The gorgeous work of Native American artist Rick Bartow, exhibited now at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, is a beautiful reminder of why we create. “For nearly forty years,” reads the exhibition’s display, “transformation has been the quality most frequently and closely associated with Bartow’s work.”

Transformation: “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance” (Oxford English Dictionary). Rick “built up each composition,” says the exhibition, “only to erase, scrape off, or draw over the first image.”

In this way, coyote would become a falcon. Bear would become a man.

I’m reminded of transformation in literature and other art. Louisa May Alcott writing through the night to achieve “transformation.” The river guide or ski bum who becomes an author. The gardener turned poet. The transformation masks of the Pacific Northwest, wherein the sculptor builds in the object’s ability to change to something else.

In Ottawa, during the first week of research for my novel 49 North, I stumbled upon a transformation mask that would be a key piece of the storyline. Due to cultural sensitivity of the mask, I wasn’t able to photograph it; years later, at the Seattle Art Museum, I ran across this somewhat similar mask depicting Thunderbird’s change to a human creature. The mask opens to reveal a different face for the wearer, who must ask assistance in keeping the object on his head.

Thunderbird man. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.

In this way, the man becomes an eagle. The storyteller becomes the magician.

“The work is the blessing,” Rick said. He also called it a curse. The exhibition says, “In the process of its ruination, each work became something else entirely.”

Dana Whitelaw, the Museum’s Executive Director, stood before Rick’s commissioned piece “For Roger” and shared the story of how it took shape. One creature became another as Rick learned the background of his fellow Vietnam veteran, the war pilot honored by the work. The layers of paint that remain contain the history of the creation and its very human subject. All this change happened in the course of one day.

“For Roger” by Rick Bartow. High Desert Museum permanent collection.

Such a master artist; such a master sentiment, to keep working to achieve change. I keep it in mind as I work and write now. The labor changes to something else every day, transforming to the thing it was meant to be. The work is the curse, the obsession–and the gift.

Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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