During a recent visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, we went to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Entering an art museum, you never know what you might learn or what creative thoughts will strike. No different during this visit. A quote by Rick Bartow, a prominent contemporary Native American artist, struck a chord.

“My life is work. Work is the blessing.” – Rick Bartow

I went to an art museum and learned about the blessing of work.

Rick Bartow was not the reason for our visit to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, but he left an impact in with his simple quote along with his art.

As to why this quote hit me, I am not completely sure. The first sentence seems straightforward and honest, and the second sentence delivers a zinger – work is a blessing.

Who Is Rick Bartow?

Rick Bartow is an artist. As with most, his story is not that simple. Rick’s art reflects his Native American roots and, likely, his life story as a college graduate, Vietnam veteran, alcoholic, father, and musician. None of this in any order, as his story is more messy than linear.

Rick reflected on a low point in his life:

“A local man saved my life, basically, kicking me pretty well down the waterfront with his cowboy boots. I was horrified and embarrassed to realize I had hit bottom. I stumbled home a bloody mess. I woke up with the pillow stuck to my face. Knots all over the top of my head, one eye closed, teeth busted. Everything you look like after a good drunken brawl. I needed a lesson.”

Rick joined Alcoholics Anonymous, beginning a life of sobriety, while his mother recovered the Bronze Star he had earned yet threw away.

The next chapter of his life highlighted his art and a Portland, Oregon, gallerist may have had a lot to do with this. Charles Froelick meshed with Rick Bartow almost immediately during an art showing, becoming quick friends.

Charles reflected:

“Rick knew how to compose with graphic and lyric strength and beauty. He knew and expressed his vulnerabilities with humor and poignancy. He was an unassuming fellow and did not have airs of importance or elitism about his art making. He was not desperate for fame.”

“He was inspiring; he was intellectually and esthetically challenging, and he was not afraid of making tough work, nor afraid of beauty and engagement.”

A messy, artful life.

Our life stories impact our work, and our work impacts our life story. Maybe this is how these two simple statements came together powerfully.

Life Is Work

We miss the humble fact that life is work. We want the easiest street possible. No upward struggles. No detours. No potholes. What we find is that others create challenges for us. More than this, we create our own situations that drag us down.

No matter what happens in life, life is work. We need to work to keep our story between the lines of going off the edge and driving the distance of possibility. We need to do the work.

I imagine Rick knew this fact. His experiences told him so.

Jill Hartz, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art Executive Director and co-curator of Rick’s large retrospective, offered this insight on his work:

“Rick Bartow’s work was all about relationships, how the worlds of nature, humans, and spirit connect, influence, and balance one another.”

We begin to see how life is work. Many relationships and connections and we need to find the right balance between them all. Our responsibility is to do the work.

Work Is the Blessing

All this work in life sounds tough, and it is. Rick then hits us with the kicker – Work is the blessing.

A blessing? Doesn’t it seem more like a curse?

We get caught in this trap.

Why me?

Do I have to do this?

Does it have to be this hard?

Can I just skirt by?

When we shift to thinking of our work as a blessing, we can feel our whole mind shift. The shift is one of a knowing smile that this can be fun. If we approach what comes our way as a gift to learn, grow, and become who we are supposed to be and the life we are trying to design, we embrace our work in joy.

When our purpose fits our place, and our place fits our purpose, brilliance happens.



What I realize is we need place and purpose to agree to achieve real work-as-a-blessing. When our purpose fits our place, and our place fits our purpose, brilliance happens. We work hard, yet we are in a positive flow. Purpose is what we do, and place is where we do it. Think work and organizational culture. Our why, what, how, and where align in a messy, wonderful way!

Work Is a Gift

Rick hit it home:

“We all are given a gift. My job is to be an artist. As I tell my son, who’s a hip-hop artist — I told him early on that we were given a blessing, and we were given a curse. Because sometimes it’s not much fun, but you have to do it.”

We are given the gift of the ability to work and do the work. We have our talents to use.

Does this mean we need to work all the time? Of course not. We need to find the right balance, especially when we add in family, friends, and community. Add in time for nature breaks and time to renew, and we know our work requires us to leave it all behind from time to time.

“Work is the blessing” is an attitude shift. Rather than being drudgery, work opens what is possible within us and how we can bring a spirited spring in others.

Work is not always fun, but it is what we are built to do.

Work Is Transformational

Rick’s art “captures the almost unbearable beauty of the moment of transformation.” Bob Hicks with the Oregon ArtsWatch made this observation. For me, this is a fitting description not only of his art but his two-sentence statement – “My life is work. Work is the blessing.”

Between the two sentences, a transformation happens. Work as a blessing is a transforming thought. Our challenge is to do the work in which we sweat and smile in concert with each other.