At the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis, Native American art doesn’t belong to the past, it’s happening right now.
“From the very beginning of the museum, our mission was to bring contemporary Native American art to students and teachers. (We) promote current native and indigenous artists, there’s a lot of representation on historical material, but I personally like working with living artists to build the field,” said Veronica Passalacqua, the curator of the museum.
The museum was founded in 1973 to honor Carl Nelson Gorman, a Navajo artist and World War II code talker who was the first to teach Native American art at UC Davis in the late 1960s.
Passalacqua said that the museum wants students and teachers alike to have a better understanding of the everyday lives of Native American artists by featuring their work.
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As a university gallery, the museum is able to feature solo exhibits for both established and new artists, she said.
“Like any artists, Native artists need solo shows to advance their careers. We’ve been recognized for giving those features to major artists who weren’t big when they first started out. We’re helping people,” Passalacqua said.
While the museum does prefer promoting the young and living over the dead, it’s made an exception for the current exhibition of popular California-born Native American artist Rick Bartow.
He was considered an important leader in the field of contemporary Native American art, Passalacqua said, and his art ranged from drawings to sculptures. The museum is showing pieces he made that have never been shown to the public before, the curator said.
Rick Bartow was born in Northern California but lived in Oregon for much of his life. When he died in April 2016, his estate and the Froelick Gallery in Oregon donated a combined 50 pieces to the museum.
Charles Froelick, the owner of the gallery, personal friend of Bartow and the representative of his estate said he was one of the most prolific and ambitious artists in his field.
“Rick is looked at by other artists as one those genuine, honest artists that didn’t make art for show, he made it for the genuine impulse of self-examination and expression. He expressed some of the darkest content that humans experienced, and also the most joyful and playful, because he didn’t wallow in pain,” Froelick said in a phone interview.
Bartow knew death his entire life Froelick said. His father died when he was 5 years old. He served during the Vietnam War, where death was a constant. His wife died of breast cancer. These traumatic experiences served as inspiration for his work.
But Froelick said Bartow was also motivated by the deeper questions in life, such as what his place in the world was.
“Rick was fascinated with where he stood in the history of the world while being a storyteller. ... He was motivated to connect to other people through story. The simple joy of living in this world and yearning for a connection with a higher power inspired him as well,” Froelick said.
Other artists also respected Bartow because he was one of the first Native American artists to build an identity for urban natives, those who had not grown up on a reservation or a pueblo, Froelick said.
Passalacqua said Bartow was a longtime friend of the museum, his work has been displayed there before and the director of the museum, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, had known him as a colleague for years.
“We were really honored when it was known that he would pass, that he remembered us and arranged this gift of 50 pieces of artwork for us. He had such a rich life experience and I find his work to be so powerful and present. It’s entirely engaging and admits so much energy,” she said.
Bartow’s contributions to the museum are just some of the museum’s giant collection, Passalacqua said. The museum has about 2,000 pieces worth over $1 million, with only 30 of Bartow’s work displayed for public viewing.
Gorman’s website shows that over a hundred artists, most of Native American and indigenous background, have contributed to the collection, including Wendy Red Star, known for contemporary multimedia work, and Kay WalkingStick, whose detailed landscape paintings have been featured in several galleries.
Many artists have signed agreements to pass art to the museum once they die, Passalacqua said.
She said the museum has always been a place for minority artists to discuss issues that are relevant to their lives and experiences. When the Dakota Acces Pipeline Protests were going on, the museum hosted an exhibition focused on protesting and their importance.
“We’re one of the few places that focus on this type of work, the only one in California in fact. And (Bartow’s) show fits right into the mission of what we do,” Passalacqua said.
The museum is located in Hart Hall in the Quad District of the campus.
The exhibition of Bartow’s work will last through March 15 of this year, and its typically open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information go to the museum’s website.
This story was updated at 2:33 p.m. on Jan. 17 to clarify how many pieces of art the museum has and their worth.