LA: Maybe we could start by talking about your process of
working and the media that you use.
I use pastel, graphite, and charcoal. Occasionally, I work
with acrylics. A friend of mine talks about the sensuality
of painting, of brush against canvas. He says there's a very
sensual quality, and I understand that, but for me there's
more of a physicality to the paper, the sound of pastel on
paper. I work standing up. That allows for good motion, so
there's a gesture in the process. And then erasing in. If
I put in a big graphite area it takes a lot to get a line
erased back through that. Even when I'm painting, I get my
fingers in there to do what I need to do. Mostly what I do
is draw and draw and draw. I begin, I listen, and I look and
maybe a shadow happens. I don't know what it is. But it doesn't
start in the studio. It starts with books and other images,
people, it starts back in here someplace, it goes back to
my family, to somebody else. My great-grandfather used to
carve, what do they call them, little doodads, whirligigs
"Naming Fear," 1992, pastel, graphite and charcoal
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
He used to carve stuff like that. Maybe it goes back through
him. It's old, it's not me. My education is minimal. There were
a couple of people who gave me tools that were like a pick and
a shovel to get into the mind. I always think of John Casey and
my aunt. But my stepdad and my mother always provided a little
extra space for me. We had a big family but they provided a little
extra space and my stepdad was real good at building things. He
made me a drawing board when I was pretty young. Norman Rockwell
was always shown with a pipe, so my dad didn't say anything when
I snitched one of his pipes. I wouldn't smoke it, I'd sit there
chewing on it like Norman Rockwell. I looked that way. So, really,
it starts someplace outside and then it comes in through experience.
Sometimes, like with the bear image here [Big Bear VI,
1994], I have an idea of what I want to do, and something will
happen. In Wolf and Deer  there are two separate
drawings. That came about from listening to Chief Lelooska. He's
a hell of a storyteller. He told a story about the deer and the
wolf. The wolf has these big sharp knifed teeth and he invites
animals to something like a pot latch, but he watches their mouths
and asks them to sing so he can see how their teeth are, and if
they've got little flat teeth he eats them. But the deer would
say, oh, I don't sing like that and he'd keep his teeth covered.
So that's what this one's all about. Of course, the wolf cajoles
the deer into opening his mouth and sees that he has flat teeth,
so the wolf chases after him, and from then on the wolf has chased
the deer and the deer has always run. That's what this drawing
is about. Where's the beginning? The beginning's in the myth.
I smeared charcoal on the paper and erased the big gestural marks
and then cut back into it in a very classic style. When I was
a kid, 16 or 17, my mother and father paid the money for me to
go down to Southern Oregon University to take a workshop from
a man named Joseph Magnani, a wonderful wild man. One thing that
I think I picked up from him was gestural beginnings, just make
marks and marks and marks, big marks. Then refine, refine, refine,
until you start coming up with something. Sometimes in a smear
I'll see something like this face, this kind of scary thing, and
then the teeth, because as an alcoholic my teeth were falling
out. It's an old story, but teeth became important. Then I hear
this myth about wolf and the teeth and it clicks in. I get this
wolf-looking thing going on, which really doesn't look like a
wolf at all, but it has this energy to it. Then the deer follows
suit. This house, I lived here when I was 3 years old. I haven't
gone a long ways but when I came back, I dug clams where my great-grandfather
dug them. My son dug clams there, too. Now once a year we go to
a secret spot where my uncle took us and we think about him and
the family and we dig our clams and then come home. That feeds
"Crow's Creation," 1992, pastel,
graphite and charcoal
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
was a whole series after my uncle passed on about the inheritance,
and that was his clam rake and a shovel. I used those and
then made a series about boats and ladders. When my uncle
was weakening, when his physical body was weakening, we started
taking the herbs up there and he liked that. He lived right
behind here about a hundred yards up. And so as we started
working through that stuff, dreams, very powerful dreams came,
and of course when you're losing someone you love and who's
very important to you, you're strengthened by that. I mean,
it's a tragic time and it's a very sad time, but also it's
very energizing because there's this information coming in.
We can't deny that we're going to be there in our time. Before
my uncle left we talked about love and we were able to express
Nepui, the salmon, is very important because we're honoring the
salmon. The elder and I started praying the old medicine and praying
at the river when the salmon came, honoring them and inviting
that spirit into the Sweat Lodge with us, crying for them to come.
