By Susan Hallsten McGarry
Early in Leanin’ Tree’s history, Ed Trumble wrote nearly all the messages printed inside his greeting cards. To spark his imagination, he played a mental game with the painting on the front of the card. “What is the key to the painting’s story?” he asked himself. “What is this artist telling me? What would I want to read inside?”
Such questions invariably aroused exploration of the painting’s mood, details, and underlying meaning. They also encouraged speculation on how style, technique, and formal aspects such as light, color, and design furthered the sentiment. Ed’s questioning process was essential to the marriage of pictures and words that has made Leanin’ Tree cards such a success. The process was also crucial to his increasing understanding of art. Ed’s well-honed personal tastes have resulted in a corporate art collection that contains more than 100 artists and approximately 450 artworks, most of which are displayed in the Leanin’ Tree Museum and Sculpture Garden.
“The museum contains two distinct types of art,” Ed explains. “There are a few early paintings that were perfect for greeting cards, but the great majority of the artworks were acquired as fine art, with no intention of publishing them. In my opinion, the latter group of artists will be significant in the history of twentieth-century western American art.” Ed acquired many of the artworks reproduced on cards out of necessity. “In the early days, I could only afford to purchase the reproduction rights and had to borrow the original artwork for up to three months so that we could photograph it and make color separations. It was a cumbersome, time-consuming process, so if I could afford to purchase
the painting with the rights, I did.”
Whether purchasing artworks for cards or for his fine art collection, Ed has always been drawn to images that convey stories about the human condition. His penchant began in childhood when he eagerly anticipated the illustrated fiction published in periodicals such as The Saturday Evening Post, western pulp novels, and comics. Several illustrators from those venues are represented in the collection, including John Falter, John Clymer, Nick Eggenhofer, and Frank Hoffman.
ON A STAIRCASE INSIDE THE LEANIN’ TREE MUSEUM OF WESTERN ART IN BOULDER,
With its collection of such giants in the field, the museum constitutes a hall of fame of post-1950 western artists. Melvin Warren’s FOUR OF A KIND exemplifies both the museum’s focus on western topics and a key criterion that Ed relies upon in making his selections. “You can recognize a Mel Warren from across a room, without seeing the signature,” Ed says. “I was introduced to Mel’s work in the mid-1960s. My partner Bob Lorenz agreed with me about the quality of his paintings, but he insisted that we not use them as card subjects. That’s when I knew that my own ultimate goal must be to publish and collect the very best.” For more than five decades, Ed has done just that.
In the era before slick color magazines and art books on western art, Ed’s
lessons in art appreciation included seeing as much original art as he could. He visited galleries throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and Texas. He attended most of the major art shows, museum exhibitions, and auctions. He conferred with artists, dealers, museum professionals, and art historians. He read every art book he could find, especially those about western art. He continues to attend major art events and has since become an authority himself, as well as an art juror, a role that calls for expertise built on yet another of his discoveries about quality. “Early in my collecting career, I was disappointed when I came home empty-handed from a show,” he recalls. “However, after attending a great variety of shows, good and bad, I learned to discriminate between a painting of quality and one that looked good only because of the mediocrity surrounding it.”
Another standard Ed uses in assessing artists and artworks is “authenticity.” A complex concept, it boils down to what Ed describes as an “honest expression of an experience or situation that goes beyond style or medium.” While accuracy and details are important to him, Ed puts equal weight on the artist’s personal interpretation of what is being represented. Such interpretations might necessitate the arbitrary yet expressive colors of Fritz Scholder’s HOLLYWOOD INDIAN or the exaggerations of Jim Budish’s whimsical rabbit titled CHAUNCEY. As Ed asserts, “Authenticity, integrity, and originality are at the core of great art.”
Ed also feels that small paintings by recognized artists are better investments than large ones. Although he confesses to having broken that rule many times in the interest of acquiring works for the museum that are a “smashing visual experience,” Ed believes that “knowledgeable collectors buy by name and reputation. Therefore a small painting by a modern or old master offers the same satisfaction of ownership as a large painting, which by virtue of its size costs more and is harder to place within a home setting.” Ed quotes a famous New York collector when he warns, “Never buy a painting you can’t carry home under your arm!”
