Rio Grande , oil, 22 x 32, courtesy the El Paso Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Decherd in honor of Isabelle Thomason Decherd and H. Ben Decherd. Rio Grande was recently lent to the White House for long-term exhibition.
By Myrna Zanetell
On January 29, renowned artist and author Tom Lea died at age 93 in his hometown of El Paso, TX, as the result of complications from a fall he had suffered the previous week. He leaves behind the monumental legacy of a seven-decade career as an artist and writer in which he used the magic of pen and brush to convey his deep passion for the desert Southwest and its people.
First Lady Laura Bush, a friend of Tom and his wife Sarah, attended Lea’s memorial service. It was Bush who had introduced her husband to a passage from Lea’s book A Picture Gallery that described his home on the eastern slope of the Franklin Mountains. “It is on the sunrise side, not the sunset side,” wrote Lea. “It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the day that is gone.” George W. Bush, inspired by the optimism of the passage, quoted it frequently during his term as Texas governor and his campaign for the presidency and most recently as the climax of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Optimism was a trait that served Lea well throughout his life. The son of Tom Lea II, who was mayor of El Paso during the turbulent years of the Mexican Revolution, the younger Lea was only seven when Pancho Villa posted a reward of $1,000 in gold for his father— “dead or alive” and also threatened to kidnap young Tom and his brother Joe. Lea once recalled the incident: “An armed guard accompanied us to and from school every day, making us the envy of all our friends. For a kid that age, this was great stuff!”
Untitled (detail) , casein tempera on muslin, 43 x 145, courtesy the El Paso Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Maury Kemp.
By his late teens, Lea had found his calling as an artist. He attended the Chicago Art Institute, graduating in 1926, and later apprenticed under renowned muralist John Norton. The decade of the 1930s was a difficult time for artists, yet Lea managed to attain numerous commissions through the Works Project Administration and the Treasury Department. During this time he produced some of his most memorable murals, including The Nesters, which hung in the Benjamin Franklin Post Office Building in Washington, DC, and Pass of the North, which can still be seen in the lobby of the Federal Building in El Paso. Both artworks reflect the quiet courage and human dignity displayed by ordinary people when called upon to meet extraordinary challenges. This nobility of the common man was a recurrent theme in Lea’s work.
In 1941, Life magazine commissioned Lea to do a series of sketches depicting soldiers and sailors stationed in Texas. Public response to these images was so positive that the publication soon invited Lea to become a full-time artist/war correspondent. During his four tours of duty, Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles, sending back poignant drawings and commentaries from such diverse locations as North Africa, Greenland, China, and the Pacific Theater.
Sarah , oil, 34 x 26, courtesy the El Paso Museum of Art, gift of IBM Corporation.
Lea frequently commented that the war years included some of the most vivid and important experiences in his life, yet he did not allow his personal feelings to color his work. “I tried to be the voice of the men I encountered,” he said. “It was their story that I was telling.”
In fact, reporting an accurate picture of the military action took on such importance for Lea that he often placed himself in danger to obtain his material. On one occasion, armed with only a penknife, he accompanied the 1st Marine Division on their invasion of the tiny Pacific island of Peleliu. By the time the fighting ended, more than two-thirds of the division was either dead or wounded. The horrifyingly graphic im-ages Lea recorded during this landing are among some of the finest military art ever produced.
In his war sketches, Lea chose to minimize his own experiences and focus attention on his comrades. “On the whole, they were just ordinary soldiers, yet I saw valor and heroism in every one,” he said. “When things are at their worst, a certain goodness enters a man’s being, a sense of self-worth, which inspires him to rise to the occasion.”
Following the war, Lea continued to combine his artistic and writing talents. He illustrated a variety of books, including numerous works by western writer J. Frank Dobie and a half-dozen of his own works, which included a history of the King Ranch and two novels, A Won-derful Country and The Brave Bulls, both of which were made into movies.
Rain on the Rimrock , watercolor, 20 1/2 x 27 1/2, Courtesy Adair Margo Gallery, El Paso, TX.
While doing research in Mexico for a Time-Life article on beef cattle in North America, Lea became entranced with the “toros de lidia,” the famous fighting bulls of Mexico and Spain, and with the matadors who fought in the “fiesta brava.” Lea’s observations became the basis for numerous drawings and paintings, including a portrait of Manolete, revered as one of the greatest matadors of his time. Because these men faced death each time they entered the bullring, their portraits became studies in personal courage, reflecting the same qualities Lea had seen in the faces of combat soldiers.
In 1971, Lea returned to painting full time, focusing his works on his love of the desert. Inspired by the style of British landscape painter John Constable, which he described as “storytelling with light,” Lea began recording his own surroundings using subtle gradations of sunlight and shadows, making jagged mountains and barren landscapes things of beauty. Whether working in oil, watercolor, or pastel, Lea was a master draftsman who began each project with a drawing. Although they could have been considered finished works in their own right, Lea seldom released any of these drawings for sale, looking at them merely as preliminary sketches for the finished work.
Lea was affable in nature, yet he maintained a fiercely independent attitude when it came to his art. He once explained, “I’ve never subscribed to any of the ‘isms,’ nor have I sought approval from critics, museum directors, or art dealers.” In fact, it was only toward the end of his career that Lea asked gallery owner Adair Margo, a close friend, to represent his work. “Tom was very unusual in this day and age,” says Margo. “With his talent, he could have been a citizen of the world in terms of being in the limelight, yet he chose to stay rooted in his hometown, surrounded by the people he knew and loved. Any gallery would have been proud to display his work, yet his oil paintings were primarily sold to close acquaintances. Whenever he completed a piece, he would simply invite a few people over to see the image, and it was purchased almost immediately. In fact, he used to refer to his works as ‘personal conversations between friends.’”
Lea loved being an artist so much that he once said he would not stop painting until he stopped breathing. During the last decade of his life, however, the artist began to suffer from macular degeneration—blind spots in the center of his eye that robbed him of his depth perception. No longer able to produce the highly detailed work for which he was known, Lea merely changed his style, employing a ruler and French curve to assist him in producing more abstract versions of his beloved landscapes. Patterns and forms intrigued Lea, and many times something as simple as the shadow of a box lid on the floor would serve as inspiration for a new piece.
Despite his fame, Lea remained a man who found joy in simplicity. Margo tells of a day when she was in his studio. Pointing to a bookshelf, Lea said, “There’s such a majesty to being alive. Just look at the way the sunlight hits those books there in the darkness.” Lea admired both nature and man, ascribing to the Sung School of Chinese philosophy which suggests there must be evidence of man to give earth its meaning. Although Lea was a humble man who tended to downplay his own accomplishments, he clearly left a lasting mark on his own “sunrise side of the mountain.”
Myrna Zanetell wrote about Bill Anton in the January issue.
Featured in June 2001