We miss them and we want them back again. I talked about the salmon
prayer and the way it rolls out; it's just like somebody's saying
a poem. It's like the water rolling the old language. You can
say it, yes, but if you want to hear it and feel that water rolling
and hear the fish in there, you say it in the old language, and
it's there because it relied on you being there with the fish,
not describing the fish or sitting here and talking. So it's different
and that all fuels the drawing. If I were to draw a salmon it
would be so boring you wouldn't like it. A biologist can draw
a salmon, and put that fin back there, add that little chunk of
cartilage that connotes salmonids. He can do that stuff. But when
I go to the drawingboard I'm making a big smear, and I get a bunch
of stuff. I'll show you later, my studio's just drifts of pastel
dust and erasers. I use the eraser so much. And sometimes when
I'm really frustrated and I can't get something going I just scoop
up a handful of that dust and smear it on the paper. That puts
a stain on it and I work into that. All of a sudden something
works and there's this undulating form and I think oh, that's
a fish. This I can work with.
LA: A good deal of your work is about the natural world.
Certain people loved it and certain people absolutely thought it
was heresy and wanted to burn him at the stake. I'm trying
to talk about mythology and stories and things and images and lines
and drawings. What I love to do is draw. But I can't evade the fact
that I'm white and I can't evade the fact that I'm Indian. How can
you be anything but what you are? I also carve masks. I do everything
I can do, I make rattles, bone harpoons, get into it all. I look
at books and I sit out there with chunks of bone, filing it and
thinking my thoughts while I do that. There's all kinds of ways
you're supposed to do things and I try to follow those ways that
I'm told at the time. Like the rattles, you don't see those in the
galleries. That's used for the sweat lodge. I am emotional. That's
what makes my work happen, and coming from a place where I try to
stay on solid ground.
I want to get some information there that makes you think
salmon or bass if I'm doing that. If it's a fish, I want you
to get a sense of its moving in the water. And it's more gestural,
like I had a wonderful term, gestural configuration. It's
great! And Expressionism. When Joe Feddersen and Lillian Pitt
started introducing me to the art circles, people compared
me to Expressionists, neo-Expressionists, the German Kirchner,
and those guys. Years later I got a book on Expressionism.
I could see that and that was fair. But one of my all-time
heroes too was Fritz Scholder, looking as a mixed blood, the
kind of fire he walked in. He laid some ground. He did something
really strong. You can't detract from people like Allan Houser
and those people, but they were very classically oriented,
whereas Fritz came along and kicked the bottom out.
"Wolf and Deer," 1993,
pastel and charcoal
Click link or on image to see larger
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
LA: Your work has been described as transformational, depicting
moments of revelation where things are coming into being.
RB: There have certainly been some things that happened
where the art has been prophetic, but again, I lay no claim to
that. There's one creator who gives us certain gifts and come
judgment you're going to be looked at for what you did with your
gift, what you accomplished with your gift. My wife puts it a
little more succinctly. She says shut up and do it. Don't talk
about it, just do it. Sometimes I'm drawing things and a week
or two later something's happened that directly relates to that.
And it's scary. I don't say hey, that's cool. I say, oh man. I
can't claim to really be very tickled about that. To find out
that we are in a circle and that sometimes you tap into parts
of that that is real scary. That's happened two or three times.
LA: A lot of your pieces depict dual or multiple figures,
suggesting an interconnection between human and animal worlds.
In Learning to Swim (1985) a face is emerging from a salmon's
mouth. It looks like the bear in Big Bear VI has human
RB: My friend Joe Feddersen has talked of earth-based
relationships, and perhaps that forced me into thinking about
these things, but then we're also back to the elders. We're not
"above" anything; we are with things and, if anything,
we are "below" things in the way that we operate. We
can screw things up quicker than we can help things out. So consequently
I'll show a bear with human hands or a bird flying with hands
in her wings. With the salmon piece, we have a man inside. We
are those things. If we don't eat, if we don't get food, we'll
die. So we're in a relationship with them. In the salmon chant
you're trying to bring something ritualistic back to life that's
been gone for a hundred years or more, or trying to replace an
honoring song for the fish or for the deer. As an artist this
thing is around my head, it's inside of me, it's outside of me.
It's a physical experience of seeing the fish, but when I come
home it's a mental image of trying to remember what that was.
