St. Paul artist draws Stations of the Cross with modern spin

| March 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

Peter Kramer works in his Minneapolis studio March 6. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Much of Peter Kramer’s art, while smart, has a playful veneer. Among his drawing compilations is a book dedicated to the “care and feeding of single-celled animals” that treats amoebas and bacteria as pets; another is called “Diet for a Round Palate: A Cookbook of Round Food Recipes,” an ode of sorts to globular foods including eggs, pumpkins and blueberries. A Minneapolis-based architect, Kramer, 79, also has a line of foldable furniture, cheekily called “OUCH!,” should it actually fold while in use.

When friends heard, then, that he had taken on the Stations of the Cross for a recent drawing series, they were surprised.

“Mostly, they were like, ‘Boy, that is really different for you. What’s that about?’” Kramer said.

The series of 16 prints feature his signature inky, sketchy cartoon-like drawings with handwritten captions. Unlike traditional Stations in a church where the viewer “is in the front row,” Kramer said he drew each scene from the perspective of someone in the back of the crowd, with onlookers’ heads obscuring some of the action, the way he imagines it would have been for most people who witnessed Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. He also used a contemporary landscape, with high-rise skylines and soldiers with bulbous helmets and machine guns. Caution tape separates the crowd from Jesus’ path.

Kramer called the Stations “a contemporary story.”

“It’s a story we tell now that happens every day when innocent people are the subject of intolerance and injustice,” he said.

At the same time, he described it as a “love story” and hopes people see love triumphing over tragedy.

“I don’t want [viewers] to feel bad about this,” he said. “How much greater love is there, that you give up your life for other people? This is enormous love, plus his [Jesus’] father loved him. It’s a journey, and it’s a love story.”

The prints will be on display at Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul March 11-26, with an opening reception 5-7 p.m. March 11.

As with many of his other works, Kramer spiral-bound the prints in a book, “Eye Witness to the Events at the Place of Skulls.” The cover is subtitled “an ending,” but the book ends with “a beginning” — Christ’s ascension into heaven. In the book, each Station is printed on the right-hand page. On the facing pages, he copied newsprint of 20th- and 21st-century news stories that relate to the Stations. A story about John F. Kennedy’s assassination headlined “Why America Weeps” is next to the “Jesus Meets the Weeping Women.” Other stories include the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass-shooting in 2012, the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 and Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.

Drawing the Stations required reflection on their meaning and context, and Kramer’s illustrations include text with his take. With the first Station when Jesus is condemned to death, Kramer writes: “Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, claims that he wanted to acquit Jesus of any crimes and let him go free. I don’t buy it. I think he gave Jesus over to the angry crowd to get himself off the hook. Then Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair in a cynical act of political stagecraft.”

Wearing his trademark bow-tie, round-framed glasses and red office clip on his shirt placket, Kramer described what he does as an architect as “part psychiatry and part inorganic chemistry.” In 1976, he opened an architectural firm to specialize in work for non-profit organizations. His first design was for Project for Pride in Living in Minneapolis, which led to oodles of community clinics and child care centers. He is influenced by a variety of architects and artists, he said, naming German modernist architect Adolf Loos, the Austrian painter Egon Schiele and Japanese woodblock printmaker Hokusai, famous for “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

“The Great Wave” is part of the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” an inspiration for Kramer’s quirky book “Thirty-Six Views of the Saint Paul Cathedral,” a collaboration of his drawings and his friends’ writings. He publishes his illustrations via his project
Neo-Functionalist Press as coloring books and wryly claims to have “inadvertently started the current coloring book craze.”

Kramer admits to drawing at church, concerts and “while driving.” He attends the Cathedral of St. Paul, but also worships with his wife, whom he calls “Miss Bonnie,” at a Presbyterian church in St. Paul.

When approaching the Stations, Kramer inadvertently encountered a conundrum: the Way of the Cross, as introduced by Pope John Paul II in 1991, differs slightly in number and subject than the traditional Stations he learned as a child attending
St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake.

He stuck with what he remembered, he said; he didn’t want to leave out Veronica washing the face of Jesus, a Station without scriptural basis that is not included in the Way of the Cross, along with Jesus encountering his mother and his three falls.

Kramer included what some consider the “15th Station,” the resurrection. His final illustration includes a verse from Iris DeMent’s 1992 hit “Let the Mystery Be” adjacent to the periodic table.

Although he timed the gallery show with Lent, his focus is now on another project: a take on the periodic table. In his artist statement, he calls what he does “birdwatching, observing and recording along the way.” He adds that his purpose is best described in an exchange between a father and daughter in Henning Mankell’s 2010 novel “Italian Shoes.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?” the dad asks. The daughter responds: “To make a difference that’s so small it’s not even noticed, but it’s a difference.”

“That’s what you actually want to do,” Kramer said. “You might have great aspirations to make a great difference in the world, but what if you just tried real hard to make a difference, whatever it was? That’s what people do every day.”

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