On a good week, Kennebunkport artist Berri Kramer spends 15 hours in her studio. The rest of her time, she attends to business at Heartwood College of Art, the tiny art college that Kramer founded in 1993. She is still its president.
Heartwood moved from its longtime home in Kennebunk to Biddeford two years ago, and in January the school graduates its first master of fine arts students.
It’s a big milestone for the little school. Heartwood began offering a low-residency MFA for visual arts five years ago, targeting self-directed working artists who care more about the experience of learning than a degree.
“We cannot guarantee that you’ll have a huge job waiting at the other end,” Kramer said. “If you think that’s a good reason to get an MFA, I say it’s not. It’s a personal journey to figure out what your next steps are.”
Two of the five master’s candidates are teachers from Massachusetts. Another lives in upstate New York, and flies to Maine for class requirements. Kramer appreciates their commitment. As an artist, educator and administrator, she understands the challenges of a busy, creative life.
On how she works: Kramer rises early, most mornings before 6, and grabs a few hours in the studio before pulling away for Heartwood affairs. She’s learned to balance her needs as an artist with her obligations to the school and its students. She runs her life much the same as she administers the school: For the sake of the experience. She calls it “being in the school of now.”
“As we get older, we realize we can’t just take every day for granted,” she said.
In the studio: Kramer recently moved from a five-bedroom Victorian to a 150-year-old two-bedroom farmhouse with five acres. It’s a dream house for a woman whose kids are grown. It’s graceful in its age and tasteful in its character – and has foggy second-floor views of Turbats Creek. She built an 1,800-square-foot studio, creating a workspace of envy. The bottom floor is a fabric studio where she makes quilts. Upstairs, she paints.
It’s a big change from the third-floor studio in her former house, where it was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and the staircase too narrow and steep to carry large canvases.
Place influences art: She’s been in the new place less than two years. With room to experiment, her painting interests have flourished. Known for her quilts and fabrics, Kramer is now a committed acrylic painter. She paints abstract, geometric pieces, as well as local architectural landmarks. She sees roof lines, chimneys and door frames as similar to fabric in a quilt.
“It’s just pieces angled together. I love the challenge. Once you figure out the roof line and the chimneys and the window placement, it’s an exercise in value and the way the light changes. I will walk around the house 10 times and then start taking photographs, and I go in different seasons because the light and shadows are different.”
Kramer began painting for auctions. People are more willing to buy a painting than fabric art, she said. She wanted a piece of the action.
On the easel: Right now, it’s a 36-inch-square canvas of the keeper’s house at Goat Island Light. She’s painted the house 15 times or more. At least eight finished views hang throughout her house. This is the biggest. The smallest are 5-by-7.
On the work in progress, Kramer renders the keeper’s house with precise angles and sharp lines but leaves most of the architectural details to the imagination. The house is not anchored to the landscape, but floats against the black background.
Is it done?
“I think it is. We have a saying: ‘Noodle not,’ and it’s so true. If you think it’s done, it probably is. I know this building. Does it say what I want it to say? I think it does.”
Finding balance: Kramer focuses on one thing at a time, but moves quickly among tasks and responsibilities. She makes lists and feels satisfied when she crosses things off that list. “Sometimes you have a choice of watching TV or going to the studio,” she said.
Studio credibility: Finding time to paint means being a better teacher, Kramer believes. She and Susan Wilder, Heartwood’s dean and Kramer’s best friend, both are working artists. “We know what it’s like to work in the studio. We know the struggles of it. It’s not easy. Some people think, ‘You go in, slap a little paint down and you’re an artist.’ But that’s not it at all. As an artist you’re investigating everything. It’s problem solving, all the time. When we say to our students, ‘Struggle is good. You’re supposed to struggle,’ it’s because we know. We didn’t read it in a book somewhere.”
Arthritis: The 63-year-old has developed arthritis and finds it easier to paint with a palette knife than a brush. She’s always been handy in the kitchen, and holding a palette knife feels natural. She uses a thicker-bodied acrylic when she paints with knives, and likes the three-dimensional quality of the paint when it’s thickly applied.
“It’s all about the aging process. Everybody’s got something. I feel really lucky that, at this point, this is all I have. My mother had it. My grandmother had it. But they weren’t artists. They didn’t use their hands. I am starting to drop things, even my brush. I don’t need to hold the palette knife so tightly (as a brush). The word is control. Maybe it’s a good metaphor for just loosening up on the control a little bit.”