Beginning in El Paso where Tom Lea was born, you can find the mural that solidified Lea’s reputation as a Texas muralist and draftsman. The mural’s location, a wall 12 feet high and 53 feet long in the El Paso federal courthouse, proved a good canvas for Lea to use. It was there that Lea painted his first true masterwork—Pass of the North. The desert-landscape background includes larger-than-life figures such as a U.S. soldier, a Franciscan priest, a Mexican vaquero, a Spanish explorer, pioneer settlers, Apaches, a Texas rancher, a prospector, and a town sheriff.
Born in 1907, Lea expressed an interest for the arts throughout childhood. When he was 18, Lea left El Paso for the Art Institute of Chicago where he accomplished two years of formal training, as well as a five-year apprenticeship with Chicago muralist John Norton. When Lea returned to El Paso, he was already an accomplished artist.
Moving up north to Dallas is the extravagant Hall of State built to house the exhibits of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Lea was among several artists commissioned to decorate the interior. Now you can find Lea’s History of Beef Cattle paintings at the Dallas Museum of Art.
(Stampede Mural, 1940, Post Office, Odessa, Texas)Traveling south you will find examples in Austin, including a full-color oil called The Lead Steer at the Blanton Museum of Art as well as A Little Shade in Waco’s Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. The iconic cowboy continued to dominate Lea’s subject matter.
Further south, the UT Galveston Moody Medical Library houses Lea’s The First Recorded Surgical Operation in North America, Cabeza de Vaca. The skillful hand of Lea brings to life the Spanish explorer removing a flint arrowhead from the wounded chest of a Native American.
Lea was also a published author. His best-selling novel titled The Brave Bulls was published in 1948. In 1951 it was made into a movie starring Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn. Another of Lea’s novels is titled The Wonderful Country and is published by TCU Press.
A few other books focusing on Tom Lea and his artwork are listed below:
1. Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People (TAMU Press, 2004) by Philip Parisi is a volume full of 115 photographs that depict the stunning and historic works of art that grace the walls of any of the sixty post offices and federal buildings in the state of Texas.
2. The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea’s World War II (TAMU Press, 2008) by Tom Lea and Edited by Brendan M. Greeley Jr., features Lea’s firsthand accounts of his experience during World War II when he was commissioned by Life magazine to paint the war as it was happening.
3. The Art of Tom Lea: A Memorial Edition (TAMU Press, 2003) by Kathleen G. Hjerter makes available the full range of his vigorous work. Old admirers of Lea’s talents will delight in this presentation, and a whole new generation will be awed by the unique contribution he has made.
4. Literary El Paso (TCU Press, 2009) edited by Marcia Hatfield Daudistel brings attention to the often overlooked extraordinary literary heritage of this city in far West Texas. The works of Tom Lea and many other artists are featured in the book as well.
If you would like to read the original article featuring Tom Lea, click here for a link to Texas Highways.