Snake Dancers, 1933 Oil on canvas, 61" x 41" Collection
of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe © James D. Lea
When John [Norton] told me that it was time to leave, of course, I felt that it was. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go, but we came back to El Paso first and I bought a 1926 Dodge sedan for seventy-five dollars. One of the back windows of this sedan got broken and never was replaced. That was a two-day journey to Santa Fe in that old Dodge, and I saw my friend Fremont Ellis up there and he didn't live on Camino del Monte Sol anymore. He lived out about eleven miles south of town in this place that he had bought, called the Rancho San Sebastian…He let me have four acres…and I had enough money to build this one-room adobe house.
I met very few of the artists. I remember Gus[tave] Bauman most vividly. He was instrumental in signing me up for the WPA paintings that I did for the New Mexico Fine Arts Museum and which they still have. Initially I thought [the WPA] sounded like charity, and I was not going to do that. But Bauman told me, "you're crazy. You need the money. Why don't you do it."
We were paid by the week regardless of what we did, and it gave me the opportunity to do anything I wanted to with southwest material. I think there were five or six paintings. One of them was The Snake Dancers. A grocer named Dick Kaune gave us credit at his grocery store. We'd go in once a week in this old 1926 beat-up Dodge, and he would let us take whatever we needed and charge it. I didn't get him paid until after I'd moved to El Paso. I wrote him this letter and sent the money that I owed him and he wrote a nice letter back saying that he had never lost a penny giving credit to an artist. And he said, "that doesn't hold for a lot of other kinds of people." Isn't that kind of interesting: starving artists pay their bills.
One of my best friends up there was Dr. H.P. Mera, who was a retired medical doctor and a very skillful archaeologist and ethnologist. He worked at the Laboratory of Anthropology, and he and Gus [Jesse] Nusbaum, who also worked there at the laboratory of Anthropology, were very interested in the drawings I had made of the designs on my father's Casas Grandes bowls. They hired me as a staff artist to make diagrams and maps and copy. I worked there at the laboratory I think it was three half-days a week, and I was paid by the hour for my work. My first job was to do a painting of a Navajo [blanket] which was very elaborately colored and the most valuable [blanket] they had. That took me quite a while, and it was later published by the [Southwest Museum in California], and it was the first color reproduction of anything I had ever done.
Life there, close to the hills and the piñon of Santa Fe and its environs helped shape me so. We had a fine time, a very good life and then…Nancy got this pain in her side and I got her into town in the old Dodge at night and took her to the hospital. And they operated on her the next morning. I didn't know the doctor or anything else. And the antiseptic equipment was no good and the wound became infected. [It] never healed.
We came back to El Paso where Nancy was in the hospital a lot..She died here in El Paso [April 1, 1936]. And I've chosen to blank that part out of my life. After her death, I went back to Santa Fe with a friend [Bill Waterhouse] in a pick-up truck, up the hill to this little house and picked out some stuff that I wanted to take. The rest I just left there, left the key in the door and never went back. I've never been back since….When I came back here to El Paso, why, I just forgot Santa Fe. I never saw Fremont Ellis again or anything. I started over.
Tom Lea speaking to Adair Margo, published in Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, pps. 40-42.