2008 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
Maybe it’s because he grew up in a home with no running water. Or maybe it’s because he also grew up along the flowing Black River in northern Wisconsin. But Truman Lowe has a passion for moving water.
No, he’s not a plumber. He’s an artist. An internationally acclaimed artist, whose works are deeply rooted in his Ho-Chunk heritage.
“There is a certain beauty in all forms of water, in what you see and what you can’t see,” he said.
“Under the surface, there’s this interaction happening. Sometimes these currents cause destruction, but more often than not, they carve amazing monuments in our landscape.”
Much like the moving water sculptures he creates, there’s more to Lowe and his art than what you see on the surface. Born in a place that no longer exists, the Winnebago Indian Mission, seven miles east of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, Lowe is the youngest of six children.
But with ties tight in Lowe’s family, it wasn’t uncommon to have roughly 30 other kids and extended family members living in his home at any given time. And he loved every minute of it.
“My childhood was really pleasant,” Lowe said. “All my memories are positive, because my family really took care of one another. My life was filled with satisfaction.” So if all great artists are supposed to be tortured souls, Truman Lowe never got the memo.
What he did get was encouragement from his family, who were all artists in their own right. Many practiced traditional crafts like basketry, weaving and working with wood.
“I was always drawing … trying to solve problems, like how to draw pine trees with snow on them,” he says. Lowe spent hours in the art room during high school, developing his future career without even realizing it.
That’s because, at the time, he had a wide variety of other interests. So becoming an artist wasn’t a given. College, on the other hand, was.
His family pounded it into his head early on that he would be college bound. They embraced the notion of learning as much as possible — not only to become successful, but to become a more well-rounded individual. “Success is really about following your interests, in whatever field you choose,” said Lowe.
“Initially, I thought about majoring in history. I was interested in literature, too. I even thought about being a physical education major,” Lowe said. “There was no grand scheme … other than following my interests.”
Lowe followed his interests to UW-La Crosse for his undergraduate studies. But it wasn’t until his mother prodded him to make a decision that he finally declared himself an art major. Before graduation, however, an art professor called him into his office and asked Lowe what he was going to do with his life.
“I told him I want to go where ideas are new every day.” Until he could figure out how to get there, Lowe took some education courses while still at La Crosse and taught art in public school immediately after graduating in 1969. But a desire for further artistic exploration led him to pursue a graduate degree.
“Madison would’ve been my first choice, but I was teaching about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee, so to keep my teaching job, I applied to UW-Milwaukee.”
However, Lowe received a rejection letter from Milwaukee. But the Milwaukee campus forwarded his application to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was admitted within a week. At about the same time he received word that he got a Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship, which would pay for any school in the country Lowe wanted to attend.
“Sometimes one’s path isn’t exactly a straight line,” Lowe said.
While attending UW-Madison, Lowe immersed himself in his classes and studied a variety of disciplines — sculpture, glassblowing, ceramics, and more — further developing his own artistic voice. And he learned about art “the way I really wanted to,” at Madison. He also learned valuable life lessons as well.
“One of my first goals as a grad student was to get a list of all the award-winning faculty on campus and meet with them. Not just art faculty – all award-winning faculty,” said Lowe. “I figured they could contribute to my personal growth as well as my area of expertise … since I believe art and life are completely interconnected.”
Lowe earned his Master’s of Fine Arts degree in 1973. And after getting a firsthand look at what an accomplished staff the UW employs, he joined them. In 1975, Lowe became the Coordinator of the Native American Studies Program for the UW and was appointed an Assistant Professor in the Art Department.
“For me, it was a great honor to become a part of this department,” Lowe said. “I have incredible respect for the entire faculty, and to be accepted by them was indeed special.”
In 1989 he was promoted to professor, and during his time on campus, has also served as department chair, and as an assistant dean in the UW-Madison Dean of Students office.
“What I enjoy most about the university are the conversations that originate here,” said Lowe. Whether it’s striking up a thought-provoking conversation with a stranger on Lake Street or mentoring students, For Lowe, it all comes down to the exchange of ideas. “This is where new ideas are. I found that place,” he says.
To find those ideas, however, takes a fresh start every day for Lowe. “I absolutely love waking up in the mornings, and focusing on things that interest me then and there … some of which will translate into work. And some will never be realized. The most important thing for me is a continual improvement of self.”
Such dedication to improvement is clearly evident in his artistic accomplishments. Lowe’s works have been exhibited at major venues throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, Africa, South America, and New Zealand.
In 1998, his Bird Effigy, in aluminum, was shown in a yearlong exhibition of 20th century works at the White House Sculpture Garden. That same year, he was among the first six artists awarded the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art.
“As a woodland Indian, I can’t ignore my environment, and I think that’s what my work reflects,” said Lowe.
In 2000, Lowe was named curator of contemporary art for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). In this role, he conceived and organized the museum’s inaugural exhibition, which featured the inspirational work of Native American artists George Morrison and Allan Houser.
Lowe was also the first artist commissioned by the Wisconsin Arts Board to create a work as part of the “Percent for Art” Program in the early 1980s. And in 2007, the Board honored him with its Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award.
A master sculptor, his work effectively bridges the traditional and contemporary, abstract and representational worlds of American Indian fine art.
Currently, Lowe is focused on his curatorial activities on campus, which involve planning rotating exhibits of faculty, students, and alumni art in the renovated Education Building.
“I’m very comfortable with what it is I’m thinking about these days,” said Lowe. “I continue to be fascinated by water and streams. Moving water, and the idea of movement … because there has to be continual movement and evaluation in life to solve all the things we’re concerned about.”
While moving water remains a passion in his art works, professor Truman Lowe is doing anything but simply drifting along.