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Interview with: Edsel Cramer
Interviewed by: Interviewer's Name
Date: May 1, 1975
Archive Number: OH 032
INTERVIEWER: I believe we have talked about it before, but would you tell me a little bit about your background and training.
CRAMER: I started out in Houston sort of by shear accident. I didn’t have any kind of idea of what being an artist would entail. I didn’t go to art school. I went to art school later, but not right away. I went to high school here in Houston.
INTERVIEWER: Which one?
CRAMER: At Jack Yates High. They didn’t teach art. Art wasn’t on the curriculum. The had what they called mechanical drawing, but there was just no encouragement in high school, except for the teachers who would say: “Hey, you want to make a poster for me, or draw some things on the board?” I just started to draw. Harry Wagner saw that I had this ability and just used it for whatever. I remember that something always irritated me about being asked to paint. For some reason, I had all these impulses to say no. I always wanted to say: “No, I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to.” I would always excuse myself. I don’t have to pay for this. It was always that I never wanted to. I think that this stayed with me. I think with, probably, all of the so-called creative parts, you ask to perform a thing and it is kind of embarrassing to have to get up and perform on command. That is what it was. I just resented this being asked. I thought that probably what really came over me was that, for no apparent reason, I just felt like painting some days. Other days I didn’t. These days when I really felt like it, I guess it was like a housewife getting the desire to do spring-cleaning. (speaking together). You just didn’t do it until you felt like it. When you felt that, it was the most satisfying thing you could ever do. I think the question was about my background.
In high school, there was just practically nothing except for these things I mentioned. Somehow my mother went to Chicago to a worlds fair, way back in the 1930s. She came back with the idea that this Art Institute in Chicago was the most beautiful place. She saw the most beautiful paintings. She told me all about it. It was, kind of––to my imagination––the place to go. In addition to that, the museum people there saw a whole batch of drawings I took over there. They suggested Chicago as a place to stay. They didn’t mention school. I had planned that I wanted to be an illustrator. I went to some of these commercial art schools that look really slick, you know. They had some restrictions about Negroes studying art. As a result of all of that, my choice was the Art Institute, which was the only school that didn’t have this restriction about Negroes. It was a blessing in disguise. I really got more out of that school than I would have ever gotten out of these commercial schools. I saw great paintings. On the spot, they would combine the museum and the school in the basement or the back. While you were a student there, and studying, you could always take off and go upstairs and look at what Picasso did, or what Rembrandt did, and have the old masters like El Greco. It is a great collection that they have there. You could benefit from the on-hand art supply. The genuine article, rather than transient collections that have to take off and go to museums on side trips. I don’t think that I realized, at that point, what a great school it was. It was just there. I had nothing to compare it to. After meeting people like Hugh Natey, there in Chicago––they all said that New York was the place. Everything is big there, and it is the place to make it in this industry. You should go there. While I did go to New York, it was a place, and it was an exciting city, but none of the art schools ever measured up to the Art Institute––none of them. One of the things that did measure up would be the museums, the galleries, and just being in the city itself. They have such an enormous collection of museums and art galleries to look into. The Whitney, the Flick, you name it, the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, and all of these were centralized and located in New York City. The great galleries where really some tremendous people like Rosenberg and Wildenstein. There was this very famous French artist. He has an old name––started to draw little rabbits and things––Matisse; they had a Matisse gallery.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the Navy in between. Did you go to the Navy after you went to the Art Institute?
CRAMER: This is what happened. I went to the Art Institute. I was there for about a semester or a year. I was drafted. I was 19 years old and I was interrupted. I left from there. Being in the Great Lakes–which is very close by Chicago–I was able to come in nights and continue. The Navy helped me in a lot of ways. It made me more universal. Before, I was probably more ivory-tower. I was art-minded. Art was my lore and my life. My friends were all artists. That can make you a weird kind of person. Art adjusts to real life. In the Navy, I was probably the weirdest guy there, because everybody else was off of the street. I learned a lot of things. I enjoyed trying to get into naval life. Once they discovered that you had this talent for drawing, they put you all the way back into that little world. Instead of marching around, I would just sit there and draw. This is what happened instead. Again, like in high school, just using you because you had this talent.
