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What Aaron Kramer Did on His Vacation

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Aaron Kramer still remembers a dog he met on the bike trip he took last year. "She was this wonderful part Lab, part pit bull dog who would do amazing things like take a coconut, tear the husk off, get down to the coconut, chew on it until she could open it up, drink the milk, and then eat the insides." He met the dog and its owner on a beach in Brunswick, Georgia, and a few months later he met up with them again in the Florida Keys.

Part of the reason Kramer remembers the dog so well is that he kept a piece of her old, worn leash as a souvenir of his trip. In fact, he kept a lot of souvenirs. "I was always picking things up and putting them in my pockets," he says. Throughout the trip--through 30 states and three Canadian provinces over 13 and a half months--he carried around about 5 pounds of "things," on average, in addition to the 70 pounds of gear he had with him. Periodically, he would take some of the objects he had collected and attach them to a postcard-size piece of corrugated cardboard, forming little works of art he calls assemblages. Then he'd stuff them into padded envelopes and send them home.

Kramer's been back in Chicago for about nine months now, but his tiny apartment is still stuffed with memorabilia from the trip: about 60 assemblages, a map marked with his route, sketches he drew while traveling, and a "window frame" made of twisty buttonwood. "That was my picture window in one campsite," he explains. "I was camped out under a tarp--it tended to rain like crazy for ten minutes and then get sunny and beautiful again--and I figured my shelter could use a window."

Until he left town on his bike in August 1988 Kramer was working 90-hour weeks as a graphic artist. He decided to quit his job and take a trip for several reasons; mainly, he was tired of the rat race and wanted to do a little soul searching. To record his journey, he brought along a 35-millimeter camera, a Super-8 camera, a notebook, and a sketch pad.

He also brought along a small box to carry whatever he might pick up along the way. Before he left, he had made some assemblages for friends with stuff from craft stores and junk shops. "I had an idea that I wanted to collect things along the way, but I really didn't know what the end result would be."

As he collected things, he stored them in bread bags and labeled them with the date and location he found them. Some bags would get purged as he traveled, but not many; more often he got rid of other equipment, like the stove and cooking supplies he started out with, or winter clothes as he rode into hotter climates.

He made the first assemblages in Nova Scotia, and a few more in New York City early in the trip. But he got really productive just before Christmas in Sarasota, Florida, where he ended up staying in a flophouse full of drug addicts and prostitutes. "For $60 I could stay there for the week," he says. "There was nothing but a bed and a desk and a bare-bulb lamp." So he emptied out his bread bags and made Christmas presents for his family.

He intended them to be trip logs. "Sometimes the pieces spoke a lot of geography. At times they were about issues that concerned me, and at times they were just one-liners, puns. Sometimes they were about an emotion." To him each one sparks a memory, and when there's an audience, he'll relate it.

The assemblage called Cajun Stories, for example, starts him talking about a storyteller he spent an afternoon with in Louisiana, eating gumbo and shooting the breeze. The storyteller's wife owned a shell shop, and in Cajun Stories is an alligator tooth from the shop. Other elements came from other places--Mardi Gras beads he was given in Florida, a screech-owl feather from Virginia. (Similarly, in How the West Was Won, not all of the elements are from the western states he visited, but they all "spoke a lot about the west.")

He made Shell Game in Florida in late 1988, using shells he found along the beach and casings from discharged bullets. "I don't know if you remember: in Miami there was that whole thing where a cop shot two black guys on a motorcycle, and it sparked a whole series of riots." So Kramer used the riots to make what he calls a one-liner: not so much a joke as a pithy commentary.

Some of the assemblages invite viewer participation: two of them incorporate lenses found in junk shops--from old magnifying glasses, Kramer guesses--and slides, so that the viewer can look through the lenses to see another part of the piece. Kramer's most impressive technological feat, though, is Mystery Vehicle. Its main element is a blue-crab shell, and when you throw a switch on the side, its eyes light up. "The eye sockets just looked like headlights, and I knew that if I went and found some model-train lights in a hobby store, I might be able to wire it."

For each assemblage, he's got a piece of notepad paper filled with meticulous notes: the title of the piece, the date it was made, when and where each element of it was found, and his thoughts about the piece and its elements. "Part of the business I was in as a graphic designer was organizing information, working out systems." He also marked a calendar with symbols--similar to those on a Macintosh computer--that referred to weather, mileage covered, what equipment he'd worn out, where he stayed each night, and even when he got a haircut.

Since returning to Chicago, Kramer has jumped back into his old field; he's an art director at the graphic-design firm Rothman/McGhee and Company. But he has also continued to make assemblages on a bigger scale, and he's taken up painting. He's also taken on several free-lance illustrating jobs, and he's hoping his collection of assemblages will help him gain ground as a fine artist.

So far they have taken him a few steps: 20 of them are on exhibit at the Erie Street Gallery through July 17 as part of the "1990 Creative People Competition," a show of work by people in the graphic arts. "I entered about 15 pieces in the show, and then the judges asked for more," he says. Eventually, though, Kramer would like to exhibit everything from his trip: slides, video, sketches, and assemblages. "Maybe it would be computer-aided, maybe with a Macintosh, the idea being that there's a lot of information and you can choose to go through some and not through other parts."

For now, though, the pieces function best as they were originally intended: as trip logs. "I can look at all the pieces, and each one is a paragraph to a much larger story," says Kramer. "There are threads that run throughout them." A piece of the worn-out dog leash ended up in How the West Was Won, but it's Mystery Vehicle that reminds Kramer most of the dog: Kramer found its main element, the blue-crab shell, on a walk along that beach in Georgia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.


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