portraits of composers, artists, writers, fictional characters (such as Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab from Moby Dick) as well as allusions to a wide range of musical, literary, and artistic works. Bartow was also a student of mythology, flowers, animals, and the human form and psyche. His art continues to speak to us and his drypoint etchings comprise some of his most important creations. The drypoint etchings are highly charged works that deal with subjects that were most important to the artist. What they lack in size they more than make up for in psychological and emotional impact. As with all of the Bartow’s work, his drypoint etchings somehow manage to be both personal as well as universal. The twelve works chosen to be bound together as 8 Prints + 4 Variations offer insights into the artist’s most important thematic concerns as well as an overview of his graphic style.
All images are courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon.
The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery, and to Wilder Schmaltz, Assistant Director of the Froelick Gallery, for their invaluable help with this article.
A special thank you is offered as well to master printer and gallery owner Seiichi (Seii) Hiroshima.