"Sand Dunes", ca. 1930 | 14"x16" Oil painting on board
True's Sand Dunes is a depiction of the sands dunes located in southern Colorado, originally designated as the Great Sand Dunes National Monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1932, and known since 2004 as the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. True visited them during one of her painting trips to New Mexico in the early 1930s. Using a limited color palette, she rendered the towering peaks of shifting sand as sculpted shapes, spatially anchored by a topless tree in the foreground. Although the dunes are located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristos, the mountains are partially obscured by clouds in the upper portion of the painting.
The daughter of a classically-trained pianist mother and a concert violinist father, she had an intellectually stimulating upbringing enhanced by Christian Science values. After graduation from high school in Hannibal, Missouri, she enrolled in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1919. Soon, however, she gave up the idea of becoming a teacher and entered at the John Herron Art Institute (whose collections are now part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art).
The Institute’s early faculty included artists from the Hoosier Group trained at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany, who educated artists in the realist tradition. True’s teacher and mentor, William Forsyth, gave her an excellent foundation in drawing and the technical aspects of painting and composition. When the failure of her father’s business in the early 1920s forced her to start earning a living, the Herron Institute hired her as an instructor for its art school, allowing her to support herself while she finished her studies.
Following graduation from the Institute in 1925, she received a one-year scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Her former teacher William Forsyth wrote in his recommendation: “I can say without exaggeration that she was one of the best pupils I ever had during the twenty-five years I was a teacher at the John Herron Art School.” At the Academy, she studied with Daniel Garber, an impressionist landscape painter associated with the New Hope art colony, and Hugh Breckenridge noted for his bold palette and expressionistic use of color, as well as the abstract work he started doing by 1922. She also studied briefly in the art department at Columbia University, perhaps in 1928 when she produced some of her New York street scenes.
From Pennsylvania, she returned to Indiana teaching for several years at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. She also began showing her work at several area venues, including the Herron Institute, the Artists of Indiana, and the Hoosier Salon held early on in Chicago. Among the Salon’s exhibitors were Gustave Baumann, Victor Higgins, and Olive Rush, who either were Indiana natives or whose careers included connections with the state. By the 1920s all three of them had become associated with the Santa Fe and Taos art colonies.
In the summer of 1928 True experienced both New Mexico communities and Southwest culture firsthand with Francis Hoar and her husband Clement Trucksess, her friends from the Herron Institute. They had relocated to Boulder in 1927 and were teaching at the University of Colorado. She recorded in her journal her initial reaction to the New Mexico landscape: “Might I preserve on canvas my thrill and deep feeling of the grand things of nature I have beheld today….There’s a wideness in God’s country that expresses peace to me.” Inspired by her trip, True created a group of watercolors for her solo exhibition in 1928 at the Lieber Gallery in Indianapolis. They marked a transition from the realist style she learned at the Herron Institute to the more modernist, semi-abstract one she soon adopted.
In the summer of 1929, she accepted an instructor’s position on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder. She after that joined the Art Association of Boulder founded in 1923 by Mrs. Jean Sherwood, an art patron and club woman who relocated from Chicago to teach at the Boulder Chautauqua. Sherwood helped convince Dean Fred B.R. Hellems at CU to set up the first art gallery on the campus in the1920s. In 1930 True was accepted for membership in the Boulder Artists Guild, later serving as its president. The Guild had been organized four years earlier by the Art Association of Boulder, together with the CU Art Department and local artists. Limited to working artists solicited by invitation, the Guild included most of the city’s professional artists whose portfolios were reviewed by a selection committee.
In 1931 True teamed with Muriel Sibell Wolle, Frances Hoar (Trucksess), Clement Trucksess and Gwendolyn Meux – colleagues on the CU Fine Arts faculty – to organize The Prospectors. Regional modernists influenced by the Western landscape, The Prospectors’ manifesto “claimed inspiration from the natural beauty of the mountains and plains of Boulder, as well as the ghosts of Indians, mountain men, and pioneers.” Attempting to gain critical recognition for themselves and Boulder, The Prospectors aggressively promoted their work through 1942, exhibiting at universities, museums, and galleries in twenty-four states and participating in various shows throughout the country such as the Prairie Watercolor Painters annuals in Kansas.
