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A Truman tribute

A Truman tribute

Center for the Arts named for alum, artist Truman Lowe

Friends and family of the late Truman Lowe gathered on campus Oct. 3, as the university dedicated the Center for the Arts in his honor. While Lowe often avoided the limelight, those who knew him say he would have considered the dedication a significant milestone for Native America.

Posted 11:01 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022

A day to remember, and to build upon.

That’s how friends and family of Truman Lowe described the Oct. 3 building dedication — a chance to honor the late Ho-Chunk artist and alum, and to inspire future generations of Native American students.

The Truman T. Lowe Center for the Arts is the first campus building named after a person of color. 

It’s a fitting tribute to a man who avoided the limelight but knew the significance of Native representation in art, education and American life.

“Truman was very soft-spoken, unassuming and modest. He was a sculptor, but if you asked him what he did, he’d say he made sawdust,” said Jo Ortel, professor emerita of art history at Beloit College. 

Ortel was close friends with Lowe and authored the book, “Woodland Reflections: The Art of Truman Lowe.” 

“He was also always mindful of the significant milestones for Native America … and this most certainly marks a significant milestone,” adds Ortel. “Truman would be very pleased.”

Lowe, ’69, experimented with art of all kinds but became widely celebrated for his large installations. These sculptures were often constructed from natural materials and explored Ho-Chunk culture through a contemporary lens.

Lowe’s art was displayed in major galleries around the world. In 1998, his sculpture “Bird Effigy” was selected for a yearlong exhibit at the White House.

At UW-Madison, Lowe shared his gifts with thousands of aspiring artists. He spent 30 years in the Art Department — serving as chair from 1992-95 — and was the coordinator of the university’s Native American Studies Program.

Lowe had a keen artistic eye and a deep knowledge of art history.

In 2000, these qualifications helped him become the curator of contemporary art for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. — a position he held until 2008.

Tonia Lowe, Truman's daughter, described him as the Ultimate Education Encourager — someone who supported all students, but especially Native American students, on their educational journey.

While Lowe’s talent carried him to high places, he came from humble beginnings.

He grew up in Black River Falls — poor in material possessions but rich in familial bonds and Ho-Chunk tradition. He was groomed from an early age to be the first in the family to attend college.

“My dad was a baby, but they decided he would be the one to go to college — the only person who didn’t have a say in it,” joked Tonia Lowe, Truman’s daughter. “It’s funny how it happened, but what a difference it makes growing up knowing you should go to college.”

Lowe’s path was riddled with challenges. He changed majors and briefly dropped out to work and save money. It took him seven years to complete his degree.

Those experiences illustrated Lowe’s perseverance — they also showed him the importance of supporting students through difficult times.

“He took those lessons of how important encouraging words were … and turned it into a superpower,” Tonia said. “He knew the exact right thing to say at the exact right time.”

Ryan John Crain Sr., ’18, a demonstration grant administrator with the Ho-Chunk Nation, called Lowe an inspiration.

“A life of service has created a domino effect that will inspire indigenous youth for years to come,” Crain said. “Truman’s name being placed on the front of this building is historic. Representation matters.”

Ryan John Crain Sr., ’18, a demonstration grant administrator with the Ho-Chunk Nation, speaks at the podium.

The ceremony began with a blessing from Ho-Chunk Nation Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek and Ho-Chunk music from the Thundercloud Singers. It ended with a signage unveiling and reception.

Lowe’s family also announced the creation of the Truman T. Lowe Scholarship for Native American Students, launching in 2023.

“Nothing would make him happier,” Tonia said, “than to encourage Native students to continue their education indefinitely.”

The dedication began with traditional Ho-Chunk music from the Thundercloud Singers.