INTERVIEWER: What did they use you for in the Navy?
CRAMER: They just used me in social life. If they wanted to throw out a naval officer, they would send me do a portrait of him, you know as a, sort of, complements and so-and-so. It impressed them, the ability. I was a musician, and I would be playing for an officer’s dance. I would get to entertain the admiral. This was a bit of an opportunity to practice with my craft. I would have special privileges. I didn’t get very much money for this, just special considerations. I took care of all these special people in a way that they would give me special quarters to live in, liberty every night, and stuff like that.
INTERVIEWER: You went to New York after you left the Navy?
CRAMER: After I left the Navy, I went to Hawaii and I became kind of—I had the GI bill and all of the money that I had saved and made, and I took off for New York City. I had Chicago behind me, and I was able to adjust to big cities. I wasn’t out of the woods. I knew how to maneuver in a city without being--Everybody thought that I was a New Yorker.They didn’t know that what gave me this edge was the life in Chicago. I did some pretty dumb things in Chicago. I mean I didn’t even know how to come in out of the rain, or whatever. A fellow said something like: “When you go to Chicago, be sure to get yourself an elevator or it is just Hell.” I thought he meant an elevator I could go up in a building. He said those cab drivers will cut your throat. I thought he meant an elevator.
INTERVIEWER: What did you do when you got to New York? You were saying it, sort of, didn’t really compare to Chicago as far as the school.
CRAMER: I don’t think the schools are any better in New York. I honestly think they were not as good. In Chicago, for me, I would say, at the very delicate age of 17 or 18, I had somebody who looking after me. They cared whether I came to class. They had a person in the class who would call the role. They made sure that I did homework. It was like a school. In New York, it was more like a workshop. You paid the money, and after that, nobody cared whether you got there or not. The fellows with the GI bill, they had a report. You can just sign up and collect the money. Once you had answered the role, nobody cared whether you were making it in the grade, goofing off, or having yourself a really heavy night. Once you answered to much, you could take off. If you answered the role call, you would just leave. They really didn’t care. In that sense, if you were not dedicated or grown up enough, you might just squander yourself and your talent. Because of the Art Institute and because of Chicago, I had a foundation. I feel it was necessary to have. I could go there and work within my own work plan. I wouldn’t have to have somebody looking over my shoulder. I think that this helped me. Soon I realized that what New York was, in the way of a school, was a museum. The whole city was a school. In other words it wasn’t just the building or the classroom. Have you ever been to New York?
INTERVIEWER: No I haven’t.
CRAMER: Well, you see, this is really an experience. It is like going to Europe for the first time. Once you go to Europe, you realize how much New York has tried to become a European city. In the sense of, first the architecture evolving--not today, but early concepts of buildings were all based on European buildings. Apartments were built like the European apartment buildings. The whole atmosphere of indifference is like what you would find in Paris. It is busy, busy. A lot of the sophisticated people, you know, who are in ballet and symphonies all had European ties.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you stay in New York?
CRAMER: From 1946 until about 1951––so that is about 5 years.
INTERVIEWER: Did you come back to Houston?
CRAMER: No, I left New York City on a bus and went all the way to San Francisco. I had some money. I thought: “I am going get a long bus ticket,” you know? I just enjoyed watching the length of the ticket. I thought this will never—I will never use this up. You tear off Albany, Chicago, and this place. It was absolutely unannounced that I showed up on the west coast. My concept was that I had been to New York. I had talked art. I had been there. I had gone to museums. I related to people who talked nothing but art, talked about painting, talked about what they were going to do. Everybody talked, talked, talked, talked over coffee and philosophized about art and what they were going to be, what art was supposed to do, and what the world was waiting for, and all that. I thought instead of talking and planning all this, the thing to do would be to find someplace that had not been so saturated and operate there––some virgin place, I thought. I thought that California would be that sort of place. They were busy trying to become New York. They were busy with anything New York, and trying to be everything that New York was being and New York compared it to.
