Tom Lea and his work have always been a part of my life, from the time I was a youngster growing up in the city we share as our home, El Paso, Texas. His murals graced the library and other buildings I spent time in as a child and his paintings and books were found in the homes of friends as well as my own. My grandmother related with pride the fact that my great-grandfather baptized Tom in the First Baptist Church when he was eight years old.
As I grew older, my parents considered Tom and his wife, Sarah, examples to follow. They were contributing citizens of integrity and compassion who lived modestly and without pretense. During an unattractive display of teenage immaturity, I recall my father admonishing me, "Sarah Lea wouldn't act that way."
Although our personal interaction was infrequent and generally brief, I felt compelled to visit Tom Lea when opening an art gallery in 1985. I know now that because of my respect for him, I was seeking his blessing. With initial notions of exhibiting what was "innovative" and "new," I vividly remember his discomfort with my words. "artistic vision" and "contemporary expression" meant nothing to him, but a belief in knowledge, diligence, and skill most certainly did. His honesty gave me a perspective I did not have before and the beginnings of a much stronger footing.
Never did I suspect that eight years later, in 1993, I would be given the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of this man and his beliefs. When Becky Craver asked me to record Tom's oral history, I spent two hours a week over a six-month period listening to his recollections and personal musings. There was no need to jog his memory. He recounted a perfect and chronological account of his life as well as the smells, sounds, textures, and colors that have surrounded him. He converses, not from the superior perspective of an "artist" whose calling is to share his personal "vision" for posterity, but as an honest craftsman whose passion is to observe and describe. His focus is external – he has described himself as an "avowed painter of the Almighty's own onward and visible handiwork" – and he speaks as a man who feels privileged to live each day, meet good people, encounter opportunities, and apply his skills to the tasks at hand.
Those tasks varied greatly over eight decades as Tom's life has evolved, taking him far beyond El Paso and back again. He has worked as a muralist, illustrator, World War II correspondent, novelist, historian, and studio painter. His path has crossed some of history's most noted individuals, many of whom he has captured in portraits.
This amazing and productive life is recounted in the following pages, proving the view that one anecdote of a man is worth a volume of biography. Tom's story relates both the people and events of his life, but extends much further. It gives us an appreciation of the convictions which guide his life.
Goethe wrote that "talents are best formed in solitude; character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world." This book tells the story of a man who, with genuine humility, proves Goethe's point.
Adair Margo introduction to Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995.