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Art makes life worth living

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Berri Kramer

Artist and educator

President, Heartwood College of Art

www.HeartwoodCollegeofArt.org

Berri Kramer loves joining pieces of fabric together to make quilts and other pieces of fiber art.

“Fiber is my love. When I was out doing my own work for the first time I did it in fiber, it changed my medium,” said Kramer, 64, who lives in Kennebunk.

She also loves to paint and make encaustic pieces – the art of using heated wax and colored pigments on a variety of surfaces to create paintings, collages and other work – and is an accomplished photographer.

Looking at some of Kramer’s paintings it’s easy to see the influence that quilting has had on her work. Other pieces reflect her love of design and the influence of living on the coast. Her work in the field of photography has taken her around the world, both on her own and with several nonprofits. Several years ago, Kramer traveled to Guatemala to chronicle life in several small villages in an effort to raise funds for a health center. She has also acted as a photojournalist for Rotary International mission trips.

And then there’s Heartwood – the college of art that she founded in the early 1990s of which she is president. Heartwood took shape in an old Grange hall building in Kennebunkport. When Kramer, a mother of four, divorced, the building was sold and Heartwood moved to Route 1 in Kennebunk, the former home of a newspaper and printing press. At that time, the school offered an associate and bachelor’s degree. After 10 years in Kennebunk, the school moved to the North Dam Mill in Biddeford.

“The Route 1 location was too much building for us,” said Kramer. “The move to the mill (in 2013) was a good thing.”

While Heartwood no longer offers undergraduate degrees, it does offer a master’s in fine arts, along with workshops, classes and special events.

“We offer a low-residency program that has intensive studio time,” said Kramer. “Heartwood is evolving. There has been a change in (public) education and with more cuts in art, theater and music. The MFA has become more of a personal journey for artists and not so much about teaching (credentials).”

My Generation had a chance to sit down with Kramer recently to talk about her work, what it means to be an artist in the baby boomer generation and what comes next.

Q How long have you been working as an artist and what inspired you to pursue this career?

A Probably since I was a child. But in high school it became clear. I had three brothers who were all into science and all went into the medical field. I found my own thing in art. I went to school in Lincoln, Mass. The DeCordova Museum is in Lincoln and offers classes and festivals. I spent a lot of time there. I went to Kent State where I majored in art and received a BFA. Back then you could go to school and not worry so much about paying for school. My parents helped me, too, but it wasn’t such a high cost. I think it was something like $3,000. You were able to take the time to learn, and fail. There was space for creative thinking.

I met my former husband in college. When we got out we were looking for what to do and how to make money so I designed a craft kit for Better Homes & Gardens. It went well and I ended up working and designing for Better Homes & Gardens for 20 years. Although working for them was about 10 percent making and 90 percent business it did involve creative problem solving. In my 40s I went back to college, Lesley University, and got my MFA.

Q What media do you work in? What do you enjoy about working as an artist?

A Fiber is my core, my love and what I’m passionate about. I also paint and have gotten into encaustic work. Photography is also a big part of my art. When you are taking pictures you learn how to see and know what you are looking for. You deconstruct, edit and put it back together for someone to understand. One (medium) informs the other; the sense of color relationships. You have to search for a medium that helps you to embrace your passion. I don’t create to market (my work), but I do need a response. People have an easier time buying a painting of the Goat Island lighthouse than an abstract fiber piece. I spend a little bit of every day in the studio. I have to create. It’s a thought process I think we’re losing. Educated artists are the key – you have to look at artists, techniques and processes that came before – and take the time to have doubt. Doubt is good. It disturbs the concept and that’s how you grow.

Q How was art different for the baby boomer generation? What has changed?

A Our generation was educated in art on a daily level in school; it was part of everything. Now, the (educational) system we have has eliminated the time needed. Art in the school is down to 45 minutes a week if you’re lucky. Art has gotten pushed aside. We’re taking the arts out of the system because there’s a focus on needing to go into a field to make money. Art has become a business instead of a practice. Now people operate out of fear when they go to college – a sense that they have to pick something to survive on. It’s sad to do things just for money. But artists need the time and space to be able to fail. The way you learn is to fail, and you need to not have a (college) loan hanging over you. There is a reason why people paint. They need to.

It’s a search for balance. You don’t get good at something by just going to college. You need practice. And artists are a little quirky and think differently. They’re very observant. And because I can see I create something, but that’s separate from the “market.”

At least when we were in college, we could protest and we didn’t have to play it safe. Fear and greed weigh much heavier than joy now – it feels like a struggle all day long. There’s a focus on so many concerns: money, health, war, terrorism. It’s not right for human beings. We had the luxury to fail and figure it out and be creative thinkers, to experience doubt and do our own thing for a while. We were lucky to be able to be kids and as we grew to have studio time and space as artists – to work through and own our art. The pleasure of creativity is so valuable. Making art makes life worth living. We need music, theater, dance and art. We all have chores and work to do, appointments to keep – and I like to have those things, am thankful for them. But it’s not what I live for. Finding passion in my work in the studio is.

Everything has changed from our generation. The market is so much harder now. There are not as many galleries as there were. Space has become expensive and it’s hard to get by. We need to evolve with it but in our own way. Technology has taken over and the sense of hope we had has changed. We don’t want to lose that sense. The only way to pass it on is to share it with the next generation.

Q What’s next for you?

A Well now that my kids are grown and out, and I have a studio that I get into every day, and run a college that I continue to learn through, I get to use the resources and knowledge I have and do something with another person. My friend Susan Wilder and I have started this new little company, Wholly Crow. We have great art community conversations while we figure it out as we go along. We’re creating all kinds of things from tea towels to pillows and bags, jewelry and paintings and going to fairs and big craft shows, like CraftBoston, with them. We don’t just sell, we get to start a conversation about why we make art and how people can live with something beautiful every day. You can change up your home with art on tea towels or pillows and not have to spend $5,000 for a painting. And it’s not that I don’t want people to buy paintings, but it’s nice to have a small piece of art that makes a difference in the space. The design is important.

I love that I’m still constantly learning and discovering and editing – and always have some doubt. But then there is that magical moment when all the resources come together and you get to own it; to look carefully, explore and tell a story with your work. The process is the hardest and most joyful thing.

An acrylic by Berri Kramer shows her strong design work and attention to color. Courtesy photoThis painting by Berri Kramer graphically depicts Wood Island lighthouse. Kramer created the painting for an auction.Courtesy photoBerri Kramer is an artist, educator and president of Heartwood College of Art. Courtesy photo

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