Spend enough time with Tom Bartek’s art, and you will start seeing the world as he sees it. In winter, the squat, curved trunks and the spade-shaped fan of bare branches, a pattern of inverted arcs layered in rows. In spring, the delicate pyramid of a cedar, balanced at the base like an inverted top, while its perimeters feather into the mist. In summer, a perfect handful of wild asters held in place by sunlight on a checkered tabletop. In autumn, a stand of maples with diamonds of twilight in its heavy canopy. The closer you look, the more you will see: a wash of turquoise under the rough surface of gray stucco, a line of writing embedded in the corner of a photograph, or geometric shapes that turn out to be cross-sections of bones.

Bartek’s work is integrated into place, taking inspiration from and offering insight into the community and landscape in which he lives. Just as his environment has shaped his art, so too has his art shaped his environment. Few artists, in the Midwest in particular, have been able to sustain a career upon their art. Bartek’s versatility in multiple genres—painting, photography, printmaking—naturally evolved into the distinctive style of sculpture that he has referred to as assemblages.

Tom Bartek’s national reputation grew from his printmaking. The standard components of his serigraph prints, which were produced between 1971 and 1986, are fruits, vegetables, and flowers arranged on checkered tablecloths before a window. Often the window reveals a landscape of barns, sheds, trees, and includes small figures representing the artist’s young sons and the family dog. Commenting on the popularity of his prints, Bartek told the Omaha World-Herald, “It’s corny stuff, but I love it.” And though he embarked on this direction with populist motivation at heart, the work became so successful that a mid-seventies headline in the World-Herald quoted him as saying, “I did not sell out.”

Bartek’s assemblages similarly combine old and new, but they also move beyond to embrace found and built, manufactured and handmade. They point to the eternal nature of place and materials. In combining materials, the artist preserves authentic patterns of wear, and finds creative methods for imitating the effects of weather and time. By layering materials—whether coats of paint, photographs, or plaster—Bartek honors the permanence and adaptability of the physical world and offers a commentary on progress by contrasting sleek mid-century modern shapes, from rhomboids to repeated arcs or boxes, with rustic, primitive materials and forms. When the modern impulse was to dismiss the influence of history, Bartek made a bold statement to reassert the generative hold of the past on the present.

Tom Bartek produced serigraphs for fifteen years, frequently traveling throughout the Midwest to attend conferences, exhibits, and fairs where he displayed and sold his work. Sales of prints enabled him to maintain a storefront gallery on Ninth and Pacific Streets in South Omaha, complete with paid staff. If Bartek’s output of serigraphs is limited to a relatively short span, in contrast, his output of assemblages extends throughout his nearly sixty years of productivity.

In 1958, Bartek and his wife Gloria and Aaron, the first of their four sons, were living in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he worked as a sewer inspector to support his growing family. He describes the moment of inspiration for what he would call his “assemblages” as accidental. In order to create a roughly textured surface for a realistic painting, he applied a thin layer of concrete within a frame lined with chicken wire. Working directly on the floor, on which he had hastily laid scraps of wood in a makeshift pattern to protect the floorboards of his rental house, he poured in the concrete and let it dry. The result was quite heavy, and it turned out that those scraps of wood were permanently affixed to the back of the concrete. The randomness of the pattern had an organic quality that captured the artist’s imagination. He explains:

At the time I did not believe in abstract art, but this was the beginning of a conversion. I was familiar with abstract art from studying at Cooper Union three years earlier, but I had never intended to go near it, myself.

The result may have reminded him of the work of Louise Nevelson, whose wall-sized constructions Bartek had admired in art journals and magazines. It may have triggered a memory of a Robert Rauschenberg work he’d seen at MOMA around 1955—the important and influential mixed media “Bed,” an antique patchwork quilt and pillow on wooden supports, splashed with drips of paint in Abstract Expressionist style. Interestingly, Bartek’s first reaction to Rauschenberg’s piece was dismay, as he “loved antique-y things,” thus objected to Rauschenberg’s “ruining” of the quilt. However, upon consideration, he understood the transformation preserved rather than destroyed the original artifact, extending its “usefulness.” This idea of the reclamation of old into new eventually became a major motif in Bartek’s work.

At the point Bartek began to paint what became his first assemblage, he proceeded with a realistic portrait on the front, but remained intrigued by what he had created on the back. “I noticed that the composition formed accidentally by the arbitrarily laid wood scraps was actually very interesting.” Soon, he found the inspired confluence of chance and materials too hard to resist. “Later, when I studied the abstract wood scrap composition on the back, I became more and more fascinated with it. One wood scrap still had a worn, aged, red and white ‘Fragile’ label on it. That especially appealed to me.” Finally, he gave into his instincts and painted the back of the structure in an abstract composition, selecting dark browns and blacks and retaining the “found” art of the label as a focal point, and titled the work “Big City Painting” (1957).