It still gave me a chance to do things I never would have done before, like go out on the street and paint. I could set up the easel. That was really a fine experience. I found that there were people on the street, and the kids all loved to see what you were doing. They would crowd around and they would give it some comment. They would keep each other from interfering with it. They would say: “Hey! Don’t stand too close to him. Let him work. Get out of his way. He can’t see through you. You are blocking his view.” They would go on like that. It was really fine. I thought that it was—I felt like I was––making history. I really did. Everybody––I think that every painter at that time used to talk about what Picasso and Van Gough and all the famous painters had as far as some kind of fellowship and sense of a colony. They were all, kind of, working together, preparing themselves, preparing thoughts with each other, criticizing each other, giving each other strength, and all that. It was a real spur to comradery, or whatever. It was fine. I think that everybody was trying to do that there. It was a part of the romance––the romance of being a real painter. You had to starve a little bit. You had to become dedicated, and suffer, and all that. It was probably––I felt it was a myth and an artistic thing.
San Francisco, believe it or not, is a very romantic city––even today in spite of all the modern times. They have an underground railway system, jet airlines and all that, and TV. They still have the terrain. The city has a set, kind of, endless setting of some hills and things; Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Twin Peaks, and a few other hills. This is still a part of the—the Golden Gate is a still a romantic site. I mean, you look at it and feel things. The Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Warf––all these things are still very satisfying to tourism and to people who live there. While you are living there, you never get over the things that tourist people would do. You never get tired of going across the bridge, you know. I don’t know you don’t get used to that. The fog rolling in, you can see it just like a monster rolling right through the bridge of the Golden Gate; it just comes in and it is like a low, heavy cloud. When the sun is shining on it, you can see it. All of a sudden, it has covered everything and you are inside of it. The sounds around the bay are very romantic.
INTERVIEWER: That’s fine. It’s fine.
CRAMER: It is okay now?
CRAMER: After that, San Francisco was—I told you about New York and how New York people were in attitude. San Francisco made you think of New York. Everything you would think of was compared to what you had done in New York City. What happened, was that I had an opportunity to take a drive back to New York City. A fellow wanted me to help him drive. I took off and went back to New York City. That is the way I got over it. I think you have to leave it and become, you know, out of your mind with homesickness for New York, and then go back. Once you do that it is all over. It is like going back in a marriage. You get a divorce, you get remarried, and then you are finally over it. Anyway, I am over it. What I did one cold day in New York City, was I decided I was going to come to Houston, where it was warm. I did, and I swear it was like the trees––I had never seen in my life. It was just so beautiful to me––every tree on the block. I could make a conversation about it, the sunshine shining on these trees. In the winter they are kind of bare and all you see is the stems and the branches. You don’t see any leaves. The skeleton of the tree is what I’m talking about. I was just beautiful. I raved about the skeletons in the trees until the spring, and then finally the hot summer. What do you want to know about Houston?
INTERVIEWER: What did you do when you got back to Houston? Did you continue to paint? What did you get into once you got here?
CRAMER: The first thing that I did, is that I went over to Texas Southern University, and met some very influential people the very first day I got back. I had 2 paintings with me from New York City. This woman, who has a very large collection of paintings, said: “Send for the rest of your things. I want to see all of them.” I packed them all up and took them over to River Oaks. She invited all of her friends over to see these, just, gaubs of every sort of…
INTERVIEWER: Would you mind telling me who she was?
CRAMER: Her name was Mackashan, but she is not involved with the art world. She simply has money. She got me commissions here and there and introduced me people. I was off-and-going in Houston. This didn’t help me, because people without all this money got frightened away from me. They thought: “If he is painting the Mackashans and the other rich people, we can’t afford him.” That was the outcome of my Houston stay. I have been either too over-priced or under. In most cases, I was under-priced for the rich people and over-priced for the poor people.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that Houston is a good place for artists? Just for people starting (speaking together).
