When Truman Lowe makes art, he listens to nature and converses with his Winnebago Indian ancestors. These people have hunted and farmed in the area now called Wisconsin for about 1,300 years. They used native materials to make shelters, weapons and vessels. Lowe, a constructor of sculptures, a carver and a draftsman, reinterprets this culture for our time.
Unlike many Indian artists, Lowe grew up in his geographical and cultural homeland -- and never became alienated. He was born during 1944 in Winnebago Mission, a small, predominantly Winnebago town near Black River Falls, Wisc. English is his second language and he says he's "still learning" it.
Artmaking was normal
The large, close Lowe family lived modestly on 40 acres of land next to the Black River. Like other youths in his town, Lowe learned traditional crafts from his parents. Artmaking was a normal activity to him and he was surprised to discover years later that many people see art and life as separate things.
An artist long before he knew it, Lowe spent his spare hours in the art room during high school. In college, he took numerous studio courses, but did not declare himself an art major until his mother prodded him to make a decision. After graduation, he taught art in the public schools, but this did not satisfy so he took graduate courses in sculpture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There he found excellent teachers and learned about art "the way I really wanted to," he says. After experimenting with many styles and mediums, he began to develop a point of view.
When Lowe hung his Master of Fine Arts show in 1973, he saw "a thread" running through all the work he had done. "I discovered I was really a woodland Indian," he states. "I was so familiar with trees and water and bluffs that it was important for me to come back [to them in my work]." Since that time, Lowe has been a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He returns often to Winnebago Mission for visits and powwows -- a trip of about 100 miles.
In October and November, Lowe had a one-man exhibition at the Jan Cicero Gallery in Chicago. If he were like other artists, a writer would begin by describing his latest work and then would tell step by step how he got to it.
But Lowe's work makes a circle rather than a progression. He focuses on a form for a time, leaves it to work on another, and then returns to it. Over the past 25 years, he has come back again and again to certain forms. His goal, which he never reaches, is to make the perfect piece.
Builds with saplings
According to Lowe, some individuals "understand a certain material so well that it doesn't matter what they make with it -- you know their hand is in it. Once their hand has touched the material, it becomes art," he states.
As he matured into an artist, Lowe sought to understand wood and "how to make it say what I want it to." Wood has been his primary medium ever since. It forms the base and skeleton of most sculptures and is often the only material he employs. He makes many constructions from willow saplings.
Early in summer, the artist cuts saplings at a nearby farm whose owner wants to be rid of them. Once he has enough, he peels the bark, then sands the bare sticks to whiten them. Strong and flexible, willow won't check because it has a long fiber. Lowe has experimented with a twisted variety called corkscrew willow, which reminds him of lightning.
The artist has used saplings in a series of "Water Spirit" constructions that draw on Winnebago myth. He builds them into impermanent-looking structures that evoke the nomadic woodland Indians who traveled through the forest, set up camp, hunted and then moved on. These constructions also hint at the constant change in nature -- shifting light and shadow, rising and falling wind, and the like.
The headdress-shaped Plains Image (1988), which is fabricated from saplings, has carved feather shapes along its sides at the base and a carved feather form suspended at its center. This six-foot, eight-inch tall structure is lashed together with hide and mounted on a functional plywood pedestal. The elegant, landscape-like Feather Tree (1990), another sapling piece, recalls the brushy, reedy riverbank vegetation of the artist's childhood. When Lowe substitutes bronze for willow, as he does in Feather Basket (1989), the work loses its distinctive Winnebago-ness.
Lowe says he learned about simple geometry from Brancusi and about scale from Henry Moore. Studying Michelangelo's life and work showed him that he could make a living as an artist. Formally, Lowe's work can be connected to Julio Gonzalez and David Smith, sculptor/constructors who drew in space. Lowe draws with saplings, tying his lines together with bits of deerskin and leather. His sculptures typically function in two dimensions and many hang on the wall.
Above the earth
"If I have a religion, it must be canoeing," the artist says. "I canoe wherever there's water. It puts me in a totally different state of mind and provides all I need to exist." When he's worked hard, Lowe loads his canoe into his truck, heads for the water and rewards himself. In his canoe, he's "touching neither the earth nor the air," he says. Maumee Reflection (1990-91) suggests a marsh -- a place you can only enter in a canoe -- its thicket of reeds standing in a triangular wooden lattice.
Canoe Form-Thunder Bay (1997), a site-specific work which abstracts the interior ribbing of a wooden canoe, was installed at the Jan Cicero Gallery. Waterfall (1993), another site-specific sculpture, is made from flexible pine slats which the artist attached to the gallery wall so they project outward and fall to the floor.
Feathers are a key element in Lowe's art. Carved feather forms are design elements and accents in Plains Image and Feather Tree. White chicken feathers add color, richness and tactility to Feather Basket #2 (1994) and Moon Basket (1995).
Lowe called his Jan Cicero Gallery show "Ma-Shu," which is Winnebago for feather. Its theme is feathers and their uses. The forms in this show are "more concentrated than before," he states.
Several carved pieces and drawings are inspired by pouches which the Winnebago fashioned from deerskin and decorated with feathers. According to the artist, some Indians made beautiful pouches from wood duck hides with the feathers intact after tanning. Other pieces in "Ma-Shu" include Feather Fence, a 30-foot-long construction of narrow pine boards, willow saplings, and black feathers that leans against the wall.
There is a satisfying organic quality to Truman Lowe's work. It marries form, material, personal history, and individual expression. With care, skill, and loving fidelity to his forbears, he has found a way to make an old culture new.
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.