When my uncle first got real sick, the fall run of salmon was
coming up. There was a long time when I didn't want to go because
the fish were having trouble with their immune systems, and it
was an easy jump for me to see a friend of mine sick from AIDS
and see the salmon suffering. So the transformation is not so
much a transformation, but a literal representation that we are
them, they are us, because we're in the same cesspool here right
now, we've all got the same problem. Like at the sweat lodge,
the animals are there, we are there, but in the center are things
that I could tell you but I can't because they're not mine to
give. But things have happened at the sweat lodge that indicate
certain things to me that we're all in it together. And so I don't
see the work as transformational as much as being literal.
LA: Other of your pieces have a darker look, like Naming
Fear (1992), which shows an owl and a blurred human face,
and Self Portrait with Hawk (1992).
RB: Looking at these images, it's my uncle and his passing.
In Naming Fear I don't pretend to know all the ramifications
of fear or what the person in the image felt. For me it was the
eye on the owl, and the mouth was crying out, but it could also
be singing in the sweat lodge. There's also a ladder going up
to a cross-shaped star. Of course, it could be a very literal
Judeo-Christian image of the cross. After my uncle was gone I
found a book written around the turn of the century about Yurok
people which talked about the wonderful place of ladders where
we ascend to be with the creator. The ladder is an image of transition,
of moving up or down. And so for me the ladder in Naming Fear
was a traditional mythic element of transition and goodness in
Yurok mythology. I certainly wish that my uncle was across the
river in the good place. And Naming Fear is pretty literal,
too. My uncle was sick and dying and I was afraid of losing him.
I was afraid because what had happened to him had also happened
to my father when I was five, and I was finally dealing with the
whole thing. I don't know anyone who says hallelujah, let's all
die, so Naming Fear was realizing that my uncle was sick
and that I wasn't going to be able to save him. About three days
before my uncle died a big hawk went through the area with some
I saw that and it told me right then what was going on. It was
a cold winter day and I turned around and headed back for the
house where my uncle was staying, at his sister's place, my aunt's.
And I had foreknowledge then that this was it, we were coming
upon his death. When my uncle passed I was a hundred miles from
home, and as I drove every half a mile there was a big red-tail
sitting on a post along the road. All the way until dark the hawks
were with me. All the way, through the tears, the grieving was
beginning. But the hawk was with me every inch of the way home
until dark when I could no longer see him but I knew he was out
there. So a lot of time the birds come in on that kind of imagery.
They are very strong, showing the spirit was there.
LA: You use the image of birds quite a bit.
RB: I might be out back with my beautiful wife working
on some basket materials, and my son's out there on a skateboard
on the walk, and the neighbors are next door having a party, suddenly
we all stop and look up and three hawks are back. There's a real
nice hill up there where the wind evidently plays, because they
all come in. Buzzard, hawk, eagle, everybody catches that draft
there. They're here. They're present.
LA: Other works refer to your uncle's passing, like Boatman
with Destination (1992) and In the Fog Upon a Rock
RB: My uncle worked on the river for years. My oldest
uncle Bart, and Uncle Bob, my dad, my grandfather, they all worked
on the river. And my mother's father, he worked on the railroad.
But they all worked right around here and he used to tell me stories
about he and old Effie Gustafson on the tugboat. They'd be taking
a log raft and they'd get caught in the mud. So they'd sit in
this little tug's cabin, the two of them, keeping their feet warm
and eating sandwiches and drinking coffee until the tide would
change and then they'd move on down the river. In the Fog Upon
a Rock was about that. It is intense for a young man to have
an older man tell him about things, and then to lose that. I wasn't
ready then to say I'm a man. I wasn't ready to say go ahead, uncle,
I can take over. I didn't think I ever would be. In that situation
you're left in a real fog. And you're on a rock in a river, you're
waiting for the tide to change. And hoping against hope that when
the tide changed you'd know what to do.
LA: These have a specific autobiographical context.
RB: There were a few of those. In this one you see the
ladder again, but it's at the end of my uncle's house. My uncle's
lover and his oldest brother, my oldest uncle, and myself took
two boats that were up at the end of the road. We took my uncle's
remains across the slough in a basket and placed them where he
wanted. I took as many traditional things I could put together
and took his remains to this place. If indeed this is an autobiographical
piece then I'm taking him back home. I like that.
LA: In addition to the pastels, you also carve, sculpt, and
weave. Spirit Boat (1991) is willow and jute.
RB: If you could call it that. My wife got into basketmaking.