CRAMER: Art, as you say––in the purest sense for the artist––Houston or any place is good. It doesn’t matter. If you are talking about the money, the money is here. The opportunity and the need is here. The need for artistic thought, imagination, and all that is certainly here. All the people that I know could stand to benefit from more art rather than less art. Houston is, I think, an excellent city for a career.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a particular style you use in your artwork, or is there a style that you feel particularly at home in?
CRAMER: My style has, sort of, evolved. I feel that when I am out of my style, I know I am not working in the right vein. I have tried different things. If I tried to do abstract painting or some kind of creative, non-objective sort of approach to something, I would feel that while I was doing it I was intellectualizing about it. I am not really in it spiritually, you know. Whenever I am away from my true so-called spiritual thing, I do find myself, what I call, intellectualizing with it. My style is that I have to feel it. I have to feel natural about it. I have to feel like I am doing what I feel is beautiful and what is natural for me. I do what I call is realistic, I think, if you could describe it that way.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel that, as a black artist, you have a special message, you know, that you need to communicate to the world and to society?
CRAMER: Well, not really. I just think of myself as a person, first of all. That sounds dumb and, kind of, put on. I do feel that, number 1, I have never felt, except for when people talk about it, this ‘black feeling’ that you are talking about. I have never really felt that in any sense of food, what I say, how I think about saying, or what my reaction to things would be. I have never related that to spiritual blackness or my own personal blackness. I have never felt that I could put my finger on anything that was black and separate even. I could say that I have made comments about individuals and friends of mine. I will say something like—I will generalize and say: “Maybe white people are very organized.” I will say some outrageous thing like this. Some white people are very organized, but not all white people. Likewise, if I went on to cover all these things, I could say: “black people are unorganized––but not all of them.” I would have to verify.
That sense of organization, this completeness, this sense of being exacting—somebody was telling me earlier today that somebody who worked in sculpture was never really successful because they couldn’t do 2 things the same way. If you have 2 things to do––if I had 5 children to paint, I would get tired of the project before I could get all 5 painted. Nobody would look alike. I couldn’t get my mood or my style to stay put for 5 heads of 5 people in a family. I would bore myself before I got to the end of the 5. This repetition and this doing it over and over is what I find might be lacking in my makeup. I find that it works against my whole success. I am compelled to change it. If I had an idea, I wouldn’t keep that idea. I don’t know if that is bad, but it is certainly my own temperament.
INTERVIEWER: In your association with other artists, particularly black artists, do you feel—some artists do feel that they have a special message because they are black. Do you think other artists that you have associated with feel that way?
CRAMER: Yeah, a lot of painters have started out with the idea that they have to make some kind of social comment. It is like taking a religion, and saying that you want to find the truth in the world. I don’t think that is necessary. I don’t think that finding the truth is any more important than painting a message. If you said that if a man can’t learn from the message of the trees, the sunshine, the water, the birds, life itself, all these animals, and so fourth, if you can’t learn from that, I don’t think you are going to learn anything from a picture. I don’t think you are going to learn anything from a painting. Do you understand what I am saying? In other words I think that if you can’t learn the wonder and the beauty of life from watching all these things, you are going to look at a picture of a flower and learn anything or a picture of a man with his––I don’t know. I remember seeing murals in the early Mexican revolutions, and things. They were strong and powerful. I felt like, wow, they were strong and powerful. I never got any lasting feeling from any of those murals. I always felt that even the Michelangelo murals in the Sistine Chapel don’t say anything to me, except the artwork. In one in particular, God creating Adam and man is beautiful. It is hard to say that I don’t feel one thing. I don’t understand how the whole enormous work and its 4-5 years to complete fail to say anything to me. That tells you something about me, but I just didn’t feel it.