He continued to create standard representational paintings for the next few years, chiefly in a style that he now describes, too harshly, as “my usual, tight, stilted way.” But circumstances and materials drew his attention back to abstraction, and the process of layering found and built objects in assemblages—a course whose development took place over several years.

In 1961, the Barteks returned to Nebraska, renting a house near Fontenelle Forest, a historic, private, nonprofit nature preserve south of Omaha, with 1,400 acres of deciduous trees, hiking trails, wetlands, and loess hills.

In 1968, Bartek wrote an article for The Buffalo Chip, the underground magazine co-edited by his wife Gloria, titled “An Inventor Looks at the New Romanticism.” Although tongue-in-cheek, the piece offers some insight into the theory behind his practice. The article included his own collage of historical images, cartoons, line art, and irreverent captions—a two dimensional “assemblage” of sorts. After defining New Romanticism in this article as “humanist Dadaism,” Bartek compiled an eclectic list of standard-bearers, including St. Francis of Assisi, Pieter Brueghel, Hieronymus Bosch, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, and Robert Rauschenberg. In language influenced by the protest movements of the time, he continued:

Let me simply state that the New Romanticism is . . . the spirit of playful revolution that is using humanely motivated madness to destroy as much inhuman madness as possible in all areas of life today: politics, religion, art, student life, and education.

The article itself, in its whimsical collection of seemingly random components, echoes his assemblages: a gestalt approach of affectionately combining found (and treasured) fragments that resulted in more than a sum of their parts: Bartek’s reinterpretation of literary, artistic, and religious figures places his assemblages in the realm of postmodernism. Today Bartek explains, “I was following the strong influence of Robert Rauschenberg, whose work I had known of since 1955.” He states that Rauschenberg and Nevelson were “both very important to me.”

In 1965, Bartek discovered a trunk full of old circus posters in an outbuilding on the property of his rental house near Fontenelle Forest. They were vintage prints from the late nineteenth century, and featured large red type on off-white background. “I had a sudden, blinding-light inspiration,” he describes, which led him to create several drawings using pencil, black press-transfer letters, and cut brown and black rectangular shapes. He says these early sketches, which offered multiple variations, were the inspiration for his assemblages for years to come. Many of the earliest examples use elements of the found circus-poster typography.

In the program notes for an exhibit at the Creighton University Fine Art Gallery in 1967, Bartek was praised for the use of natural materials—wood, bone, clay—in his assemblages, and defined his work as obsessed with “earth forms.” According to the artist, these standard building materials reflect both his adult work in drafting and childhood play on his grandparents’ and great-grandparent’s farms in Nebraska. They include such homespun elements as cedar (or pine or spruce) boards ripped to various widths, plywood, hardboard, wood lath, and stucco. He also includes found objects, such as stones, bones, rusted tin cans, rusted bottle-caps and jar lids, dog hair, and in some instances, found death masks—a dozen or more of which his sons discovered behind the former Saint Joseph’s Hospital in South Omaha. Bartek adds that his constructions may include “a few other forgotten ingredients and maybe an occasional secret ingredient.”

The assemblages, as mixed media, combine work from multiple genres. In 1969, Bartek began taking photos of his walks with his sons, using these images as inspiration. The photos—a stack of 3” x 5” Kodak color prints—depict the hills along the Missouri, the fields near the Platte River, as well as weathered barns, sheds, and farmhouses, often those belonging to relatives. The photos depict landscapes covered in snow or bursting with greenery, and everything in between, as the walks took place in all seasons.

Although they look substantial, the assemblages are generally made of relatively lightweight materials. “I had to be able to move any work at any stage by myself. Even the largest works are under one hundred pounds—quite a bit under,” Bartek says. For example, he estimates “Pine Ridge Manitou—Trunk Butte Creek,” around 70 lbs. However, the large-scale assemblages made in the late 1960s, some of which included “rooms” the viewer could enter and larger-than-life portraits on the exterior “walls,” weighed significantly more.