She brought the materials home and then she started raising her
own materials. We've been invited to give a joint exhibition in
Japan next year for her baskets and my work. The late Larry Beck
talked about an interview with an elder Inuit woman where she
said about her art that she just moves things around here and
there until it looks good and then it's done. I've heard this
a number of times, so I think it's like wisdom of the ages. If
you want to carve a duck decoy you just remove the wood that doesn't
look like a duck. So my wife comes home with willow and I'm looking
at the stuff and going hmmm, I think it's remarkable, Gail Tremblay,
Joe Feddersen, myself, we've been doing fish traps now for two
or three years, independently. For me it started as a dust devil,
you know, and then we saw a coyote, and then this dust devil come
over the hill and it was just cone-shaped, and in the end you
invert that and you've got a fish trap. I saw some African masks
so I made a couple pieces where I used Native American imagery
mixed with African imagery mixed with sort of a Northern California
fish trap shape, and I got all three of these things going together
and I ended up with a big tall sculpture made out of willow with
hand-carved elements to go with it. So I don't really claim too
much to be a willow bender or a basketmaker, but I like to steal
whatever I can use to muck around and come up with something.
I just move it around until it looks good.
LA: Some of your early work has images of faces with masks
RB: It's very literal, cleaning up from alcoholism. Another
thing I've said about my work is it's affordable therapy. I didn't
realize it at the time but I drew myself straight. I drew stuff
that a lot of people didn't want to look at. I'd be the last person
to say oh, I'm going to be an artist. Everybody else knew it,
but I didn't. I denied it. Kind of like Jonah and the whale. I
denied the whole shooting match until I fell into it. My wife
came to me one day and said, "I'm a little bit pregnant,"
and the next thing I knew I quit my job just when I needed it,
but then the Jamison/Thomas Gallery came through with a contract,
and somebody bought a mask. I had more money than I'd made in
two months. I spent ten years working with handicapped kids in
the public school system and took a year's leave of absence. My
boss was the final straw. She said, "don't come back here,
you've got to do your art." That's what I did. But the masks
were falling away. I don't know where you are in your life, but
for me, and I can only speak for me, and I can only say this:
I'm not a missionary, I'm not a preacher, but the masks falling
away were all these personas that I'd amassed to try to hide whoever
I am in here. I'm still looking for that person, to be really
honest, to be bluntly honest. I'm still looking to get to something
that I'm really comfortable with. I'm okay in the world. I don't
hurt and I don't get hurt too much. But I've got a lot of work
to do. And these masks falling away were this guy with dark glasses
on giving you a real attitude. The only thing was I didn't want
you to talk to me because you might find out that I wasn't that
way. I was weak, I was confused, so I'd put on all kinds of images,
wear different clothes, weird stuff. Anything to keep you from
getting close. And if you did get close and if I started feeling
you were in there I'd get away from you so fast you wouldn't see
me. I mean, I'd just flat leave you. So coyote, he comes in, with
the capacity to screw things up and to do good. I'd give away
cars. Then I'd walk for a couple of years until I'd get the money
together again. I could give a car away that afternoon, but later
on the anger wells up, about being stupid, about being something
that I wasn't. Like coyote, sometimes you botch the job, but like
raven, sometimes you find the sweat lodge in offbeat ways.
LA: Some of your masks are pretty interesting, like I Dreamed
of a Dog Snapping at my Back as it Fell (1993) and One
Night I Dreamed of a Dog (1993).
RB: He's got about three sets of mouths and was biting
my heels. I remember that dream. I seldom remember dreams but
I had one dream where this dog or wolf or coyote was snapping
at my heels. I was going up a slope and he was going down, it
was like we were out of control. So I gave him several mouths
full of teeth, and sometimes I draw them with more mouths. A bear
would sometimes have two or three mouths because of the ferocity.
We think we're such hot stuff, but when we're confronted with
the reality of that creature, that's the end of our Superman dream.
LA: You've done some self-portraits that seem to be based
on your travels to Japan (Japan Sketch II, 1995) and Germany
(Selbstbildnis III, 1994).
RB: I started out taking the family to Japan where we
have an exhibition in a wonderful gallery in Urawa City, just
outside of Tokyo. People flocked in and just had a great time.