INTERVIEWER: How has the art market in Houston been? Is there a demand for art in Houston?
CRAMER: I think that with people coming into houses and moving into a townhouse, and whatever, the sense of decorations and having to equip these houses with furniture and paintings, there certainly is a demand. It is a very wonderful opportunity. I am not into that, but I would like to probably later get into that.
INTERVIEWER: What about as far as patrons are concerned? Do you have wealthy patrons supporting you? Are they here?
CRAMER: I used to know quite a lot of wealthy people. I don’t know as many now as I used to know. Again, my idea of wealth—I am still floating around some place. I haven’t really gotten into what I am supposed to do about myself in relation to all these people. I know that when people talk to me about what I should be doing, and if I really wanted to work. I have had people say: “Well you could be a rich man if you really got down to work.” All my life I have been working, but somehow it never turned out to be anything rich. I just said that they couldn’t imagine it. I am thinking that if I could get interested in it, to the degree that I get interested in other things, I probably could become rich. That is what I can’t force. I can’t pretend to be interested when I am not. There was a point where, maybe, my interest in art was very idealistic, and I wanted to know the very essence of what was making things good and why they were good. When I was this way nobody cared about whether they were good or not. They didn’t care about whether they were profound. Now what you are asking me is: Could I ever get to care again whether they are profound? Maybe one day I will, but now I am playing golf and making my diversions. I find myself happier being on a, kind of, less serious vein about myself and about art. I find myself, probably, happier and more profound than I would be if I was dwelling on it and carrying a paintbrush with me every day, and living the art scene.
INTERVIEWER: From your association with other artists, do you know of any people who go after these artists or support the artists as far as money is concerned?
CRAMERE: Oh yeah, there are lots of very ambitious people who seem to be better connected, and very well connected and respected, and so fourth. I think that—I don’t know them––but just from hearsay. People like the very wealthy types, the Rockefellers, the Duponts, and so fourth, have done some very fine patronizing to people who were deserving. I have hope, I just don’t know them myself. I don’t have any super rich friends. I don’t like what has to happen with you. First you have to go there and hope they like you. Hope you make a good impression on them, and bend yourself into so many different ways to make this happen. I can’t stand to do all of that. I just simply can’t go around bending. I don’t say that people are able to see. It’s just that I am not going to go through all that waiting and hoping. Even if I never did make the grade that way, I would still feel that I could go on and do the painting that I feel is important if I am inspired. That is all it takes, just some sort of inspiration. I still have landscapes that I haven’t painted. I have things that I haven’t scratched the surface with.
INTERVIEWER: I know here in Houston we often think of the Mount Rose area as the Mecca for artists. Is that so?
CRAMER: No, that is absolutely not so. The Mount Rose is a play line for the rich guys, the queer people, and those that just want to escape. I think that is about all it is. It is a Mecca for, you know, restaurants, the girly shows, and health food places. I think if you really analyze the city—I was in Berkeley, California before I came to Houston, Texas. It is the same situation there. It is great for people who find out about themselves and experiment with this type of thing and that type of thing. That is the proving ground. I think that is what it is. It is just to exercise and escape your roots. A lot of people have found themselves in one way or another. They experiment a little bit with this and a little bit with that. A little dope experimentation or a lot, or whatever. It gives people a chance to—it is better than Pasadena for a lot of people. They leave Spring Branch or they come away from River Oaks, or whatever, and do their thing for awhile. I’m not sure that it is too hicky still. There are a lot of people in the Mount Rose area that are just plain redneck in attitude and poor white trash. The rest are all kinds of blending of the Mexican Puerto Ricans and the whole assortment and melting pot of people. These are people who have tolerated each other pretty well. They are not artistic minded. They are not wealthy. They don’t have the money to support an artist colony. It is still the people in from the River Oaks and the homes that are going to buy the paintings, buy the furniture, and buy the big cars like the Mercedes and the Cadillacs and the rest. Those are the people that have to support the arts.
