The wildlife artist of Conscience Bay
Directions to the small waterfront cottage pressed up against Conscience Bay in East Setauket included the phrase “follow the dirt road that’s covered by leaves.” Down a narrow, wooded path and around a hard left that is the last option prior to tires hitting water, you’ll find a small one-bedroom cottage with a deck overlooking the water. Out of his front window, the artist sees a sight suitable for framing each and every day. Inspiration is not hard to find in a setting like this.
Roger Kramer is a 74-year-old artist who lives alone in that one-bedroom cottage. He is separated and his two children, Matthew and Emily, are grown. He has two grandchildren, with a third on the way; his son and daughter live in New York City and California, respectively. Kramer has a psychology practice that he attends to a few times a week. Occasionally, he is accompanied by his son’s dog Jagger, an exceedingly friendly 95-pound ten-year-old golden retriever who needs sporadic breaks from city life. Together Kramer and Jagger spend much of their free time exploring the woods that engulf the cottage and flank the bay, searching for some of that inspiration that lies around every corner in Kramer’s world.
Kramer is a kind man with a warm, welcoming disposition. He stands about five feet, ten inches tall and has long gray hair. He was born in Brooklyn. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and then went on to a psychology master’s program at Hofstra University. At 27 years old he got married and took off on a “whirlwind tour” of Europe on a motorcycle (which he had shipped overseas) with his new wife. When they returned, the couple settled in Boulder, Colorado. Stops in California and Woodstock, New York, lead him back to Long Island in 1971, where he earned a Ph.D. at Stony Brook University. After that, Kramer took a job as a psychologist in Vermont, which he did for about seven years. Eventually he made his way back to Long Island, this time to the shores of Conscience Bay.
Kramer’s combination of artistic talent and passion for environmental preservation and appreciation serve as a perfect blend for his current life.
“I do ‘found’ wood work,” Kramer said. “I like taking a piece of wood that’s just dirty and foul and [you] can hardly see what it is but it turns out to be 200-year-old black walnut that grew around here.”
Specifically, Kramer turns the wood that he finds on the land surrounding his home into stunningly lifelike sculptures of birds (fowl wood), most of which he’s spotted not far from the places that he finds the wood. Kramer contests that they’re not meant to be too lifelike but rather interpretations of how he sees the shore birds that grace his fit-for-framing view. However, a few minutes in his presence make it obvious who his harshest critic is.
After that hard left turn is made and Kramer’s cottage and deck are finally, mercifully in sight through some forest that a Long Islander would classify as “fairly thick,” though that would probably be mocked by someone from another part of the country. For Long Island though, this is as remote as it gets. Along the right side of the “driveway,” which is paved similarly to that path leading to the house, with dirt and leaves, there’s a covered BMW motorcycle and a cherry red Saab crossover. Either one is suitable for a day of exploration.
Kramer accumulates wood in his travels, usually without a specific idea in mind of how he plans to use it. His favorite tool to shape the wood into wings or heads or feathers is a small handheld grinder. “I’m excited when I first see something, even if I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with it and then the excitement comes when I’m in the process and something is emerging. It comes alive. It talks to me.”
After one meeting, it might be crass to identify Kramer as eccentric. Creativity oozes from him. “Right now I liken myself to some kind of wildlife artist,” Kramer said with a chuckle. It wasn’t clear if Kramer meant simply that the subject of his art is usually wildlife or if he as an artist is now part of what is classified as wildlife. Either way, the description suits him.
His living room is furnished with chairs and tables that he crafted out of wood, just like his birds. On his refrigerator hangs an Andy Warhol quote: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
When walking up the three or four stairs that lead to Kramer’s deck, the majestic and nearly to scale size birds finally come into view, and this is about the same time that just over the deck’s railing and some foliage that the bay comes into view. By the time one’s foot hits the top step, what follows is breathtaking.
In the early afternoon the sun was just peeking around the corner of Kramer’s house, giving the water a little shimmer that served as a perfect backdrop to view the birds. They are assembled into the corner when not being staged by the railing for jaw-dropping, beautiful photo opportunities. On this day, the blue heron has the main stage. This particular sculpture is crafted in such a way that despite being made of wood, flight looks to be imminent. There’s also a bald eagle, a snowy owl, and among about a dozen others, my personal favorite, an osprey.
Kramer sends picture messages to his kids for honest and constructive criticism. “I’ll send pictures to both kids and they’ll say either ‘oh, good,’ or ‘hmm maybe keep your day job.’” Kramer’s intention is to start getting more recognition for his work.
More words could be used to describe Kramer and his magnificent work, but they don’t do him or his beautiful birds any justice. Not many people have seen his work yet. A neighbor borrowed his bald eagle for a few weeks, just because he couldn’t keep his eyes off of it. I am not an art critic, nor do I have an artistic bone in my body, but I can say with confidence that Kramer’s birds will be seen and appreciated by far more than a few dozen eyes in the very near future.
To contact Roger Kramer and learn more about his projects, email him at [email protected]