I went to the northwestern end of the Japanese Alps, to Yamanota,
a village of eleven families above Oguni. It used to be an old
paper-making village. Now it's rice farmers mainly. We spent about
3 weeks there, just my wife and son and I, and every weekend my
friend Naoaki Sakamoto, an artist and paper-maker, sent somebody
to kind of baby-sit us, take us to the grocery store, get us around
and show us the sights. Then I spent ten days, something like
that, in Frankfurt, and met my hero Horst Janssen, a German artist
who just died in August . I got excited by the languages,
the spaces between letters like the notes and the silences in
a blackbird's song. Which is more important, the sound of the
note or the space between? Calligraphy is like that for me. I
realized it again in Japan and in Germany, looking at letters
and words you can't understand. But then you see it as a formal
design. So I started using those elements. I did this one with
an "R" backwards (Selbstbildnis III) only to
find out that that meant "self" or something in Russian.
That was in that self-portrait. I've lived here in South Beach
off and on all my life. All of a sudden I'm out in the world and
I see that they write differently out there, so I get into it.
I got a German dictionary to learned different words, and I put
them in the work. Then I come home for a few more months and get
on the plane with Lillian Pitt and bunch of people and go to New
Zealand for a big get-together. Podunk fella from the sticks all
of a sudden gets a ticket to the world, and the doors open up.
I'm almost 50 and all this stuff is coming at me.
I'm a man of contradictions and differences, but these things
are important to me no matter who I am, no matter what color I
am. It gives me a way to consciously be aware of where I am today
and what I am going to do with that day. Part of what I'm going
to do is art. The key to the door was art. But beyond that, the
key to the door was that the creator made me and I had some reason
to be here and now I've got to find out. I've got to just keep
snooping at that and be grateful for this day.
LA: You're also a musician and have a band called Cyrano
and the Snubnose Dullards. You've written about your affinity
to Chet Baker.
RB: Snubnose Dullards. Yeah. There's a good Indian
name for you. We laugh like hell all the time. Music is another
thing. We just played last night so my voice is nice and manly
down here. My wife plays the bass, an old friend of ours plays
the drums, and another the harmonica. I've got old guitars and
a 1948 Fender amplifier. It looks like junk but it's just old,
an old steel guitar, a hubcap guitar, the resonator kind. I like
all this rhythm. That's what it is. I have some projects in the
wind with the Native American writer and poet E. K. Caldwell.
We've done some things that are more Native issue kind of things,
but I just follow the spirit, what moves. But Chet Baker, getting
back to that, the thing I liked about Chet Baker is he looked
like one thing and sounded like another. He was a junkie but he
sang those really sweet love songs and ballads. And yet he was
on this self-destructive path that left him looking beaten up
way before his time. But what came out of him was completely different.
The wonderful part is to be able to use the color to make the
image, so Chet Baker, to me, he's painting with baby blue and
pink and what I call nursery room colors, kindergarten colors,
he's blowing his horn that way, but he's really tough. He's had
a lot of experiences that eventually took him down. So I feel
a kind of a closeness there because I paint a dog fight with nursery
room colors. I get your attention, number one, but number two,
an ex-wife was involved with alternative kinds of healings and
things that go into spirituality. She talked about the healing
nature of color and suddenly the lights came on. So while somebody
might like that wild gestural stuff going on they might also get
something very calming from the color. That is the contrast that
I thrive on.
LA: Although you're known for your use of color, a recent
piece of yours, Victim II (1994), uses almost no color.
RB: It's using negative space. I love what isn't there.
There's a real spook show for you. When you think about it, we're
created by the spaces around our bodies. It's what's not there
that makes us as much as what is there. But the Victim
pieces are really spooky. It's a possibility for a poster child
for Amnesty International because they're really pretty scary.
I couldn't tell you what it concerned, I really couldn't. Bosnia,
Viet Nam, it could be any of those things. I had an involvement
in Viet Nam, not as a combatant, but I was very involved there
and after a while started playing music in the hospitals. We'd
not only do our end of it but we'd do the Vietnamese hospitals
too, so you'd see the children who were napalmed, you'd see the
multiple amputees, and on and on. Those things never go away.
I came back and sat with my friends who had to deal with their
pain. I had to deal with my survivor's guilt and deal with my
irresponsibility at the time that led me to feel the way I felt
about that involvement. The Siletz elder that I hang out with,
Walt Klamath, is a Korean vet and he still talks about his experiences.
