Tom Cramer’s Works on Paper: The Framework for Drawings in Wood
by Linda Brady Tesner

One of the most enjoyable benefits of an artist’s midcareer retrospective is the opportunity to see works that never grace a gallery’s walls. Personal works, preliminary drawings, experimentation, products of an artist’s daily practice—these can significantly deepen one’s appreciation for an artist’s more realized works. Yet, because the demands of commerce nearly always trump the subtleties of insight, these more intimate works rarely reach a larger audience.
Such is the triumph of Tom Cramer’s companion exhibitions at the Mark Woolley Gallery and Woolley’s new space at the Wonder Ballroom in northeast Portland. Cramer’s drawings, exhibited here for the first time ever, are critical signifiers for this artist’s creative process in crafting his well-known carved wood panels. For those who remember his roughly hewn chainsawed totem poles, the delicacy of Cramer’s drawing oeuvre may come as a surprise.
The earliest works in the exhibition date from 1973, from Cramer’s childhood, really. Several of the smaller works are line drawings that Cramer made at the tender age of 14, a time when the angst of puberty was compounded by his parents’ divorce. Cramer recalls putting on earphones, listening to music, and drawing in order to escape and cope. Cramer’s mother is an accomplished musician, a piano teacher and church organist; music was ever-present in the Cramer household. Rather than listen to “zit music,” as his mother derisively called the rock and roll of the mid-1970s, Cramer absorbed classical music or jazz from J.S. Bach to Charlie Parker—plus maybe the Beatles or the Doors—as he drew, birthing a lifelong love of music (elements of which appear frequently in the drawings).


These early drawings are marvelously simple line illustrations, mostly figurative uber-doodles limned in the thin contour of a Rapidograph pen. Influences of surrealism and cubism are evident; a single face may have two sets of eyes/nose/mouth; limbs are deconstructed, and the figures conjure no sense of weight in their spaceless plane. Cramer credits John Lawrence, his art teacher at Catlin Gabel School, for introducing him to Picasso, Paul Klee, and German expressionist artists—influences that remain with Cramer today.1
As Cramer moved into making sculpture, both freestanding and reliefs, he continued to use drawing to work through ideas. Many of the works in this exhibition are graphic explorations of themes that have always intrigued this artist: the notion of an inner landscape, the contradictions and polarities inherent in the human psyche, the ambiguousness of sexuality, the surrealism of the subliminal. A drawing (Duet) from 1986 is a good example. In this ink line drawing with colored pencil, Cramer seems to have bifurcated the dual persona of one human being. A realistic figure on the right, wearing a button-down shirt and a staid expression, contrasts with a more fantastic head and torso on the left, an angular visage with three eyes, an exaggerated ear, and geometric protuberances. Cramer made this drawing, like most of his graphic work, on charcoal paper, so the pencil dragging across the paper’s tooth adds texture to the line drawing—as with the artist’s carvings into wood, where the grain enlivens the carving surface.
Other drawings are more overtly graphic, a nod to a period when Cramer was known for eye-popping posters, T-shirts, and the numerous “art cars” that one unfortunately sees less and less frequently on Portland city streets. Cramer’s vocabulary includes the squiggly lines, checkerboard patterns, zigzag forms, and sun/star bursts one expects to see in his earlier relief panels. In many of these drawings, Cramer uses patterns of hatchings and stylized darts to suggest volume. One can imagine the artist’s pen striking at the paper surface—a process not far removed from the repetitive chiseling needed to render Cramer’s wood pieces.

Conductor 1974, 4 x 7, collection Gus Van Sant

As with his past sculptural totemic figures and carved historic portraiture, the figure has been a prominent constant in the past 30-plus years of Cramer’s drawing practice. His human figures combine with all manner of other icons idiosyncratic to the artist—a plant still life, a musical instrument (keyboards and stringed instrument necks appear frequently), geometric patterns, or robotic pipelike elements. The people might have both male and female organs, and frequently have duplicate eyes. Sometimes his figurative drawings, in their disjointed stream-of-consciousness compositions, remind one of the “Exquisite Corpse” drawings of the surrealists—those collaborative pieces where a page is folded over and over, and several artists contribute one section to the composition without knowing what the other artists have already drawn. Surrealism, from the French, literally means “beyond realism,”2 of course, and Cramer’s work fits this description.

Rendezvous 1997, 12 x 9

In the past 10 years, Cramer’s drawings have become even more resolved, echoing the maturation of his wood pieces. Two pilgrimages to India have had a pervasive and lasting effect on Cramer’s work. The use of precious metal gilding, the mandala-like compositions, and symbols intrinsic to Eastern religion evoke a more spiritual expression in Cramer’s most recent work. Iconic emblems and ideograms are also present in his most recent drawings, as in the 2005 Menagerie illustrated here. In this dreamlike image, one finds a lotus blossom, a scarab beetle, a serpentine line ending in a spiral, a dog and a horse (both ancient symbols of soul companions, to help the dead sense the road to afterlife), evil-eye forms, and even three vertical undulating lines (known to symbologists as a sign meaning “an active intelligence”3). Images such as these suggest that Cramer, while not necessarily leaving the realm of the psyche, is also investigating the realm of the spiritual.

1Cramer also credits an early meeting with Clifford Gleason and, in the 1980s and ’90s, the work of Milton Wilson as important influences on his work.
2Tom Cramer has mentioned his admiration for the surrealist artist André Masson, and many of Cramer’s drawings share an affinity with Masson’s “automatic” drawings, which involved the free movement of the pen line with no advance notions of the finished work.
3Liungman, Carl G. Dictionary of Symbols (1991), p. 88.