Also In 1931 True participated in a group exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) in Santa Fe. Among her watercolors was Rain Finds the Mountains painted during her first visit to the Southwest in 1928. Conveying the vastness of the landscape with layered, undulating geometricized forms and a minimum of detail, the watercolor stylistically anticipates the Colorado landscapes and mining towns she painted in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The work in her solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in 1932 prompted a local reviewer to write in the local press: “She paints with a boldness and strength of purpose that leads one to think of a man’s work.”
During her Santa Fe visit in 1931, she saw the work of B.J.O. Nordfeldt whose composition and technique in his now-destroyed painting, Seated Man in Interior ( c. 1925), influenced her painting, The Wood Chopper (c. 1932). A Colorado subject, it depicts an elderly man seated in front of a window overlooking a winter landscape with his pile of neatly stacked, chopped wood. Now in the collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, The Wood Chopper received First Prize at the Midwestern Artists Exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935.
Her Sand Dunes is an oil landscape of a portion of the sands dunes located in southern Colorado, originally designated as the Great Sand Dunes National Monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1932, and known since 2004 as the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. She visited them during one of her painting trips to neighboring New Mexico in the early 1930s. Using a limited color palette, she rendered the towering peaks of shifting sand – the tallest sand dunes in North America – as fantastic sculpted shapes, spatially anchored by a topless tree in the foreground. Although the dunes are located at the foot of the towering Sangre de Cristos, the mountains are partially obscured by clouds in the upper portion of the painting.
In November 1933 True had a solo show of portraits, landscapes, still life and figure compositions at Chappell House in Denver, the first home of the city’s art museum. Donald J. Bear, Curator of Paintings at the museum, wrote in the Denver Post:
The emotional content of her subject seems not contained in the way in which she paints her subject, but rather her subjects have been intellectualized into compositions which run a gamut of restrictions, both in color and in an intensity of feeling. There is an attitude of deliberate, conscious eclecticism in her composition…
Slowly her stylization of plane passages and forms moves toward a personal style. Her palette, which runs a range of lowered tones, citrons, subdued blues, dusty browns, and grays, occasionally keyed by a more virile note, contains possibilities which she has begun to touch upon. Her portraits offer a complex arrangement of planes. One feels in most of Miss True’s work that her effect is not achieved thru color spotting but through a black and white spotting on which color has been either fused or imposed.
By 1935 she recognized that her Bachelor of Arts degree was insufficient for faculty advancement at the University of Colorado in Boulder, so she entered the two-year Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. During the summers she visited Boulder, maintaining her affiliation with The Prospectors. In 1937 she painted a large mural, Home Economics, for the Martha Van Rensselaer Hall at Cornell.
When she completed her Master’s degree, unfortunately, there were no open positions at CU, so in 1939 she joined the faculty at Cornell eventually becoming head of the Department of Housing and Design. At Cornell she earned more than she previously had, allowing her to pursue art. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she recorded the intensity of urban life in her New York Series that included paintings and works on paper in charcoal and ink. At the same time, she retained her emotional ties to the West, as indicated by her painting, Yampa Valley (1940). Now in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, it depicts a scene from the Western Slope in northwestern Colorado.
Retired from Cornell in 1965, she spent the balance of her life at Yarmouth on Cape Cod in Massachusetts where she taught art for several years and continued to paint and exhibit. Her commitment to her craft, coupled with an appreciation of the natural environment, is reflected her philosophy of life:
To be an artist is a very upsetting thing, because you must come to grips with what you really think and what is really basic and what is truly you….Why look down on the hillside at a vulgar display of petty sensuousness when God’s great earth lies out before you to make you draw in your breath and know how big the real things are in this world!
Solo Exhibitions: Lieber Gallery, Indianapolis, Indiana (1928); Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art), Santa Fe (1932); Chappell House-Denver Art Museum (1933); “Retrospective,” Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art-Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (1965).
Group Exhibitions: Museum of Fine Art, Santa Fe (1931); “Annual Colorado Artists Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1932-1935); National Association of Women Artists, New York (1933); “Midwestern Artists Exhibition,” Kansas City Art Institute (1934, 1935); Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, New York (1939); “Trends in American Art,” Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1941); “Pioneers: Women Artists in Boulder, 1898-1950,” University of Colorado at Boulder (2016-17);
Collections: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana; Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver; University of Colorado, Boulder; Colorado State University, Fort Collins.