Maybe these victim images are about that, but there's a possibility
that they're the complete opposite. My friend William who was
living actively and surviving with AIDS said that he would never
be a victim. It was incredible, so maybe these images are about
something the opposite way. Maybe I'm getting rid of my anger,
dealing with resentments and feelings, I don't know.
LA: Do you usually work in series?
RB: When something comes along I do. There was a guy in
a neighborhood south of us who had the little community held hostage
with his insanity and his alcohol and drugs and these big dogs.
And his girlfriend had fallen madly in love somewhere else. Come
to find out he was another Nam vet who short-circuited. I was
just going off to do a series of prints and it turned out to be
about lovers as hostages. It looked like a bunch of sado-masochist
stuff, but he had the whole community involved that way. Once
in a while I hit something and I'll definitely go with it, but
generally the first one is the best because it's the one that
came out of nowhere. I'm like a miner; I hit a vein and I'll follow
it. And as an artist who is incredibly blessed and lucky because
I do nothing but art, I have to take a certain amount of product
to the marketplace, which means I can't be just sitting down here
making one groovy little drawing after another and then saying,
well, I'll sell this one. I make a lot of drawings because I've
been blessed to have a whole day to work. I used to have three
separate lives in a day; it would drive you nuts. Now I've got
three studios just outside the door, old sheds that I've made
over and I kind of roll through them during the day. I think that
I'm blessed that the manner in which I work sometimes creates
a healing situation for the person seeing it. Drawing is like
a really strange way of writing. You're still using lines and
once in a while, every once in a while, a person will read the
story that's there and just fall apart. It's really scary when
people come to me crying or obviously shaken, when you know that
you've bridged that superficial gap of taking product to the market
when you've actually taken a work of art. But I'm setting things
out so that someday my son will see more than what was here before.
Maybe there'll be something there, just as those old rattles and
the old totem poles worked for those people, maybe some of my
images that embody true parts of mythology will last. Maybe some
of those things will be worthy for some archivist to look at,
for some grandchild to look at and it will lead them off to something
that was lost. It's not just a personal kind of thing. Most of
the things that are going to be good for us are things that we
can share, that we can take back out to the community.
LA: You've said that "'I see myself as being in a chain
that stretches way back to paintings on the rocks. To a certain
degree I'm using different materials, but the statement is the
RB: It really was a pointed issue when I received my first
major public commission with Saks Fifth Avenue. To me it's really
funny. My friend John Stallings, who was my assistant, and I were
in Saks Fifth Avenue at night in a big hole, like a giant cave,
and we're up on scaffolding. I'm working on the wall in the middle
of the night and we've got these lights shining on us, and we're
laughing about it because you see those pictures of the guys in
the cave and they're painting hunting rituals, they're painting
animals. Here I am sitting in the dark with just a few lamps in
a big hole. I'm in a strange place in the city trying to paint
a picture. And the ultimate end is that I'll be given money so
I can buy food, pay my bills and do other things. I see that as
an analogy for why the old boys were doing painting, so that they
might kill a buffalo or a deer and take it home to support their
house and community. Maybe it's grandiose. But to me it was clear
that that's what was going on. The elder says culture that's in
the museum is dead. Living culture has a television set blasting
and a hot rod in the front yard and you've got to worry about
your teenage kid, but you're still living a life that's old because
you have a reverence for certain things and a certain way of life
and you hold certain things to be true. So culture has to move
on or it's just a museum piece. It's dead; it's something that
people look at but don't understand. Up there on that ceiling
is a line that's moving on and part of it is moving through me.
No more than anybody else. I'm not tooting my horn. I'm just saying
that I think for modern day artists it's the same thing.
LA: Some of your work in the [October] 1995 exhibition at
the Froelick Adelhart Gallery in Portland seemed to be a departure
from earlier work.
RB: It certainly is a jump. It's a change-up. I was doing
a lot of things that were initially stimulated, I thought, by
the trips to Japan, Germany, New Zealand, and Canada. However,
my friend William, my agent for ten years, was dying and I didn't
want to go back and do the things that I can do when I'm heavy
with the graphite. I didn't want to do that for myself and I didn't
want to take that personal tragedy and sadness to a public place.
I think I wanted to take something to the public that would indicate
that William was a beautiful person, a wonderful person, all those
things that we say about somebody whose demise is a loss. I didn't
want to indicate even a drop of sorrow. I wanted something that
was uplifting. We all know that AIDS is a sad plague of our time,
but William would wire flowers to the openings of my shows because
he knew that one of the elders had talked about how evil and darkness
don't like beauty, don't like sweet things, don't like pleasant
smells. All these things are deterrents to evil, to darkness.
