Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain
January 26 – April 7, 2019

Rick Bartow (1946-2016) is one of Oregon’s most celebrated Indigenous artists. His work gained national recognition during his lifetime. For instance, his monumental cedar carvings We Were Always Here went on permanent display in 2012 outside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian overlooking the National Mall. The Museum exhibition opening January 26, Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain, celebrates and memorializes Rick’s extraordinary life. The exhibit’s time at the High Desert Museum marks its last Oregon appearance. It will include a rarely seen painting by Rick from the Museum’s permanent collection.

Rick’s sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints are an eloquent exploration of his identity. They remind us that identity is layered and complex. The art is an insightful expression of life as a struggle. Paint drips and gestural marks coexist with carefully rendered forms to create compositions that are as dynamic and beautiful as they are meaningful. Rick made art that is vibrant, physical and engaging. He effortlessly combined images of shamans, totems, talismans, masks and creation stories with ideas from Western philosophy. This diversity of subjects reveals Rick to be a person who deeply valued tradition but was also a voracious reader, a deep thinker and an amateur naturalist. He had an all-consuming passion for the physical world in all its messy and contradictory glory. Rick’s work reminds us that art is a powerful form of expression that transcends words and defies stereotypes.

Desert Mystic: The Paintings of John Simpkins
October 27, 2018 – February 17, 2019

John Simpkins personifies the tradition of the artist as a mystic and hermit. For the past seven years, he’s lived and painted in the schoolhouse in Andrews, a ghost town nestled between Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert in Oregon’s Harney County. His days are filled with the quiet contemplation and solitary discipline of his studio practice.

In Desert Mystic, he’s created paintings inspired by the surrounding arid landscape and its wildlife. Simpkins weaves them into dense, layered allegories. His detailed and colorful paintings are shaped by influences as diverse as American Primitivism, Byzantine icon painting and Buddhist art.

He describes the animals of the region as being constant companions and transforms his frequent chance encounters with coyotes, badgers, owls and other creatures into paintings that depict them as guides and teachers. It is a concept he borrows from the Buddhist tradition. Consequently, the mule deer buck that startles John by peering through his studio window one morning is immortalized as a messenger wrapped in saffron robes.

Simpkins displays a tenacious dedication to his unique vision and perspective. The impressive trove of accumulated paintings from the last seven years that fill his studio are a testament to his robust work ethic. His vibrant vision has found fertile soil and flourished in its austere environment. John Simpkins has transformed the arid desolation of the Oregon desert into a creative oasis.

By Curator of Arts and Community Engagement Andries Fourie

The Treasure of a Feather

For many visitors, the Don Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the highlights of a day spent at the Museum. Raptors are not just an iconic part of the High Desert — they also have intangible value for cultures worldwide and throughout human history. The human connection to raptors is innate and universal. People everywhere are drawn to these powerful birds.

An important part of the Museum’s mission is to create a refuge for disabled raptors and provide the community with opportunities to enjoy them and learn about them up close. We do that with a collection of 30 non-releasable birds that participate in more than 1,000 public programs every year.

With that volume of education and outreach, raptor handlers quickly learn to anticipate the questions of a curious audience. Wildlife staff works tirelessly with our birds so they are comfortable with people getting close. Once close, people naturally want to touch. Being able to feel and hold something is a crucial component of an educational program. Touching has the potential to create powerful learning experiences. There’s a lot you can learn from holding a feather or talon, turning it in your hand, and feeling it in your fingers that would be imperceptible simply looking at a bird from across the room.

Unfortunately, raptors don’t enjoy being petted or touched. Instead we offer the chance to handle raptor feathers, talons and wings at our regular talks called Bird of Prey Encounter, during Kids’ Camps, in classrooms and during community-outreach programs. Inevitably, people ask if they can keep a feather to take home.

Human fascination with raptors and other birds has not always been reverent or respectful. In some cases, it has led to the exploitation and abuse of wild populations. Many species were once hunted for the commercial value of their feathers, a practice that peaked in the early 1900s. In an effort to halt the commercial trade in bird parts and stem the decline of wild populations, most bird species received protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. This federal legislation prohibits the possession of bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests, and together with the Lacey Act — which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold — eliminates any legal commercial trade in raptors.

Sadly, sometimes raptors are still killed for their feathers. Because bird parts can command high prices on the black market, it remains illegal for people to keep raptor feathers and for the Museum to give them to anyone without a special permit.

We work closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain special permits so we can house live birds. This arrangement ensures that visitors have a place to enjoy raptors while learning about biology and conservation. We also have permits to salvage raptor parts for education so we can make sure the public has opportunities to feel how sharp a falcon’s talon is, the softness of an owl’s feather and how light birds’ bones can be.

On a live bird, feathers eventually wear out. Molting is the process by which birds lose old worn out feathers and replace them with new ones on an annual basis. With 30 live birds molting a full set of feathers every year, we have far more feathers than we would ever need for education. While we cannot allow visitors to take feathers home, we do not throw feathers away. One of behind-the-scenes ways the Museum supports raptor conservation is by making naturally molted feathers and excess salvaged bird parts available for use by Native American Tribal members. Raptors hold deep spiritual significance to most Native cultures. Tribal artisans and craftsman incorporate feathers into incredible works of art that clearly emphasize reverence and respect for the birds. Examples of these beautiful and historic objects are also exhibited at the Museum, illustrating the strong connection between wildlife, history and contemporary culture in the High Desert.

Every year in January the Museum’s wildlife staff prepares a report for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detailing the use of every live bird and bird part in the collection, including feathers that are part of historical and cultural objects on display. In our By Hand Through Memory permanent exhibition alone there are more than 200 bald and golden eagle feathers on exhibit, each one meticulously identified and inventoried by dedicated collections volunteers. Each item is required by law to be made available to the public a minimum of 12 times per year or for 400 hours, a benchmark the Museum far exceeds by providing exhibitions and programs to the Central Oregon community and visitors 362 days a year.

Extra feathers and other items are carefully packaged and mailed off. Eagle feathers and parts go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Eagle Repository in Colorado, and other feathers go to a Liberty Wildlife Non-Eagle Feather Repository in Arizona. These facilities ensure that raptor parts are legally sourced and distributed to Tribal members throughout the country for traditional use. We recently sent off a shipment containing two seasons worth of feather collection, totaling more than 2,500 feathers or more to the two repositories.

This is one small way the Museum works to conserve wild bird populations while simultaneously supporting the rich cultural traditions raptors have been a part of in the High Desert for thousands of years.

Birds of a Feather: The Afterlives of America’s Eagles