Portland Fall Arts Guide 2012: Different Thursdays

Tom Cramer takes his work from the Pearl to Alberta.

The Willamette River divides Portland’s art scene. Tony galleries in the Pearl District and Northwest exude First Thursday hauteur, while street artists turn Northeast Alberta Street into a freewheeling Last Thursday hippie-fest. Think of Northwest as Bergdorf Goodman, Northeast as Burning Man.

If any artist can bridge the two, it's Tom Cramer. The man is a walking lingua franca between lowbrow and highbrow, equally renowned for populist murals and cerebral paintings that marry Eastern mysticism with Art Nouveau. What would happen if Cramer, now an established First Thursday star, returned to his roots to hawk his wares at Last Thursday?

Cramer, 52, was curious to find out. A third-generation Portlander, he graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1982, then moved to New York and fermented in the East Village's nascent graffiti-art movement. Later in the '80s he returned to Portland, on fire with the influences of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who combined street- and folk-art aesthetics with Warholian cool.

Cramer painted public murals downtown and in Northeast, including one on the outside wall of what is now Ciao Vito restaurant (2203 NE Alberta St.). Then, in 1987, when he was tapped for the Portland Art Museum's prestigious Oregon Biennial, he began a steady transition from "the people's artist" to an elite success story. Four more Biennials followed, galleries picked him up, and his paintings were collected by multimillionaire philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer and influential curator Paige Powell. His May 2012 show at Laura Russo Gallery sold an impressive two-thirds of all pieces on view, with top prices fetching $12,000. It would seem his days of hustling the street-art scene are long behind him.

To find out if the Last Thursday hoi polloi would recognize artwork of Cramer's caliber among Alberta's more democratic fare, I enlisted the help of up-and-coming Alberta exhibitor Aaron Trotter, who agreed to let Cramer share his booth at 1627 NE Alberta St., just six blocks from Cramer's mural. Trotter, 34, has never been represented by a blue-chip gallery but is making a decent living at art fairs and markets selling playing cards adorned with his pen-and-ink sketches of Portland landmarks. He advertises the cards on Etsy and sells them through his website (aarontrotter.com) and in person, taking credit-card info with his Square-equipped smartphone.

When Cramer arrives at 5 pm at the August event, the two get to know each other. "I admire your business sense," Cramer tells the younger artist as they set up their booth. "What you're doing is the future."

"Poverty was the motivating factor," Trotter says. "I was eating canned food donated to churches. I decided I'd rather eat good food."

Cramer sets out six colorful sculptures from his American Totem Doll series. With their oddly cocked eyes, crooked mouths and stacked oval bodies, they look like miniature snowmen that took a wrong turn and wound up at Mardi Gras. Cramer decides to offer them at bargain-basement prices: $75 apiece for large dolls and $50 for smaller ones. With work this affordable by an acclaimed artist, they're bound to sell out within minutes, right?

It doesn't take long for a woman to stop at the booth, but she goes straight for the playing cards. Trotter leans in and chats her up, and soon she's whipping out a $20 bill. Cramer studies the transaction but doesn't seem too interested in working the crowd himself. He's used to First Thursday openings, where artists have the leisure to mill about while gallery staff handles the hard sell. Another woman approaches Trotter about the cards as Cramer's dolls stand wide-eyed and unattended on the table, like wallflowers at the homecoming dance.

An hour goes by, and Cramer is no longer just milling about. He's making a deal with Julie Benois, co-owner of Local Discoveries, the arts, crafts and foodstuffs shop behind the booth. Rather than keep manning the table, Cramer will leave the sculptures under her care to sell on consignment at a 60/40 split—artist's favor. He signs a consignment form, bids Trotter goodbye, hops on his bike, and is gone by 6:30. Later that night, a man sees one of the dolls and asks Trotter if it's a Tom Cramer. He says he bought a Cramer doll 20 years ago. Another man stops by and says the dolls remind him of the mural up the street at Ciao Vito. The next day, Benois sells one of the dolls in her shop—as of press time, the only one that has sold.

What's to be learned from this experiment in context? Cramer was philosophical: "I don't know why people buy. As an artist, you're rejected 90 percent of the time. My advice to any artist is, 'Don't think of it as a career, think of it as a lifestyle.’” 

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