The Life and Art of James E. True
Southwest Virginia Museum's first Curator
The Early Years

James E. True was born in Salem, Virginia on November 25, 1903. He was educated in the Salem Public Schools and later attended Roanoke College. James became interested in drawing and painting when he met Walter Biggs, a Roanoke, Virginia artist who took the time to work with him. James studied art at the Arts Student League in New York City.

James married Miss Beulah Nalls of Salem on April 14, 1927. Together they reared four (4) children. James was a talented artist and helped to support his family by selling his works of art. For additional income, he managed an apartment/hotel complex for his father. He also presented magic shows for the local schools in Roanoke. After the depression of 1929, James belonged to the Virginia Works Progress Administration Program (WPA), a New Deal project. He was the director of the WPA for Southwest Virginia.

In 1938, Adele Clark, then head of the WPA, had told C. Bascom Slemp, of a portrait True had done for Salem's Andrew Lewis High School. Mr. Slemp decided it would be a good idea to have similar portraits done of prominent Southwest Virginians for county courthouses and other public places. That brought James True and his family to Big Stone Gap, Virginia. True was now the "Artist in Residence" for C. Bascom Slemp, and he began painting and creating dioramas that depicted life in Southwest Virginia. Dioramas are three dimensional miniature scenes with painted modeled figures and a background. Upon arriving in Big Stone Gap, the family resided in the Carriage House, which is the building that is adjacent to the museum.


C. Bascom Slemp had a concept for a museum, and he and James True began creating exhibits in the garage at Slemp's residence on Cherokee Avenue. True worked with Slemp's collections helping with the Janie Slemp Memorial Museum, or as True called it, the "Garage Museum," which was located at Slemp's house. At the same time, he was the director of the Federal Art Gallery which was located on the top floor of the Big Stone Gap Middle School and he also painted signs for local businesses.

In 1943, Slemp died, and later a provision was made for the Janie Slemp Memorial Museum's collections to be given to the State of Virginia. Within three years, an agreement for purchase of the Ayer's Mansion, at a nominal price, was reached. Slemp had purchased the house in 1929, but never resided in the home. The Southwest Virginia Museum was opened to the public on May 30, 1948. True was quickly named Curator and continued work on the portraits and dioramas that were to become part of the collection for the Southwest Virginia Museum.

He painted portraits of at least three Governors, including George Perry, H.C. Stuart, and E. Lee Trinkle. He also painted local Southwest Virginians such as T.W. Perry, one time Mayor of Big Stone Gap, Gilbert Knight, publisher of the Post from 1895-1945, and many others. Two of James' dioramas are permanently on display in the museum.

While True continued to work on displays and exhibits for the Southwest Virginia Museum, he also continued to paint and teach art classes from his residence in the Carriage House. Throughout his life, he had many portraits and other paintings hung, or displayed in public institutions, such as the Lee and Wise County Courthouses, Roanoke Memorial Hospital and other Virginia State Parks. His works also make up part of private collections throughout the Southeast.  More, top right.


The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.


James loved to paint and draw, but he had a large interest in heraldry. He researched his family genealogy and became engrossed with the Old English ways. He enjoyed researching family's coats of arms, fly fishing and archery. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Big Cherry Archery Club in Big Stone Gap.


On June 30, 1974, after having been the curator of the Southwest Virginia Museum for 28 years, James True retired and moved to Erwin, Tennessee. He wanted to spend time with his wife, four children, and their eleven grandchildren.


James continued to paint after his retirement. He was listed in "Who's Who in the South and Southwest" in 1975. James also joined the Watauga Valley Art League, the W Erwin Art League, and the Bristol Art and Roanoke Fine Arts Club. He continued to teach art from time-to-time. Most of all, he enjoyed spending time with his family and friends.

James True passed away in February 1977, and was laid to rest in Erwin, Tennessee.


The Southwest Virginia Museum would like to thank Bob and Danny True and Francie True Cannon for sharing their father's life story with us.