The artist Rick Bartow was in attendance at the October 8 reception in the ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts for the exhibition All That Remains: Material Remembrances in Love and Loss. The exhibition attracted many visitors from all over the state. See a short video here.
All That Remains: Material Remembrances in Love and Loss assembles works by three artists, Rick Bartow, Lewis deSoto, and Judith Lowry. In the works shown here, each artist is deeply engaged in materially manifesting loss and grief following the death of loved ones. Some of the artworks memorialize the artists’ beloveds, and others visually depict their personal emotions, thoughts, and ideas about death. The works are emotive; they communicate the artist’s explorations with mourning and intangible loss. Bartow, deSoto, and Lowry have exhibited worldwide and are members of indigenous nations of California. They create art in varied media and draw upon numerous influences ranging from Buddhist art to Renaissance paintings to Native cosmologies. Here their work is shown together for the first time.
Rick E. Bartow, a Mad River Band Wiyot artist, sculptor and musician, received his bachelor’s degree in art education from Western Oregon State University in 1969. Soon thereafter, he was drafted and served for thirteen months in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He never saw combat, but his experiences were harrowing. Assigned to a signal unit, Bartow spent his after-hours playing guitar at fire-support bases and at hospitals for the severely wounded. The Army awarded Bartow a Bronze Star for his musical service to injured soldiers. When the medal arrived to his family’s home in Oregon, he threw it away (though his mother retrieved it.). Nightmares followed his wartime experiences, and Bartow turned to alcohol. He also returned to making art. For the next four decades, themes of recuperation and survival kept recurring in his prolific outpouring of drawings and in his monumental carvings.
In 1999, Bartow’s wife Julie succumbed to cancer. Personal Myth (2001), a work on paper drawn in pastel, charcoal, and graphite, addresses her death and reveals the continued love a couple shares despite parting in the earthly world. A female figure faces left with a skull pervading and harming her breasts. At first glance it appears that there is one figure, but upon closer inspection, the artist, with head facing right and hand outstretched, has joined his body into hers, embracing her tightly.
Bartow draws heavily, for inspiration, on the wildlife of his Pacific Coast home. A keen observer of the ravens, coyotes, eagles, and ospreys, he takes great interest in the animals’ movements and respects them as teachers of life and behavior. His drawings sometimes incorporate blended human and animal bodies, often in a state of transformation. Traumbild (2001), a German word that can be translated as “vision,” shows one such transformation of a human and a deer, the center image cast in ghostly white and sprouting antlers with his human hand reaching outward. In Bartow’s works, the corporeal and spiritual realms are one.
Bartow’s third work, Give Me Back My Father (2009), expresses the everlasting love for ancestors and the pleas for the repatriation of indigenous human remains. The title refers to Minik, a Greenlandic Inuit boy, who was brought to New York with his father and four other Inuits by Robert Peary in 1897. Peary abandoned them with the staff at the American Museum of Natural History as specimens for study, and Minik’s father, along with three others, soon died from tuberculosis. Minik requested a proper burial for his father, and the staff deceived the boy with a fake burial and placed his father’s skeleton on display. Minik died during the 1918 flu pandemic. After nearly one hundred years, the museum repatriated the Inuit remains to Greenland in 1993. Bartow has depicted the ancestor’s return, his body cradled by a youth. The woman represents one of the netherworld Furies or Erinyes who avenge wrongdoings.
Judith Lowry’s home and studio are in the foothills of northern California, close to the lands of her Native ancestors. Yet her inspirations are varied and reach beyond Native California. Her father’s occupation as a career military officer required the family to move often, and she attended schools in Germany, Australia, Japan, California, and Maryland. Her young imagination was fed by the creation stories of her Native father combined with the fairy tales of author May Gibbs and accounts of the Aboriginal Dreamtime told by her Irish-Australian mother. Initially lacking a studio, Lowry began her career as a photographer, returning to art school for a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1988 and a master’s in painting and drawing in 1992 while raising her three children.
Lowry’s works are large-scale narrative paintings executed in deep, rich colors. While an early influence was Renaissance paintings, her works purposefully depict the people of Native California and their history, cultures, joys, and sorrows. Sacrifice (1997) reveals an ethereal scene with a woman dressed in white holding the hand of a little girl, also robed in white. They are seated on a platform with clouds below their feet and falling leaves rushing from a window in the background. Upon closer inspection, the child has a glow emanating from her body, and the figures are dressed in hospital gowns. The girl, Patricia, is Lowry’s relative who died at an Indian Health Service hospital from being over-anesthetized by an inebriated white physician. Her mother holds her hand while a black-billed magpie, birds known for aggressively defending their nests, is perched on her mother’s other hand.