INTERVIEWER: Are the artists in Houston pretty independent, or do you sort of run in cliques?
CRAMER: I think they are awful. They are just simply awful. I think Houstonians, if they have a little thing, they just simply don’t need anybody else. I was talking about that earlier. I used to know people, the big name people that you know here. I enjoyed knowing them. I would see them every Sunday. Not a Sunday would go by, that we would get together and eat beans and talk and drink whiskey, or whatever. We would discuss each other and talk about it, criticize each other, build each other up, and praise each other. It was really wonderful. I had the sense of belonging and learning from this experience. Now I don’t see anybody who paints. I run into them at the museum, or we are having a drink at the opening and that is it.
CRAMER: Why is that? It is not that I have changed. I never change. I just simply think that people don’t quite understand. I think that there was a great—if you go to the museum on opening night, you will see it is conspicuous––the absence of all of the black people. I don’t know why. Except, if it is an African exhibit you will see all of them. Again, it is this thing about show-up at the black events and support black thinking, black art, and all that. Not to integrate into the total art scene. I don’t think that—I can’t explain it, except that there might be a—At Texas Southern there used to be quite a group that used to get together and do murals and very strong pictures. They didn’t get in the universal sense of they didn’t show up to the museum openings and they didn’t get involved with the museum. Maybe they were mad at the museum, or the museum didn’t need this element. It could be selling sick with the museum. I’m not sure what it is. I am thinking that somehow the—like Alvia that you talked to. She is with the museum. There is the sense that they are very proud of having Alvia. Is she is a token person? I can’t say that, I think she is a very capable person. Certainly the museum needs such a capable person. It is just that I am searching out true deep-down motives. What is the museum’s attitude about? I think the attitude at the museum is like the attitude at the schools, or whatever. Just a second.
What I think, is that all of these brackets, and so fourth, that we are talking about, like museums and this and that––Alvia comes with very good credentials. The credentials are such, that any person without these credentials probably would not be regarded so highly. If you take your kid and you put them in a school like Wellesley or put him in some other Houston school––Houston, because of the situation with San Francisco, still has complexes about itself. They feel that in order for it to be any good it has to be imported from somewhere else. It is so tragic, that I think that this has to run its course. All the schools and everything else will reach out. I have even heard people in Houston say: “We would like to do a big statue downtown somewhere, but we cannot get anybody local. It has to be a national figure. A national big name person.” This is what has happened with the architecture and everything else. The really big commissions, like the museum itself, was somebody from a New York base, Mies van der Rohe. He is a big name to design the museum of fine arts. I don’t feel that he relates to the museum, or the Houston scene, or the history, or the background of Houston. It is too bad. I’m not criticizing that or throwing stones at it. It is just that this is what, in essence, is wrong with Houston. It is not aware of itself yet. To be aware of yourself and to be aware of what a Texas sky looks like. We were talking about this one day. If you are not aware of the Texas sky, you still have a lot of awareness to acquire.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking about commissions and big name wars. How did you happen to get the commission to do Barbara Jordan’s painting?
CRAMER: She called around. She went to Texas Southern, I’m sure, first. She talked to Dr. Baker. He probably recommended me. I talked to her. Then I went over to Austin with a few things. I talked to some people in Austin and either she said I like him or—I don’t remember what exactly happened. It was okayed, and I did it. I liked her, and we got along. I wish I could paint her again. She is a…
INTERVIEWER: (speaking together) How did you feel when you were approached to do it? You said you like her.
CRAMER: How did I feel?
