One of the many lessons we can learn from the work of Tom Lea is that profound art doesn’t wait for carefree afternoons and times of easy living. Great, authentic art is refined in the molten guts of tumult and scarcity. It sits with and bears witness to the human heart’s depths of turmoil and to the outer limits of survivable physical extremes.
Art that tells the whole story of struggle and transformation must come from seasoned “truth-tellers,” people who, like Tom Lea, have the emotional intelligence and skill to recreate for us the considered truth of an event.
“Art doesn’t have life if you’ve made it up in your head. But Tom was a truth-teller. He said he felt divinely guided in WWII in trying to capture what others experienced,” says Adair Margo, founder of the Tom Lea Institute.
Conflict painting that changed our view of war forever
Lea was commissioned by TIME Magazine to study and paint the stark realities of WWII. His conflict paintings preserved events and tenor that the magazine’s editors knew cameras wouldn’t be able to do justice to.
Though wartime photography was and is a valuable contribution to our understanding of history, even modern technology struggles to immortalize events with the full, emotionally-panoramic handling they deserve.
Lea’s ability to translate soldiers’ experiences onto the canvas came from his own familiarity with struggle. Living on the border through the Mexican Revolution as a boy, Lea witnessed and heard about horrific events, including witnessing a man being killed at the Juarez race track as a child. During the Great Depression, Lea created art for the U.S. Government, funded by three of President Roosevelt’s New Deal federal relief programs for artists.
Tom Lea’s work stands the test of time as both art and history
Though he was appreciated in his lifetime, Lea’s work has also stood the test of time and historic scrutiny. In fact, his work is so authentic and historically relevant that the Tom Lea Institute has created K-12 curricula that pair his writings and paintings seamlessly with history lessons.
“His work is so accessible it can be understood by a child. I’ve just lifted it from Tom’s format to serve as a school’s history. And it’s alive — I wrote his words about the battle at Peleliu, and I got a call from a woman who said, ‘My husband was there. Thank you so much for writing that. Manny thought that everyone had forgotten that battle,’” says Margo.
After receiving that call, Margo and Holly Cobb (Executive Director of the Tom Lea Institute) interviewed Manny Rivas and included his memories of the battle alongside Lea’s artwork in a video. “Sixty years later, we see that what Tom was depicting and what Manny saw were the same thing. He really got at the truth of it,” says Margo.
A call to create and preserve art in hard times
Times of unease and conflict can give birth to some of the world’s most impactful art, but they should also remind us of the importance of preserving it. Adair Margo was honored on March 22, 2019 for her work to preserve Lea’s art.
The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Margo with the prestigious Historic Preservation Medal. Prior to working with Margo, Lea didn’t even have a gallery, and his work would be largely forgotten by history if not for Margo’s preservation efforts. Margo was nominated by the El Paso Stoddert-del Norte Chapter of the NSDAR.
One of Margo’s many preservation projects was to create a new website that would give the whole world instant online access to his works. Margo worked with El Paso-based marketing company PixelMark to design the new website.
Tiffany Etterling, a partner at PixelMark, says the new website was designed “not only to be beautiful but to make it easier than ever for future generations to navigate and access Tom Lea’s wonderful contributions to El Paso and the world.”
Help future generations benefit from Tom Lea’s art
As times and technology change, the age-old themes of struggle, division, and hardship remain. So too does the necessary work of creating and preserving the impact and realities of these moments. In the same spirit as Tom Lea, we must carry on the good, hard work and continue his legacy of truth-telling for future generations.
We welcome you to partner with the Tom Lea Institute as a volunteer, member, or donor. We’re a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, presenting, teaching, and exhibiting the works of Tom Lea.
Click here to learn more about how you can do your part to preserve Lea’s truth-telling work and help make it ever-more accessible.