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Tom Lea’s America:
Mural by Tom Lea, 1938
Oil on canvas, 11 X 54 feetHistoric U.S. Courthouse, El Paso, Texas
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Luciano Cheles on the Tom Lea Trail
Tom Lea - American Artist
July 11, 1907 – January 29, 2001
Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a genius of the twentieth century with extraordinary gifts as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, portraitist, landscapist, novelist and historian.
Tom Lea's murals of the 1930s express the history and character of the Southwest and other regions of the U.S. on walls of public buildings from Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas, and are arguably the finest of the period. As an eye-witness artist correspondent for Life magazine during World War II, Tom Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles to record U.S. and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen and their machines waging war worldwide. He wrote and illustrated bestselling novels—The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country—that were adapted into Hollywood movies, and a dozen other books about subjects as diverse as mountaineering in Wyoming, horse training in 16th century New Spain, and the history of the mammoth King Ranch. His paintings depict remote and exotic places from Ecuador to China, but primarily capture subjects found near his home on the border between Mexico and Texas.
Despite his accomplishments, Tom Lea was largely unknown outside Texas when he died on January 29, 2001. His work had taken him to every continent, but he always returned home to El Paso—to paint and to write near Mount Franklin—far from current fashions and art world trends. Tom Lea never sought the approval of a critic or the favor of a museum director, placing the majority of his paintings after World War II in the private collections of his personal friends.
Those friends have generously responded to efforts to preserve Tom Lea's work, establishing repositories at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at El Paso and the El Paso Museum of Art. Friends have now established the Tom Lea Institute, a not-for-profit corporation, to perpetuate his legacy through collaboration and education.
Tom Lea Biography July 11, 1907 – January 28, 2001
Tom Lea III was born in El Paso, Texas, on July 11, 1907, to a frontier lawyer and his wife, Tom and Zola Utt Lea. Tom Lea Sr. was mayor of El Paso from 1915-1917 during the stormy years of the Mexican Revolution. Tom Lea attended public schools in El Paso from 1912-1924 and, through his art teacher, learned about the Art Institute of Chicago and the noted muralist John Warner Norton, who taught there. Lea attended the Art Institute from 1924-1926, studying briefly under Norton and becoming his apprentice. From 1926-1933, Lea worked as a mural painter and commercial artist in Chicago and married fellow art student Nancy Taylor. He earned enough money to travel third class to Europe in 1930, seeing the works of masters such as Eugene Delacroix in Paris and Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli in Italy. Upon returning to Chicago, he continued work for Norton, leaving in 1933 for the place he loved visiting as a boy, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
In Santa Fe, Tom Lea worked for the Laboratory of Anthropology, did illustrations for Santa Fe Magazine and worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After Nancy Lea suffered a botched appendectomy, the Leas returned to El Paso where Nancy died in 1936. Living back home, Tom Lea completed murals for the Texas Centennial celebration and for the Branigan Library in Las Cruces. He competed for government projects under the U.S. Treasury Department, Section of Fine Arts and won competitions for murals across the United States including the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Washington, D.C.; Federal Courthouse, El Paso, Texas; Burlington Railroad Station, Lacrosse, Wisconsin; Post Office, Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Post Office, Odessa, Texas; and, Post Office, Seymour, Texas.
In 1938 he met and married Sarah Dighton, who became his lifelong partner. He met the typographer and book designer Carl Hertzog while working in his El Paso studio, as well as the noted Texas writer J. Frank Dobie. These friendships led to numerous collaborative projects, and Lea illustrated Dobie's books Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver and The Longhorns. In 1940 Tom Lea applied for and won a Rosenwald Fellowship, but declined it after receiving an invitation from the Editorial Staff of Life Magazine to become an accredited war artist-correspondent. From 1941-1946, Tom Lea became an eye-witness reporter for Life, traveling over 100,000 miles to theaters of war where American forces were involved, including the North Atlantic, the South Pascific on board the Hornet in the South Pacific, a trip to China where he met Theodore H. White, and landing on Peleliu. His writing and painting appeared in Life Magazine between April, 1942 and July, 1945. Lea's experience of landing with the first assault wave of the First Marines on Peleliu became a book he wrote and illustrated Peleliu Landing (1945). Following the war, Lea painted Sarah in the Summertime, based on a snapshot he carried in his wallet the entire time he was away. It was "a painter's votive offering made in the gladness of being home" and, at the end of his life, Lea considered it his magnum opus.
A final project for Life depicting the history of beef cattle in the Americas led Tom Lea to Mexico where he became fascinated with black fighting bulls. The artist turned to writing, and his first novel, The Brave Bulls(1949), became a bestseller and movie starring Mel Ferrer. Other works of fiction and history followed, including The Wonderful Country (1952), a best seller and movie starring Robert Mitchum; The King Ranch (1957) an annotated history of the mammoth South Texas Ranch; The Primal Yoke (1960), a mountaineering story set in Wyoming; The Hands of Cantu (1964), an account of horse training in 16th-century Nueva Viscaya; A Picture Gallery (1968), his auto-biography; and In the Crucible in the Sun (1974), about King Ranch properties in Australia. Lea illustrated all of his books and, in the case of The Hands of Cantu, he created portraits of the characters and hung them in his studio before writing the story.
During his lifetime, Tom Lea took pleasure in capturing portrait likenesses. He started with friends in El Paso and, when he went to war, drew well known subjects like Jimmy Doolittle, Claire Chennault, Berndt Balchen and Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Lea reserved portraiture for his own pleasure, turning down offers of commissions. Lea wrote that "I select my subjects, they don't select me." Twice he made an exception to his rule, painting Benito Juarez 1948 and Sam Rayburn in 1966. Both portraits hang in public buildings in Washington, D.C.
The last mural Tom Lea completed was for the El Paso Public Library in 1956. Entitled Southwest, the painting was done as a gift for the citizens of El Paso by the artist, assisted by his wife Sarah. Lea's later years were devoted to the easel, in oil, watercolor, casein tempera, pastel and Chinese ink with landscape as the predominant subject landscape. Requests would come, resulting in paintings like Ranger Escort West of the Pecos for the office of Gov. John Connally; or The First Recorded Surgical Operation in North America: Cabeza de Vaca, 1535 completed for the Moody Medical Library, U.T. Medical Branch, Galveston. While these paintings hang in public buildings, almost all of Lea's work was delivered directly from his studio into the private collections of personal friends.
The first dinner given by Gov. and Mrs. George W. Bush in the Texas Governor's Mansion was to honor Tom Lea. The governor read from Tom Lea, An Oral History, recorded by Adair Margo, for friends that included Mrs. John Connally, Lady Bird Johnson, and the Kleberg family of the King Ranch. When accepting the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 2000, George W. Bush quoted Tom Lea about living on the "sunrise side of the mountain, " and, after his election, he made it known that a Tom Lea painting would hang in the Oval Office. Tom Lea died on January 29, 2001 following a fall at home. Laura Bush traveled to El Paso for the memorial service, the first trip she made as first lady of the United States. While in El Paso, she requested the loan of Tom Lea's painting Rio Grande from the El Paso Museum of Art to hang in the Oval Office.