At night Dowling Street is one of the toughest streets in Houston. From its ramshackle bars and flophouses bursts a surging stream of sex and energy that can easily explode into violence. But during the day Dowling is one of the main thoroughfares of the Third Ward, the cultural and intellectual heart of black Houston. Black artist Edsel Cramer has lived at the corner of Dowling and Wheeler for 25 years. To this brick bungalow, nestled amid convenience stores and bars, Barbara Jordan came in the spring of 1973 to sit for a portrait. She was just beginning her first session as a member of the U.S. Congress, and her former colleagues in the Texas Senate, still flush with affection for her, had decided on the unprecedented step of commissioning her portrait to hang in the Texas Capitol alongside portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Lyndon Johnson, and Jefferson Davis. She made six visits to Cramer’s studio, always arriving precisely on time and staying exactly two hours.
Cramer has spent years studying the faces of his subjects, searching out the planes and angles, the subtleties of bone structure and coloring, that define appearance and character. He did the same with Jordan, isolating the elements of her face and putting them back together on canvas. “Studying her up close you see exactly how intense she is,” Cramer remembers. “There are fine lines etched around her eyes, the sort of lines that mean stress, hard work, and determination. Her head is like a bull’s head; across her brow is a lump of bone that stands out like the forehead of a bull. That look of bull-like strength is part of her character. But the most impressive thing about her is she is simply so big—both in size and personality. I just couldn’t paint normal scale no matter how hard I tried, even though I prefer to keep the scale of my paintings down.