Art & Design Magazine

American Muralist Tom Lea

By Americanart

On September 24, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will co-host a national conference that examines the importance of preserving WPA-era murals using the work of celebrated American muralist Tom Lea as a case study. The conference has been organized by the Tom Lea Institute, and in anticipation of the conference, Programs Coordinator Allison Jessing spoke with Adair Margo, former Chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities during the two-term Presidency of George W. Bush, and Founder and President of the Tom Lea Institute. The conference is free and open to the public, but advance registration is recommended.

Tom Lea

Tom Lea's Southwest

Eye Level: Tom Lea was a prolific muralist and acclaimed author, but not widely known outside of Texas. Can you tell us a little more about him?

Adair Margo: It's funny, when I was chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, I mentioned Tom Lea in D.C. I found many people did know him. David McCullough was pleased to meet Sarah Lea when George and Laura Bush dedicated the Oval Office with Tom's painting Rio Grande on the wall. He said Tom introduced him to the romance of the West through novels like The Wonderful Country and illustrations for J. Frank Dobie's The Longhorns.

Military leaders knew the eye-witness paintings he did during World War II for LIFE magazine, remembering how they lined the walls of the Pentagon before 9/11. They never forgot them. Legislators knew his portrait of Sam Rayburn in the Rayburn Building, and some even remembered his 1936 mural The Nesters in the Ben Franklin Post Office (now the Ariel Rios Building) on Pennsylvania Avenue before it was lost in the 1950s. With its larger than life figures of a dust bowl couple, that mural left an impression, just as his murals across the United States inspired pride in regional heritage when painted in the 1930s and '40s. They still do, when people are aware they are still there.

Of course, we from Texas knew him best because he was from El Paso and he chose to stay here, drawing his nourishment from a place so spacious and bare. Robert Caro told me at the 2007 Texas Book Festival that "Tom Lea was an unsung genius of our time who made it purely on the quality of his work." He undoubtedly was and did.

EL: How did you come to discover the works of Tom Lea?

AM: First, I knew Tom Lea the man. In fact, my great-grandfather baptized him when he was eight years old, and my grandmother went to high school with him. Our families were friends, and I came to know his work growing up in El Paso. His Southwest mural was in a reading room of our public library dedicated to books on our region, and his Pass of the North mural, with giants of El Paso's Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo history, was in our Federal Courthouse. It had a powerful impact on a child.

In El Paso, there's a mountain in the middle of our city and every December we would light a star on it to usher in Christmas. Tom Lea would read his beautiful Old Mount Franklin on television and we would look to the mountain to see the lighting of the star.

His work helped shape me as a youngster growing up in El Paso, and I felt privileged when he called to ask me to help him with his work in 1993. He'd never had anyone represent him before. Instead, he had a list of people who would wait until they received his call telling them a painting was available. He entrusted over 400 drawings to me the same year the University of Texas at El Paso asked me to record his oral history. Going over the mountain to his home every Saturday morning for two hours over a six month period was a wonderful experience, and those weekly visits changed to Monday evenings, continuing until his death in 2001.

EL: Do you have a favorite Lea work? What about it makes it special to you?

AM: The portrait he did of his wife, Sarah, following World War II is unforgettably beautiful. Tom named it Sarah in the Summertime, and he said he painted it as if lighting a votive candle in the gratefulness of being home. During the war he carried a photograph of Sarah standing in the back yard of their home, and as he traveled to theaters of war, he would look at it with a distant kind of worship. When he came home, he had Sarah pose in the same dress and he spent two years painting her, taking twenty-six days just to paint the pattern of the little flowers on her dress. Her solidity and serenity say a lot about her constancy.

I especially love it because it shows how the effects of war need not darken a person's soul. In Tom's case, the terror he experienced sharpened his appreciation of the things he loved most at home. He knew he couldn't paint Mount Franklin while the rest of the world was on fire, but he knew when he returned home, he would know all the more what Mount Franklin meant to him. He certainly knew what Sarah meant to him and said without hesitation at the end of his life that Sarah in the Summertime was his greatest work. He went on to say that the reason why he loved it most was because he knew her.

EL: Are there any anecdotes about Tom Lea you can share with us?

AM: When I opened Adair Margo Gallery in 1985, I went to visit Tom Lea at his home. Because of my respect for him, I was seeking his blessing. With initial notions of exhibiting what was "innovative" and "new," I 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 truthfulness gave me a perspective I needed, and the beginnings of a much stronger footing.

EL: Where can people learn more about Tom Lea and his works?

AM: The largest repository of his art and writing is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin, people can also see his work in the Texas State Capitol, at the Blanton Museum, and his cenotaph with Mount Franklin on Republic Hill at the Texas State Cemetery. The Bullock Texas State History Museum will host an exhibition of his work in October 2015.

Tom Lea's World War II paintings for LIFE magazine are in the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, though in storage. Some are being conserved in order to travel to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg in October 2015. In D.C., American Art has the beautiful Southwest study for the El Paso Public Library mural on view in the Luce Foundation Center; the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill has Sam Rayburn's portrait; and the State Department has a portrait of Benito Juarez in its Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

In El Paso, the El Paso Museum of Art has a Tom Lea Gallery with some of his work, though most is in storage and can be seen by appointment. The University of Texas at El Paso Special Collections has an archive of his papers and will be acquiring his letters to J. Frank Dobie. El Paso also has murals in the El Paso Public Library and the Historic Federal Courthouse. The Tom Lea Institute, established to perpetuate his legacy, hosts Tom Lea Month annually and named a Tom Lea Trail, which connects eleven Texas cities through his art, crossing the border at El Paso. Its website is a good resource, as are several booklets it has published, including J.P. Bryan's Tom Lea and Texas.

Tom Lea's public murals are in Chicago; Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas: Dallas, Texas; Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Odessa Texas; and Seymour, Texas.

His novels The Wonderful Country and The Brave Bulls are still in print, as is his two volume history of The King Ranch, which the ranch distributes. His other books, The Hands of Cantu about the arrival of the first horses in America with the Spanish, written in English as if spoken Spanish, can be found on ABE books online. To get an expansive look at his life, A Picture Gallery, published by Little, Brown and Company on ABE is great, as is the oral history I recorded, Tom Lea, An Oral History, published by Texas Western Press. Tom Lea spoke at the DeGolyer Library at SMU in 1992, a presentation they published called The Southwest is Where I Live. I go back to that little booklet over and over again. Also, in Texas A&M University Press' The Two Thousand Yard Stare, Tom Lea's World War II, Marine aviator Brendan Greeley compiled his World War II work for LIFE.

EL: Thank you! This conference is going to be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about a fantastic artist!


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