Artist Kramer saw his destiny and pursued it

September 20, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Portrait of the artist as a young man: Reuben Kramer, in the springtime of his 85th year, wanders through this room at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, his hair in the familiar Prince Valiant cut, his clothing slightly outsized, his adoring friends and the very history of his life gathered all around him.

He's smiling gently, and looking slightly awed. He's the most honored Maryland sculptor of his lengthy time, an esteemed international figure for more than half a century, and yet he seems slightly disbelieving, like a child at his first birthday party who can't imagine that so many people have shown up just to embrace him.

All around these rooms are the products of Kramer's life, the sculpture, the portraits, the history of this man who's done what the rest of us only dream about: He's lived his life on his own terms. And he's created a vision of life from nothing, and the vision will last forever.

"All he's ever needed, his art provided," the artist Amalie Rothschild was saying last week as the new exhibit, "Reuben Kramer: A Sculptor's Life" opened at the Jewish Historical Society, on Lloyd Street just off Lombard. "He knew his destiny, and he never wavered."

"This Methuselah of Baltimore artists," Richard Randall, former director of the Walters Art Gallery, called him.

"He brings to the world the best we have to offer," said Richard Lansburgh, chairman of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

"A remarkably independent man," added state Sen. Julian Lapides.

Independent, because he discovered the great secret of a happy life: Find something you love, and embrace it. He's done it all his life now, long enough for fulfillment, long enough for honors, long enough so that, on an afternoon not so long ago, at his Bolton Hill studio, looking back over his life, he remarked, "And then I got another award. For something, I don't know. . . ."

He shrugged his shoulders and smiled impishly. He is the most self-effacing of men, and yet, as it comes to everyone at certain times of life, he wonders: How much, finally, does the work count? Was he as good as he wanted to be?

The new exhibit, which will run through next February, is a declaration of a life brilliantly spent, from the model for the Thurgood Marshall statue that now graces the federal courthouse, to the quick sketches Kramer --es off for diversion.

"The studio has always been the primary factor in his life," the artist Jacob Glushakow, who's known Kramer for 50 years, was remembering the other day.

"I remember when Reuben and his wife lived in an old parish

house on Eutaw Place. The living conditions were like substandard housing. It was essentially a cold-water flat with a pot-bellied stove, with no insulation in any of the walls. But he had his art."

It consumed him. He hasn't been to a movie for 30 years, can't imagine sitting through television. When he finds himself with "nothing to do, I do a self-portrait."

Amalie Rothschild remembered Kramer "living in a former stable on Biddle Street. He paid $10 a month for 25 years. It was like a bit of Paris," she laughed, "until urban renewal moved him to Bolton Hill, where he decorated with cigar boxes and fruit crates. The first year he had to pay an income tax, he proudly celebrated."

Richard Randall recalled a Kramer demonstration of sculpting for a crowd outside the Walters gallery. The subject was William Donald Schaefer, then mayor of Baltimore.

"It was difficult to get the mayor to sit still," Randall said, "unless there were enough voters watching. It took Reuben about 10 minutes to get the mayor. And it was the most amazing likeness of him, except it didn't say a word."

To many, that's one of the appeals of Kramer: His work looks like the people it's supposed to look like, whether it's Thurgood Marshall or John Kennedy or Golda Meir. Jacob Glushakow, noting such things, remembered telephone calls with Kramer which became mutual therapy, "where we'd talk about museum exhibits where there's a pile of sand, or bricks on the floor, and they call this modern art."

But no other artists need to be denigrated in order to boost Kramer's work. He's a marvel. And there he was last week, surrounded by the things he's created, and the people who love him, in the springtime of his 85th year.

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