Artist Patti Cramer was a familiar sight around town, walking her dogs through some of the unlikeliest neighborhoods, an unknowing prognosticator of all those places that would one day be hip, which she lived in simply because they were interesting: LoHi, long before anyone ever dreamed of tagging the edge of Highland with that upscale nickname; the Ballpark neighborhood, back when Denver didn't have a major-league team, much less Coors Field; LoDo, which had a nickname by the '80s but only a handful of residents — including Cramer, who lived in a studio/loft on the top floor of a far-from-gentrified warehouse owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all people.
Her art was a familiar sight around town, too: on the 16th Street Mall, where her whimsical characters peered out the windows of the long-gone Ticket Bus; in galleries stretching from LoDo to Cherry Creek to Colorado Springs and beyond, to Scottsdale and London; and in the pages of Westword, where Cramer contributed her whimsical Overheard Conversations off and on for over two decades.
And Cramer herself was a familiar sight at Westword, where she first took a job as an advertising rep in the late '70s. A native of Davenport, Iowa, she'd moved to Colorado at the start of the decade after studying at Stephens College and the University of Arizona and in Florence, Italy; she taught art and preschool and worked at the Children's Museum before joining the Westword staff. But in 1983, propelled by the horrifying prospects of sales meetings that started at 8 a.m. and order forms that would have to be written in words rather than pictures, she gave up the workaday world (and a regular paycheck) to become a full-time artist.
In retrospect, that leap into the unknown territory had to be terrifying — but Cramer maintained her positive, passionate and can-do approach to the world, offering up a smile, a twinkle and an exuberance that had people greeting her with an emphatic "Cramer!" before Seinfeld made it cool to call anyone by that name. Her enthusiasm belied the courage it must have taken to do what she'd always wanted to do, always needed to do: draw and paint.
And Denver was definitely the beneficiary.
Cramer was soon painting big, colorful shows. Her specialty was people — people as eclectic and amusing and slightly askew as the artist herself. She also painted landscapes inspired by the countryside of Italy she so loved, and horses, and jazz musicians...and dogs. Her work acquired a devoted cadre of collectors, as well as critical praise. "Cramer's subjects, typically stylish, upscale types, are most often seen at leisure," Michael Paglia wrote in a 1996 Westword review. "They chat over lunch in a restaurant or run into each other on the street or in a shop. They are thus caught by the artist in a state of social interaction. Cramer explains that her interest in documenting the activities of small groups of people stems from her favorite hobby — observing them. 'When I'm traveling, all I do is watch people,' she says. But the style also reflects her lifelong interest in Italian Renaissance art, which made this kind of picture a standard of that era."
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When Cramer wasn't traveling, she was watching people (and eavesdropping on them) here in Denver. People in the parks, and in the jazz clubs, and at the Tattered Cover and the art-supply stores where she would browse for hours. But the best thing about Denver, she confided in an interview in our 1997 Best of Denver edition that she helped illustrate (and for which the photo above was taken), was the "incredibly supportive community of artists." Her studios were filled with the works of these artists, many of whom, like Cramer, had come to this city with nothing but dreams and succeeded against all odds, making Denver a better place in the process.
Certainly a better-looking place.
Cramer finally left Denver this winter, moving to Florida — where she passed away last week after a brief illness. She leaves behind a host of friends and fans, an impressive collection of drawings and paintings, and the important lesson that while making great art requires a rare talent, rarer still was Cramer's ability to make a fine art of living.
A small show of Patti Cramer's paintings will be hanging at Dazzle, 930 Lincoln Street, next week; there will be a reception there in her honor from 4 to 7 p.m. next Tuesday, October 12.