Southwest, mural, 1956 Oil on canvas, 51⁄2 x 20 feet El Paso Public Library, El Paso, Texas © James D. Lea

Southwest, mural, 1956 Oil on canvas, 51⁄2 x 20 feet El Paso Public Library, El Paso, Texas © James D. Lea


When the citizens of El Paso voted a municipal bond issue to buid a new public library, I offered to paint a mural in the new building as a gift to my town. A fine space for a mural was incorporated into the building's design and a wall opposite the main entrance on the ground floor was surfaced and prepared according to my own specifications, ready for the painting I promised to provide.

It took me a while to deliver. I was working on the King Ranch volumes, wearing out typewriter ribbons instead of squeezing paint tubes; the wall stood blank and glaring white for two years after the new building's doors were opened.

Occasionally, I would walk into the library, take a long look, and invite my mind to dwell upon that pristine wall and what it might say someday when my paint box was opened again. The postponements, with their ruminations, were of ultimate benefit. When at last I could devote myself to the actual work, the mural's design, its scale, its color, its content, everything about it seemed ready and waiting to write itself forthrightly upon the wall.

It took its shape simply as a luminous window looking out upon its birthland. It spoke of space, sun, cloud, rain, wind, mountain, mesa, rock, sand, soil, and of living growth nurtured by them. The only human habitant of this elemental landscape was the viewer of the mural; the landscape's horizon was at the viewer's eye level when standing on the library's floor. It was the earth, inhabited only by the viewer's mind.

The painting was begun in April of 1956 and finished in May. Throughout the work at the library I had a devoted associate and a competent assistant as a muralist. Sarah helped both in drawing the design on the wall and in the final painting. We shared it. Both of us signed it. We take joint satisfaction in it. And the shelves close by our mural hold the library's good collection of reference material relating to Paso del Norte and the Southwest.


From A Picture Gallery by Tom Lea, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1968, pps. 158-159