Learn about a True story

Posted 10/8/09

Art lovers will want to become better acquainted with Allen Tupper True. His murals at the Colorado State Capitol, the Civic Center, Denver Central …

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Learn about a True story


Art lovers will want to become better acquainted with Allen Tupper True.

His murals at the Colorado State Capitol, the Civic Center, Denver Central Library and the telephone building at 14th and Curtis, and more, are familiar to many of us, since he was prolific painter and illustrator, but the artist, well-known in his hey-day, is not well-remembered.

This unfortunate lapse is remedied this month in Denver through a major effort by a collection of experts in three major cultural institutions who were challenged and intrigued, as they learned more about this Colorado native.

“Our people (Westerners) are hungry for art that is understandable— that touches things they already know, or reaches out to the things they had begun to dream” is a True quote above a photo of the artist on a scaffold painting a Denver Civic Center mural. His love of the West (Colorado and New Mexico) and insight into its every day people, including Native Americans and their spirituality, gave him endless subject matter. Subjects included freight haulers, trappers and prospectors, telephone linemen, dam builders, Native American women and much more.

“Allen True’s West,” a comprehensive look at the 20th century Colorado artist whose work is more familiar than the man is, opened Oct. 2 at three venues and continues through March 28, 2010. The collaboration between the Denver Art Museum, Denver Central Library and Colorado History Museum, with each venue highlighting different aspects of the works by the Colorado native artist, tells the story of a man who portrayed the American West during the early 20th century. Illustrations, easel paintings, sketches and public murals are included, as well as photographs of True at work and with his family.

Look right when you walk into the exhibit at the Colorado History Museum to see a painting of “Littleton Family Farm” where True and his wife Emma and children had a house and studio from 1928 to 1932. They next moved to Central City, where he was hired to oversee restoration of the Central City Opera House. Emma was also involved in the project and according to a related PBS documentary, became involved with another man so the Trues divorced in 1934.

Born in 1881 in Colorado Springs, he was encouraged to develop his obvious artistic ability by his family and attended Corcoran School of Art in Washington briefly, then enrolled, as one of only 12 students (selected from 500 applicants) at the Howard Pyle School for Illustration, where he learned the illustrator’s skills as well as business skills— initially how to support oneself by selling drawings to magazines. He started selling while still a student and kept on producing until the mid 1950s. Famous painter N.C. Wyeth, also a Pyle student, became a close friend.

Returning to Colorado, he organized a traveling exhibit of easel paintings, with help from his father, while continuing to work as a writer and illustrator in Colorado and Boston. He went to London to study easel painting in 1908 and met muralist, painter, illustrator Frank Brangwyn, who taught him new skills in color and composition and eventually hired him to assist with mural commissions, which changed his direction. Over the years, he spent extended periods painting in Taos and Santa Fe, working with Taos School painters— another layer of experience.

“Illustrators were the rock stars of their day,” said Peter Hassrick, Director Emeritus of the Petrie Institute of Western Art, Denver Art Museum, who has worked since 2006 with Alisa Zahller of the Colorado History Museum; Kay Wisnia and Jim Kroll of Denver Public Library; Joan True McKibben, True’s granddaughter (who has published a book about True); Jim Barrett and Maggie Gourd-Barrett, owners of True’s Raleigh Street Denver studio. Julie Anderies, a freelance contractor is primary coordinator. Thomas Smith is new Petrie Institute Director and oversees the gallery in the Hamilton Building and a newly reorganized 7th floor Western galleries.

Zahller has written an extensive article for the Colorado Historical Society’s “Heritage” magazine, September/October issue, available for $4.95. Also available is the very complete PBS Documentary, which includes film on True’s later work at Hoover Dam.

Hassrick said that True was well-connected and knew where to find money for commissions needed to complete his murals, including a set at the Wyoming State capitol through his brother’s connections. He would decide a theme with a patron, or initiate one and create a series of finished studies, illustrating possible murals. Many of these studies are exhibited, including some that never were commissioned.

When he had a contract, he would divide the small work with a grid and transfer to large canvas, or in some cases the wall.

Thirty-one mural projects are listed— most with multiple panels. Some such as the Cosmopolitan Hotel series, were destroyed when the building was torn down. Some are unaccounted for and others, such as library murals, were moved to other locations. The Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Building at 14th and Curtis has exterior lobby murals at the entrances on both streets that can be viewed at all times. He also painted 13 lobby murals and oversaw color scheme and fixtures for the entire building.

At Colorado’s Capitol, murals funded by Claude Boettcher surround the rotunda, each a story of water in the west, augmented with poetry by poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferrill.

A particularly appealing “Indian Memories” series is housed in the now-vacant Colorado National Bank at 17th and Champa (accessible by appointment). It shows Native American life before the appearance of white settlers.

The City Beautiful Movement was at its peak across the nation, focused on making dirty, grungy cities pleasant for residents, visitors and businesses. Murals in public buildings were a popular approach, in addition to developments such as Denver’s Civic Center, spearheaded by Denver Mayor Speer, which contains the Voorhies Memorial and the Greek Theatre.

Allow time to visit all three venues and perhaps follow the walking tour map provided to find existing murals— or make several visits.

The Denver Art Museum’s second floor Gates Western Gallery holds a collection of 13 easel paintings, included in general admission. Denver Public Library, in the fifth-floor gallery, shows illustrations and books True wrote and illustrated such as “The Mountain Pony.” Admission free during library hours. The lower gallery at the Colorado History Museum displays murals, studies for murals, photographs and True’s huge wooden palette. Admission is free there also at present as staff prepares to close at the end of March until the new Colorado History Center is completed a block to the south.

If you go:

The Denver Art Museum is at on 13th Avenue, between Broadway and Bannock. www.denverartmuseum.org, 720-865-5000. (Free the first Saturday of each month).

Denver Public Library is also on 13th, between Broadway and Bannock. Admission free. www.denverlibrary.org, 720-865-1111.

Colorado History Museum is at 1300 Broadway. www.coloradohistory.org. 303-866-3682.

All are served by the Cultural Center parking garage, accessed from 12th Ave., just west of Broadw


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