I had won a national [Treasury Department, Section of Fine Arts] competition of painters, and a lot of the painters had great reputations up in New York. They sent out a flyer notifying all painters that wished to compete in the competition. They set the architectural space and you designed in full color and in scale your intention for [it]. It was very comprehensive, what you had to submit had to be quite finished. I think I worked as hard on that as anything I ever worked [on] in my life. There were eight spaces and I suppose there were a hundred entries for the eight spaces, and [I did a proposal for] a space that was on one of the upper floors, two panels in the elevator hall [Design for The Western Frontier: 1st Phase, 1830-1860] and [Design for The Western Frontier: 2nd Phase, 1860-1890]. [They chose] just a little fragment of it for me to enlarge and put on the ground floor in the Benjamin Franklin Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue [The Nesters]. It was a big canvas mural, and when I got up there with it, why, I found a paper hanger to help me mount the canvas to the marble wall. That mural was the first real recognition that I had ever received.


Design for The Western Frontier


Tom Lea speaking to Adair Margo, published in Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, p. 55.



The first mural I painted at the Hill Building was a panel for the Post Office Department Building in Washington, a commission received by winning a national competition held under the auspices of the Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department, a government agency then recently established to provide mural and sculptural ornament in new federal buildings throughout the nation. The winning of this competition was the first non-local recognition I had ever received. It came at a time when it was a great help, spiritually and financially. I painted a plowman breaking dry, bare earth. Standing by the furrow was his young wife, looking at the motionless windmill, at the homesteader's shack where they lived, and at the empty horizon. I called it "The Nesters." I think it may be the first mature work I achieved; it was painted when I was almost thirty years old.


Lea, Tom, A Picture Gallery, Boston: Little Brown, p. 21.