INTERVIEWER: That initial approach that you are going to do the biggie. You are going to paint Barbara Jordan. (speaking together)
CRAMER: I didn’t think of it as a biggie. I never did, because I painted so many people. I could tell you some funny stories about biggies. They were talking about biggies. Go on, we were talking about Barbara. I started to talk to her. I knew who she was. There wasn’t any question whether or not—I feel like you get a chance to do a crucifixion. Every painter, whether he is religious or not, has some idea how he would do it. If he should happen to be asked to do a crucifixion in a church, there is, down inside of you, a crucifixion in your mind. In your essence there is a crucifixion and what the crucifixion must be like. If I had an opportunity to paint Barbara, now that I have known her, it would probably be better than the one that I painted. Now that I have met her, understood her dynamics, her personality, her softness, the subtly in her mind, and everything, I feel even more respect for her. I think all this would have to show. She is a busy person. That is the only thing--I am an antsy person who has got to do it, got to get it, and, you know, keep at it. I am always in a hurry, and I am furious. I’m not a slow and take-it-easy, by-and-by, you know, I’m just really out there moving. I have to do it really quick and work at it. With a person who is certainly in a hurry, and their time is very valuable…
INTERVIEWER: Has anything changed since you did her painting? Have more people come to you (speaking together)
CRAMER: No, again, I think it is a question that they are frightened by the experience. There are a lot of people who like her, respect her, and they certainly would want to praise me if they should meet me. I have met people at museums that said: “Well, I don’t like her politics. I am a conservative.” They will come up to me with a drink in their hand and say: “That was certainly a great painting you did of Barbara.” It has changed my life, but it hasn’t snowballed. I didn’t expect that. I think that, you know, things don’t happened that way. I don’t know, they might happen that way in movies. If I was an actor in Hollywood and did one movie, and it was a good movie, I might get a chance to do another movie. The source and the individuals are not as, I don’t know, efficient. They will talk, and they will think a long time. I have no attitudes about it. If it happens, let it happen. If not, I’m not going to worry over it.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking, a little bit before, about Houston, not thinking it was good enough, and not realizing its own talent. How do the Houston museums compare to the museums elsewhere as far as their collections etc.
CRAMER: The question of Houston comparing to other places, you would have to say to New York City…
INTERVIEWER: Right, and Chicago.
CRAMER: Chicago. What happened is that the money people in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston started out to buy all the art in the world. By the time they went through Europe and bought everything that you could find that famous artists had painted, they got the cream of the crop. In Houston by the time they grew up to have a museum and to get enough money together to buy all of this stuff, found that there wasn’t anything left to buy. In this sense, probably, they have a better chance to buy modern contemporary work than old masters. From this point of view, from the later point of view––the contemporary, modern, not so old––Houston has much opportunity. They will compare with other cities very well and very favorably. Not as much as New York, but still better than San Antonio, bigger than Fort Worth, better than Dallas, and so fourth. Not better than San Francisco or any of these in the old collectors that still—what do you call it when you hog the market the saying.
INTERVIEWER: You know you were saying—back to Houston not realizing its talent. Do you feel that Houston has its share of top-notch artists?
CRAMER: Not really. I don’t think they have, because they are still not leading anything. They are still afraid to lead. In order to believe, you just have to get out there and take a chance on somebody unknown. If you aren’t even willing to do that, and make people, discover people, and say: “Here is our person,” and make this person a big name like the all the Warhols, and Andy Warhols, the this and that, and the Bet Midlers. All that happened in New York. They don’t happen here. They don’t want to take any chance on anybody they don’t know about. They can’t lead or they can’t create anything here, because they want to copy whatever New York does or whatever Chicago does or someplace else. That is tragedy, because Houston has the money. They have so much money here to do all of this. If somebody comes up with something they have never seen, they sit around, and they don’t go to the experts and see what they think of this. They try to decide. Squabbling about some statue that none of them have ever seen. I saw a picture of it.
INTERVIEWER: Oh right. The one on…
CRAMER: It is somewhere on West (speaking together)
INTERVIEWER: It is three-dimensional and they decided it wasn’t good art. It was distasteful.
CRAMER: Right, exactly.
INTERVIEWER: Do artists really have a good outlet here? You said Houston doesn’t like to take a chance on artists. Is Houston good, you know, do they have good outlets for artist things? Is it best that they go somewhere else?
