By Barbara B. Covell
For the TODAY
He was a hometown hero, who was born and died in Newport. A native son of the California Wiyot Indians, he was close with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and accumulated much knowledge and wisdom from their elders. The expanse of his life’s work reflects his Indian heritage, love of art, music and the great literary figures who contributed to his passion for the written word. He befriended people from all walks of life; was playful, funny, headstrong, self-deprecating and easy in conversation. He primarily created pastel, graphite and mixed-media drawings, wood sculpture, acrylic paintings, drypoint etchings, monotypes and ceramic works. Rick Bartow was all of this, and so much more.
Newport theater company New Visions Arts presents “Rick Bartow: In Spirit,” a play by Portland writer Merridawn Duckler, directed by Marc Maislen. Duckler’s compelling script premieres at the Newport Performing Arts Center in conjunction with a lobby exhibit of Bartow’s literary drawings and paintings.
“In Spirit” is about a fictional meeting between Bartow and the three inspirational literary figures in his life — Bertolt Brecht, A.E. Houseman and Emily Dickinson.
“Duckler selected these three figures because they represent a cross section of humanity,” Maislen said, “the quiet, initially unrecognized one; the confident, yet insecure, middle-of-the-road one; and the egotistical, passionate one.”
The magic happens when these values contrast with Bartow’s imagination and wisdom.
Rich Hicks portrays Rick Bartow with raw sensitivity, a blend of humility and knowledge of things unseen. His stage presence includes Bartow’s posture, cadence and facial expressions. The effect is powerful.
Linda Haggerty plays the American poet Emily Dickinson, and she delivers a powerful performance. Duckler’s script calls for a specific literary pattern of speech and Haggerty is spot on. She demonstrates her character’s growth in her performance.
William Webster is the irascible, overconfident playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, delightful to both watch and hear with his swagger and a hearty German accent. Webster delivers Brecht’s persona with precise timing and a strong stage presence.
Theater veteran Jeffrey Wilson is A.E. Houseman, the British poet and classical scholar. Wilson is an actor’s actor; delivering his lines and character portrayal with precision and abundant creativity.
The storyline fully unfolds in five scenes. Each of the literary characters experiences growth and transition under Maislen’s expert direction.
The set, designed by Mary Eastman, is constructed entirely of alder, with a video screen that projects Bartow’s works. Sculptures and masks enhance each scene, crafted by Cheri Aldrich, Ram Papish, Marcy Kenyon and the students at the Arts Friday sessions hosted by Oregon Coast Council for the Arts.
“This play has a vital and insightful revealing about Rick Bartow’s roots in Newport, his roots in the Native community, how he felt guided by the gifts of the elders and the events that shaped his life,” Maislen said, adding: “If audiences can go home having insight into the artists’ passion and need to be seen and heard, that would put a smile on my face.”
If you never met Rick Bartow in life, you will know him after seeing this show.
“Rick Bartow: In Spirit” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 14 and 15, at 7 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 pm at the Newport Performing Arts Center, 777 W Olive Street. Tickets, $35 plus fees, are available at www.coastarts.org. For more information, call 541-265-ARTS or go to www.coastarts.org.
Bartow studied art at Western Oregon University at Monmouth and upon graduation was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. From 1969 to 1971 he served as a teletype operator and a musician in a military hospital, singing and playing guitar for men as they died. When he returned to Oregon, he suffered from PTSD.
In a 1989 essay titled “Transformations,” Bartow wrote eloquently about art as salvation:
“When I returned home from Viet Nam, like so many others, I was a bit twisted. I was a house filled with irrational fears, beliefs, and symbols. Wind-blown paper would send me running; crows became many things; I never remembered dreams and detested the wind; I wore bells on my wrists so I could hear my parts when they moved; I slept in my clothes so I’d be ready to go nowhere at all. And I once recall answering when asked my name and where I was from, Nobody. Nowhere. I must have been a wonderful companion. During this time I found a huge pad of newsprint and began to draw, trying to exorcise the demons that had made me strange to myself. My work has never stopped being therapy.”