Artist Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu/Hawaiian/Portuguese) is the subject of Lowry’s recent work, And He Glittered When He Walked (2012). Fonseca was an influential Native California artist who passed away from brain cancer at the age of 60. Throughout his career, Fonseca drew upon images and stories of Native California, re-indigenizing the landscape. Lowry renders Fonseca smiling and carefree. He is a heavenly figure, complete with halo, walking on water. Dressed in a black overcoat with a collared shirt and tie, his trousers are rolled to his knees with his bare feet touching the water, creating concentric circles on the surface. The landscape is stark with faint stars in the distance yet Fonseca’s halo provides enough light on this moonless night. Lowry’s paintings are lustrous tributes to people taken too soon.
The exhibition’s three-dimensional work is Lewis deSoto’s Paranirvana (self-portrait), a 25-foot long sculpture of a figure reclining on its rights side; its disposition closely based on a twelfth-century stone Buddha at Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka. Unlike its solid stone predecessor, deSoto’s work, made from painted polyethylene cloth, is hollow, filled only by air from a fan that keeps the sculpture inflated. The resemblance to the reclining Buddha is nonetheless remarkable, from the curls of hair to the folds of the robe, the one exception being that deSoto superimposed his own facial features, complete with goatee, on this Buddha.
deSoto is a California-based artist who creates dynamic installations linking ancient cosmologies to today’s world. Born in San Bernardino, California, to a Cahuilla father and a Hispanic mother, he has been a professor of art at San Francisco State University since 1988. deSoto received his bachelor’s degree in studio art, with a minor in religious studies, from the University of California at Riverside and his MFA from the Claremont Graduate School in southern California. deSoto’s work transforms spaces, whether outdoors or in a museum gallery, into peculiar and provocative worlds.
In 1998, deSoto’s father, a man the artist considered indestructible, passed away. At the wake for his father, deSoto approached the open casket and touched his father’s chest, noting with some wonder that it felt cold and hollow like a drum. His father’s death invited him to contemplate his own mortality. A Buddhist, deSoto recalled the event of parinirvana or the “great liberation” where Buddha entered an enlightened “state of ultimate spiritual transcendence,” released from the cycle of death and rebirth. In idealizing his own version of this episode in the life of the Buddha, deSoto entitled it Paranirvana to express a “large liberation.”
Although hidden from view, the fan is an important component of Paranirvana. Symbolically, it provides life—and death—to the sculpture. When fully inflated, Paranirvana rises to a height of six feet and spreads to occupy twenty-five feet in length. Once the fan is unplugged, the air seeps through an opening in the back. deSoto describes that moment as “its last…breath.” Its end is peaceful; the head falls deeper into the pillow and the body gradually flattens. Through the inflatable sculpture, one is reminded of anapanasati or the mindfulness of breathing, which is a core meditation practice in Buddhism. Paranirvana has a meditative quality; focusing on its constant breath brings one’s awareness to the essential nature of breath to well-being and steadying the mind.
The varied artworks in All That Remains render the immaterial material; they express personal, yet shared, events. As deSoto remarked, “[the death of my father] triggered a feeling of shock and grief…[loss] has such a physical manifestation.” In their art-making, Bartow, deSoto, and Lowry have created material acts of remembrance and rebirth in times of mourning.
Anya Montiel is a doctoral student at Yale University in the American Studies department. She received bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of California at Davis and holds a master’s degree in museum studies from John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. She has worked in the museum field for more than ten years, including seven years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
List of Exhibited Works
Paranirvana (self-portrait) (1999)
Painted cloth, electric air fan
25 x 7 x 6 feet
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA
Pastel and graphite on paper
26 x 40 inches
Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR
Give Me Back My Father (2009)
Acrylic on panel
20 x 16 inches
Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR
Personal Myth (2001)
Pastel, charcoal, and graphite on paper
40 x 26 inches
Collection of George and Nancy Thorn, Portland, OR
Acrylic on canvas
60 x 48 inches
And He Glittered When He Walked (2012)
Acrylic on canvas
48 x 72 inches
Collection of the artist
Harry Fonseca (1946-2006)
Stone Poem (ca. 1989)
Acrylic on paper
24 x 36 inches
Collection of Judith Lowry