CRAMER: No, it isn’t. I think the outlet is okay. I think what has to happen with the artists, to Houston and the artists, is that you have to keep having galleries that are not dictating to the artists. For instance, if you had a gallery that was going to dictate to you and tell you: “Look we know what is going to sell. We know that if you paint this and if you paint that, it will really sell.” The gallery knowing, and saying that they know the market and they know what they can sell is, in a sense, saying we have prescribed––we are prescribing––the same kinds of pictures from you because they are sellable. That is death in itself. If I start telling you: “Don’t paint anything that isn’t--Do it more like you did that other one.” You just keep saturating yourself with the same old, same old. It just doesn’t go anywhere. So what if people buy this or that. If they buy flowers, so what? If you do one flower and you get tired of flowers, you keep going, because that is what you have to do to sell. It can’t amount to anything but boredom. Once you get bored, it is going to show. Your work is going to show when you are bored. You know what I am saying? It is like writing. If you don’t write what you like, you can’t write anything that you don’t like.
CRAMER: Hum-drum, ho-ho, and whatever.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of—does Houston have any galleries that don’t dictate and are willing to accept the artist and what he wants to do, rather than what will “sell.”
CRAMER: Yeah, there are little galleries that are off the beaten path that will put up an exhibit by some unheard of people. Nothing will happen. They will sit there. The paintings will show in this unheard-of gallery. They won’t even get the newspapers out to cover it and make it. Nobody comes to look at it. It just sits. If it doesn’t sell, they take it down; the gallery closes up. They try things. They will even have things that are so far in advance that they couldn’t possibly sell. There will be a gallery with maybe a light exhibit. A light show is all right, but it is a light show. It is one of those how can you say I am going to sell this light show when a person hasn’t even graduated to—what did you call it––the three-dimension?
INTERVIEWER: Right, three-dimensional paintings.
CRAMER: The whole thing is one gallery is too advanced and the other is too traditional, one is lagging, one is too far-gone, or too projected. I just think that the time has come to look at what is being shown. Really look at what people are trying to say. If they are trying to say something that is already old fashioned, there is nothing wrong with that. Call it a return to the past, or whatever. They are doing this with furniture, with old clothes, and with everything. There is nothing wrong with going back. I think from going back you kind of re-evaluate the past and then we go on again to another thing. If you look for snobs to support you––that is what the galleries are doing. They are all playing to the snobs. There are fewer snobs than there are people. The people, if they don’t have the money, what else are they going to—I think that everything in your life has touched on art. Whether it is a design on a shirt or what you sit on, your sofa, or the colors on your wall, the kind of bric-a-brac you like around you. That is all a part of your art sense. People are always exercising some choice in design or in color. The color of car you drive or the lines on it.
INTERVIEWER: We have talked, pretty much, about Houston and your background. Is there anything that you would like add, perhaps, that we haven’t covered?
CRAMER: What I would like to say is that I have simply—one day I’m going to start to paint.
INTERVIEWER: And get rich.
CRAMER: No, I don’t know that I will get rich. I am going to start to paint. I’m going to do all the things I want to do––that I have been wanting to do. It may be, that I will be the most conventional painter in the world. I might even start painting landscapes, I don’t know. I just feel that in order to stay with it where you enjoy it—I stopped smoking about 3 years ago. It is just like I started to live all over again. That is the way I feel about easel. I have an easel that I am just in love with. I love my easel. I love the paint. I love mixing paint. I love when I open the tube. I used to paint and hate to open my kit. I hated to wash my brushes. I hated to mix the paint. I hated to get it out of the tubes. The tubes would get stuck and you would have to put a match to fire it up and make it loose. I just hated to paint. This is when I had all sorts of commissions and people seeking me for this and that. I just hated what I was doing. Now I don’t hate it. I love it again.
INTERVIEWER: If, you know, you have no other comments; I would certainly like to say that I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you for taking out your time and adding to our oral history collection.
CRAMER: Very good. Thank you.