Most of the works in the Leanin’ Tree collection were acquired from living artists. Consequently, he has acquired many paintings as they sat still wet on the easel and bronze sculptures while they were still in clay, acquiring along with the works a special understanding of the artists’ motivations, struggles, and triumphs. Ed’s commentary on the images in
this book frequently reference his interactions with the artists. Most of them became friends, sharing humor and insights that broadened Ed’s appreciation of beauty in art and life. Such is the case with John Hampton. Ed’s heartfelt chronicle of his camaraderie with John is a high point of the narratives in this book and indicative of an important theme in the collection—the Cowboy Artists of America. Ed has collected works by no less than twenty-six active, deceased, and emeritus CAA members. Although his collecting career predates the founding of the organization in 1965, the collection parallels the development of CAA into one of the most important and flourishing art groups in contemporary western art.
Not only is the collection rich in CAA painters and sculptors, it is also deep, with several of the artists represented by multiple works that span their careers. Among them are Joe Beeler, John Hampton, Harry Jackson, William Moyers, Grant Speed, Frank McCarthy, Fritz White, and James Reynolds, who is represented by thirteen paintings comprising both his impressionistic cowboy scenes and his pure landscapes. Similarly, the collection charts the evolving styles of several artists. Four paintings by Kenneth Riley, for instance, trace his work from the early historical narratives such as HOMAGE TO CATLIN (1977) through his colorful and mystical interpretations of Native American spirituality, as represented by CEREMONIAL REGALIA (1989), DANCE PROGRESSIONS (1991), and WINGS FOR THE SPIRIT (1994).
Additional threads within the collection reflect Ed’s personal heritage as well as his passion for the West’s vistas, animals, and native peoples. Works by Indian artists such as Dan Namingha, Allan Houser, Fritz Scholder, and Brummett Echohawk complement those by respected recorders of contemporary and historical Native American people and lifeways, including Gerard Curtis Delano, R. Brownell McGrew, John Coleman, Paul Dyck, Glenna Goodacre, Don Crowley, Fritz White, Arnold Friberg, Martin Grelle, Tom Darro, Ed Fraughton, Dave McGary, James Reynolds, and Ray Swanson. A major strength of the collection is its sterling group of wildlife artists, both sculptors and painters. Among the latter are Bob Kuhn, John Schoenherr, Michael Coleman, Jim Morgan, Larry Fanning, Daniel Smith, and Nancy Glazier. Sculptors include Veryl Goodnight, Gerald Balciar, Walter Matia, Sherry Sander, Steve Kestrel, Dan Ostermiller, Kent Ullberg, Buck McCain, Tim Shinabarger, and Ken Bunn.
Many of these wildlife artists have won awards at the annual Prix de West Exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Ed, who regularly attends this fine-art extravaganza, was himself an award winner in 1999 when the museum honored him with its Chester A. Reynolds Award for helping preserve the American West through art and publishing.
Equally impressive are the collection’s numerous landscapes. Paintings by Wilson Hurley, Conrad Schwiering, Robert Daughters, Ed Mell, John Hilton, Alan Wolton, Ray Vinella, and Curt Walters document beloved examples of actual western topography.
As noted in several of his commentaries, Ed has a fondness for works that evoke memories of growing up in the Midwest. Carol Cunningham’s birth of a young foal, George Carlson’s SEARCHING THE WIND, Gary Ernest Smith’s paintings of rural farm life, and Dixie Jewett’s IRONFIRE stir recollections that have lingered in Ed’s remarkable memory for eighty years. When he encountered Jewett’s work at Colorado’s annual Loveland Sculpture show, Ed felt the artist was the best found-metal-object sculptor in the West. “If you are going to collect a very specific style or technique of art, you should select the top artist in that genre,” he observes.
Leanin’ Tree’s sculpture garden, constructed in 2005, is both a majestic finale and an entry to the grandeur of Trumble’s collecting vision over five decades. The representations of working ranch hands in the sculpture garden, including Herb Mignery’s CHECKMATE and Buck McCain’s COWBOY, signify imagery upon which the card company was built. George Lundeen’s WAITIN’ FOR AN ANSWER carries the story even further. The mailbox was the portal through which all orders came to the tiny original company, and it is still how most Leanin’ Tree greeting cards find their way to their recipients.
Ed was not responsible for the title of Lundeen’s sculpture WAITIN’ FOR AN ANSWER. He would no doubt agree, however, that when it comes to stories about the human condition, the plot is often resolved by getting answers to questions. The story of Ed’s journey through art began with asking questions. Over the years he found many answers to those questions—answers that he joyously shares with all who view the paintings, drawings, and sculptures in Leanin’ Tree’s remarkable art collection.
Excerpted from The Story of Leanin’ Tree: Art and Enterprise in the American West. For more information: 303.530.1442 or www.leanintreemuseum.org.
Featured in October 2008