So my friend William would send flowers. I drew a few flowers
when I was down in the Caribbean but I was drinking at the time
and would seldom use the self-discipline to follow it up. I found
flowers in Horst's work when I saw it in Japan in Naoaki's collection.
When I came home I was really stimulated by his work. So the show
that's up now has lots of flowers, but more than that it has lots
of words. Some of them come from diaries of my last visits with
my friend William, and to keep somebody from delving into my sadness
I wrote over the top of my writing and painted over my writing
so that the words became illegible. They're there physically,
you can see them, and I know what they are, and I don't care if
anybody else knows what they are, but for me it was a therapeutic
tool. I could write everything out, I could cry, I could feel
happy, I could feel whatever emotions were coming out as I wrote
in my studio at night, and then the next day paint over the top
of it. If it was only a short thought, I'd write that out and
then write right over the top of it and then over the top of that
so that it became an unintelligible mass of squiggles. Then I
came on something in German, like "Sketches as My Friend
Lays at Death's Door," and I would actually write that out
in German. If a person knew German they could dig out some of
that but if you didn't you're just looking at shapes and textures,
the refinement of drawing from cave walls to today. To me it's
an unbroken line of transformation. That's all it is. I'm just
using very fine art ways of drawing the deer on the cave wall.
It's all the same to me, it's an unbroken chain that goes right
through you and on down to the seventh generation before you.
You know it's coming, as long as you keep doing it.
LA: As you look over the body of your work, what are your
RB: I'm constantly sharpening my facilities and my faculties.
I can draw pretty much whatever I want to draw, but really what
I want to draw is nothing like that. What I'm after are the things
that come through, that I could draw if I were blind. What I'm
looking for are images with emotion and power. I can't create
that. I can't do that on call. I can draw anything from my shoes
to the side of your head, but what can I draw that's going to
make a difference? That's what I'm looking for. You have to draw
an incredible amount to make people cry, or to make a crying person
laugh, but that's what I want to do, and I've been able to do
that, I think, with the creator's help. But again I can't take
the credit for that. I can take the credit for going out to work
every day, but the credit for the work goes someplace else. The
really powerful ones are so strange, so wonderfully strange, and
the way that they affect people gives me an indication that something's
going on that's greater than the parts. A friend of mine tells
me to just do the work, don't bother with explanations, don't
bother quizzing yourself. Somebody someday will explain it all.
1 Timothy White, "Out of the Darkness: The Transformational
Art of R. E. Bartow." Shaman's Drum, No. 13 (Summer,
1988): p. 18.
Native Streams, group exhibition, Jan Cicero Gallery,
Chicago, IL, 1996
Solo exhibition, Froelick Adelhart Gallery, Portland, OR, 1995
Totems, group exhibition, Bush Barn Art Center, Salem, OR,
Songs to Sing, solo exhibition, Gallery of Tribal Art, Vancouver,
British Columbia, 1994
Eye, Your Eye, solo exhibition, Jamison/Thomas Gallery, Portland,
auf Papier, solo exhibition, Peiper-Riegraf Gallery, Frankfurt,
and Sweat, solo exhibition, Jamison/Thomas Gallery, Portland,
Submuloc Show/Columbus Wohs, group exhibition, ATLATL, Phoenix,
Boundaries: Contemporary Native American Art, group exhibition,
Jan Cicero Gallery, Chicago, IL, 1991
Biennial Native American Fine Arts Invitational, group exhibition,
The Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ, 1989
Eleven American Indian Artists, group exhibition, American
Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA, 1986
E. K. Caldwell, "Bartow: Conversation with an Artist."
Inkfish (June, 1994): pp. 3-5, 17.
Cheryl Hartup, "Profile: Rick Bartow." Visions
(Winter, 1993): pp. 46-47
David Becker, "The Visionary Art of Rick Bartow: Works 1986-1992,"
in Wings and Sweat. Portland, OR: Jamison/Thomas Gallery,
1992, pp. 5-7.
Doug Marx, "Man Behind the Mask." Oregon Magazine
(March/April, 1988): pp. 37-39.
Abby Wasserman, "R. E. Bartow," in Portfolio.
San Francisco: American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1986.