When Bartek begins an assemblage, he starts with a small sketch in his notebook, including rough dimensions. He revises the drawing repeatedly, increasing the level of detail until the “idea is very clearly internalized in my mind.” He then builds the framework with pine or cedar 1’ x 2’s, incorporating natural, organic shapes with the straight lines and flat surfaces of built objects, paying attention to striking composition and maintaining sound construction. For instance, the “legs” of the piece, which are often made of small logs or sticks, require extra attention so that these natural shapes, with random twists and bends, provide a solid foundation. The connective tissue of his assemblages—the links between geometric shapes of straight lines and angles—are rows of short, fat sticks, which further mix the random, variable shapes of nature with the measured elements of built, human shelter. Once satisfied that this combination of organic and manufactured materials is plumb, he proceeds to the next step—applying a “skin” of plywood over the assemblage’s “bones.” He may then cover this skin with thin wood lath, rough boards, textured paint, or stucco, among other materials. Notions about color emerge at this stage, as he applies objects such as bones, stones, and sticks to the surface. After, he chooses a color scheme, paints the full piece, and adds additional two-dimensional details, including photographs (almost always multiple exposures) and/or representational paintings done on paper. The final piece is sealed with multiple coats of varnish, although “much touching up happens all along.”

By striking a balance between preservation and decay, a wall-mounted piece from 1990, demonstrates the art of reclamation inherent in Bartek’s assemblages. “Souvenir of a Secret Sacred Place” is approximately two feet square, and the composition is divided into three main planes that gain significance through interaction with one another. Along the top, Bartek has glued a vertical row of narrow wood scraps to create an organic pattern that may suggest a band of prairie grasses, the bark of a tree, or the corrugated surface of an outbuilding. Although the organic, irregular wooden scraps suggest the natural process of decay, Bartek has painted them in a somewhat unnatural shade of blue, and has tightly restrained and controlled the overall outline. He has interrupted the lines of this band with a square cutout placed slightly off-center, containing two small rocks, which look out like eyes. Directly above, on top of the band, two wooden twigs protrude, like chimneys or horns. Bartek has pulled the blue of this band from the plane at the lower left, a painted image of an evergreen tree in snow incongruously overlaid with pink roses and walnut leaves, all against a blue sky. On a stucco rectangle on the right, a flattened work glove is contrasted with a row of buttons. The glove is painted with the same blue as the plaster background, which both merges it into its context and highlights its outline, drawing focus to its original function: a practical piece of clothing used to protect the hand while gardening or keep it warm while working.

In “Souvenir of a Secret Sacred Place,” Bartek unapologetically assembles the bits and pieces of contemporary life seemingly without concern for high or low distinctions, holding forth the artifacts to preserve and transform them. The result is a mélange in which unlike objects appear to be degrading at differing rates. Each slides toward dissolution on separate inclines, a frozen moment in time when natural elements have been fixed by artifice and manufacture.

If this representative piece dates from twenty-some years ago, Bartek laments that he has “only” created about twenty-five new pieces since the start of the new century. He has titled two of these newer pieces “The End of the Line,” and another “End of the Song” to signal, in his usual tongue-in-cheek way, his awareness of the point he occupies on the trajectory of his long and productive career.

Bartek has described his assemblages as spiritual travelogues, and the process as an intuitive reworking of found fragments, bits and pieces of dissolving archetypes that, reassembled, evoke and assume new meanings—both for the artist and the viewer. A face emerges from an arrangement of bones and twigs. The stripped branch of a tree turns into the finely molded leg of a deer. A row of wood scraps becomes a wheat field blowing in the wind. Aware of the rich visual lexicon of the American contemporary period, Bartek whimsically juxtaposes not only humble materials but subtle signs and symbols. He invites viewers to use their own experiences in working out the associations his art evokes, even as he sorts through his own obsessions.

By mixing overlooked objects—gloves, buttons, twigs—from what some might see as overlooked landscapes (the American Midwest, or “flyover country”) into his art, he gently forces us to reconsider our preconceptions about the value of place. Bartek is reclaiming the worth of the land, the worth of the past, in art that transforms artifacts into something new. In a recent interview, he said, “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.” Whatever this power is, it encompasses such natural processes as preservation, regeneration, transformation, devolution, and entropy. Bartek’s role as conduit, as participant in the active exchange between artist, viewer, and materials, is best reflected in the remarkable achievement of his assemblages.

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*Photos © Tom Bartek
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Poet James Cihlar. Photo by Brad StaufferJames Cihlar is the author of the poetry books Rancho Nostalgia (Dream Horse Press, 2013) and Undoing (Little Pear Press, 2008), and the chapbooks A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter (Bloom, 2013), What My Family Used, (Artichoke Press, 2013), and Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press, 2010). His writing has been published in the American Poetry Review, The Awl, Court Green, Smartish Pace, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Lambda Literary Review, and Forklift, Ohio.

Photo by  Brad Stauffer.