Reuben Kramer, a life dedicated to art

Renowned sculptor is dead at age 89

September 27, 1999|By John Murphy and Heather Dewar | John Murphy and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Reuben Kramer, Maryland's most celebrated sculptor who is best known for his touching depictions of the human figure, including portraits of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, died yesterday at College Manor retirement home in Lutherville. He was 89.

Mr. Kramer died of natural causes, College Manor officials said.

Honored with many state, national and international awards, his artwork has been praised by critics for its craftsmanship, humor, vitality and optimism. His drawings and sculptures can be found in the homes of many Baltimore art lovers, but they have also been exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

"I have a list of adjectives I use to describe him -- self-reliant, diligent, economical, frugal, generous, humanitarian, perfectionist, reliable, integrity, commitment to quality and enduring values," said Amalie Rothschild, a Baltimore County artist and a friend of Mr. Kramer's for nearly 60 years.

Of those attributes, his diligence stands out, Mrs. Rothschild said.

"He knew what he wanted to do, and he never looked left or right," she said. "His whole life was art. His only books were biographies of famous sculptors. He never had any other interests."

The son of an East Baltimore tailor, Mr. Kramer rejected his father's wish that he become a doctor or lawyer and was determined at a young age to live a life dedicated to art.

He was driven by a desire to create with his hands. One of his earliest memories was of taking discarded spools from his father's shop and an old cigar box to make a toy wagon. But his artistic interests did not receive the blessing of his family.

"I came from a Jewish family that thought you had to be doctor or a lawyer, but no work with hands," Mr. Kramer said in a 1994 interview.

When he announced he wanted to be an artist, his "father was furious," he recalled.

At 15, before finishing high school, he earned a scholarship to study at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He later studied for seven years at the institute's Rinehart School of Sculpture.

In 1934, he won the coveted Prix de Rome -- a national competition that brought with it two years of expense-paid study at the American Academy in Rome. His winning sculpture, "Dying Centaur," was 7 feet high and 10 feet long and weighed 6 tons. It graced the lobby of Baltimore City College until 1940.

In 1944, Mr. Kramer married Perna Krick, an Ohioan who came to Baltimore in 1927 to study at the Rinehart School. The couple lived for a number of years in a converted stable on Eutaw Place with a cold-water spigot and a potbellied stove. Their rent was $10 a month. One artist, Mrs. Rothschild said, described it as "a bit of Paris."

Mr. Kramer's fortunes changed in 1964 when he received a grant for sculpture from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and began to receive more commissions.

In 1965, the couple designed and built a studio on Mosher Street, where Mr. Kramer often stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning creating portraits, sketches, pieces of sculpture and jewelry.

"When I have nothing to do," he said in another 1994 interview, "I do another self-portrait."

A small man with a Prince Valiant haircut and oversized clothes, Mr. Kramer had no desire for worldly goods. His friends said that he hadn't been to the movies in 30 years and did not watch television or own a car.

"Reuben had one good outfit -- a tweed jacket and brown pants, a tie, white shirt," Mrs. Rothschild recalled.

Mr. Kramer was a meticulous craftsman who made his own sculptor's tools and kept detailed records of all his works, said William R. Johnston, assistant director of the Walters Art Gallery.

He worked in clay, then had many of his larger pieces cast in bronze.

From beginning to end

His sculptures -- there are believed to be about 300 -- went through a rigorous, multi-step process of creation from clay to bronze. Unlike some artists, who leave work to assistants, he participated in his sculpture from beginning to end.

He always said his work was modeled on the late 19th-century French sculptors whom he studied in Europe. But many of his sculptures had a more modern exuberance.

"I think he was as much inspired by Matisse, by the Matisse nudes that were making their first appearance in Paris at the time," Mr. Johnston said.

"I always thought the women looked like Perna, and the men looked like Reuben," said Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute. In a Kramer sculpture, "you really see the modeling of the clay and the work of his hands. That's what makes them recognizably his."

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