Born in 1932 in Omaha, Nebraska, artist Tom Bartek’s career is the tale of a man and a city, and proof positive that, in fact, you can go home again (with apologies to Thomas Wolfe).
Bartek’s prolific output runs the gamut from fine to popular art. He may be most widely known for the serigraphs he created from 1971 to 1986. Using a silkscreen process that laid colors down in separate passes, Bartek captured the natural simplicity he treasured when visiting his family’s farms near Weston, Nebraska, as a youth. A prairie populist at heart, he chose printmaking in particular for its affordability for consumers.
So it may be surprising that this midwestern artist also studied at Cooper Union Art School in New York in the 1950s, and forged pivotal friendships with avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and experimental poet Jack Collom, a faculty member at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
If the push/pull between art and commerce informs Bartek’s work, he comes by it naturally. Returning to Omaha in the 1960s with his young family in tow, he discovered a nascent art scene in flux due to trends from without—the influence of abstract expressionism in particular—as well as developments from within. In the Old Market, a former wholesale produce district, galleries such as the Artists’ Coop and the Craftsmen’s Guild would open. Radical feminists Jo Ann Schmidman and Megan Terry wrote and premiered experimental plays at the Magic Theatre. Bartek’s wife Gloria and Louise Farrell edited an alternative newspaper, The Buffalo Chip. In short, during the ’60s and ’70s local artists were trying new things, with the result that conventional and avant-garde pieces sometimes stood side by side. And in a watershed place and time, perhaps no one particularly cared to draw attention to the difference. Bartek’s work is in some ways a fortunate product of this time and place, an eclectic mix of traditional and edgy.
In a sense, both the artist and the city have left their marks on each other. If Bartek channeled the influences around him, he also contributed his personal genius. A rare combination of industriousness, artistic drive, and intellectual curiosity, he made ample use of the services the city offered him. And if his needs as an artist exceeded his surroundings, he built his own systems. When he wanted to tackle a different medium—from filmmaking to photography to constructions—he taught himself how to work with new materials. When he needed a place to make and sell his art, he founded his own studio and paid his staff out of the proceeds of his work.
In honor of Bartek’s eightieth birthday this year, three Omaha galleries are presenting exhibitions this fall. They are collectively titled “A Tom Bartek Retrospective: Assemblages, Paintings, and Prints, 1956 to 2012.”
The Rumpus: Images of rural Nebraska appear in much of your art. What does your family’s farm mean to you?
Tom Bartek: This farm was two miles west of Weston, Nebraska, and nine miles west of Wahoo. We spent much time there as children with my aunt, Victoria Bartek, and four uncles, John, Phillip, Lou, and Tom. It was an idyllic, romantic, free place to wander in the wooded creek and play, especially during the big, communal threshing days.
The Rumpus: Your dad was a salesman for the Omaha stockyards. What was his attitude toward your creativity?
Bartek: When I was around 14-years-old, my father took me to see Laurence Olivier in both Henry V and Hamlet at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha. This must have been in 1946 or 1947. I think that seeing a master like Olivier perform, and having my dad choose me to go, made a strong first impression that there was such a thing as “art.” I understood that it could be, on the one hand, not popular, not cared about, or not understood or, on the other hand, a powerful, coherent, moving achievement. I think my father, who later became a traveling salesman for a livestock feed company before managing a couple of farms he owned—one that his father gave him near the “home place” by Weston, the other, just briefly, in Iowa—recognized the creative impulse in me. And the tension between art that appeals to a small group and art that appeals to many is one I’ve dealt with in my career ever since.
Rumpus: It’s not easy for an artist to make a living at his art anywhere. Often the assumption is that an artist must go to New York to succeed. You served in the military while stationed in South Carolina. You attended college at Cooper Union Art School. You lived on the Lower East Side in New York and then in Seymour, Connecticut. Apart from those pivotal years on the East Coast, you’ve lived most of your life in Omaha. You were born there, raised a family there, and established your career there. When an artist has been linked to and inspired by a place, as you have been, does the artist have obligations back to that place?
Bartek: I have decidedly felt gratitude to Omaha for the immediate and continuous success I’ve had here since moving back from New York and Connecticut in 1961. Soon after returning, I received an honorable mention for my painting “Georgia Churchyard Façade” in the Seventh Midwest Biennial Show in February 1962 at the Joslyn Art Museum. Many awards and much publicity followed. I began to make a fairly good living and rented a studio/storefront space. I hired printers to help with the serigraphs. Betty Cutler helped with her great management and bookkeeping skills. Win Finegan helped with her framing and sales skills. Until I deliberately dropped out of the art scene in 1998 and then began to take care of my wife Gloria while she was dealing with the cancer that ultimately ended her life, I’ve had an active and enjoyable career in Omaha. Appropriately, the painting from the 1962 Biennial will be on display at the Creighton exhibit this fall.
Rumpus: One of your early works is still on display as public art. In honor of Nebraska’s centennial in 1967, you designed the mosaics that are on the Woodman Building in downtown Omaha. What effect did this project have on your life at the time?
Bartek: To create these murals, I first made the paintings to a smaller scale of the final designs. These were then sent to Murano, Italy—a city with a long, rich tradition in glassmaking and with many skilled artisans—to be enlarged into Venetian glass mosaics. They were brought back in sections and were installed by the mosaic company.
As one of my first larger commissions, the income from this project allowed me to supplement my teaching at the Creighton University Art Department for Rev. Lee Lubbers, S.J. It also allowed me to develop some connections with other artists. With the money that was left over, my wife Gloria and I bought a small Yellowstone camping trailer, which we used to visit our friend, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his wife Jane and their children. They had a cabin in the ghost town of Gilpin, Colorado. We also visited my friend Jack Collom, Stan’s brother-in-law.
By 1967, Gloria and I had all four sons…and we went camping every summer after. In the summer and fall of ’67, I bought a single eight millimeter Fuji movie camera and made my first films with it. I showed these at the openings of my shows at the Sioux City Art Center and the College of St. Mary in Omaha. Most of my films make extensive use of multiple superimposition of images, inspired by both Stan’s and Jack’s techniques in their films.
The success I had with my first three little movies caused Rev. Lubbers to assign me to teach a course in filmmaking at Creighton for several years, and to organize with him a film festival at Creighton. Both Stan and Hollywood director Otto Preminger premiered new films at the Creighton Film Festival. Preminger’s was Hurry Sundown, starring Jane Fonda. Rev. Lubbers and I also ran a very well-attended experimental film series at the Art Department.
Rumpus: Your output has been very diverse, very varied—even in your selection of media. From filmmaking to printmaking to sculpture to photography to painting to drawing, you’ve done it all. Does each medium demand a different approach? How, for instance, do you approach a painting—is the process different from or similar to a print or an assemblage?
Bartek: Technically the painting process is very different from serigraphy, though both are based on composition and drawing in the same way. An assemblage begins as an abstract composition, but may also later incorporate diverse methods—drawing, painting, typography, photography, carpentry, etc. A painting, like artwork in the other mediums I use, begins for me very cerebrally as sketches on paper. But as the painting progresses, it becomes more and more instinctive, and emotional choices become more important.
Rumpus: Do you see a stylistic connection between the impasto of your acrylics and oils, the rich patterns of your serigraphs (created by layering screens of ink atop each other), and the complex textures of your assemblages (created by layering materials and paint)?
Bartek: No—it’s a very different kind of layering. But I have always been obsessed with texture. I want the dense textures in my paintings and serigraphs, and, in a different way, my assemblages, to simulate the organic complexity of nature.
Rumpus: You’ve said that your friends Betty Cutler and Win Finegan, who worked in your studio, joked that your biography should be titled It’s Got a Long Way to Go, after the comment you often made while creating a piece of art. What does “it’s got a long way to go” mean to you? Given your long, successful career, did you ever feel like any individual piece “got there”?
Bartek: No. Never completely. At best, 90% perfect. Or 80%. Sometimes I’m disgusted or frustrated that I haven’t been more consistent. But I often end up returning to some medium—assemblages, paintings—that I’ve previously worked on. As I look back on sixty years worth of making art, I sometimes ask myself, where did all this come from? I used to always say it came from a power greater than me. I’ve heard other artists say that. It’s not necessarily religious. They feel like they are processing something handed them and moving it on.
Photograph of Tom Bartek © 2012 by Jim Fackler.
First image of Tom Bartek’s “Bridge of Broken Dreams,” 1984, oil on canvas.
Second image of Tom Bartek’s “Nebraska Winter—Two Figures,” 1985, acrylic on panel. From the Collection of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Omaha branch.