Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Artist Tom Lea

The artist Tom Lea was born in El Paso, Texas at 4:44 a.m. during the 7th month in 1907. With this combination of numbers in his birthdate, Lea would later joke in his biography, “I should be lucky as hell at craps.” After graduation from high school, he left El Paso and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he studied . Later, he moved to Chicago where he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met and married Nancy Jane Taylor. 

Lea eventually quit the Art Institute. He then dedicated his work to the creation of murals under the mentorship of the famed mural artist John Norton. Lea, under the encouragement of Norton, then travelled to Italy with his wife so that he could study the Italian style of murals in 1930.

In 1936, after returning to Santa Fe, Nancy developed a severe pain in her side and he rushed her to the hospital. Unfortunately, the condition of the hospital where the appendectomy took place was very poor for the time and Nancy’s incision became infected. They moved back to El Paso where Nancy was hospitalized. In April of that year Nancy died. Later that same year, his grandmother and then his mother passed away. That year he painted a work that he titled “Lonely Town”. Of the painting he said, “I think the deaths in my family probably echoed in my subconscious mind in this painting”.

Lonely Town

Many of Lea’s murals that he created during the 1930s still exist. The West Texas Room of the Texas Hall of State in Dallas, Texas; Branigan Cultural Center, Las Cruces, New Mexico; the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Washington, D.C.; the Federal Courthouse, El Paso, Texas; the Post Office in Pleasant Hill, Missouri and the Post Office in Odessa, Texas.

Texas Hall of State in Dallas

Texas Hall of State in Dallas

When World War II broke out Lea became an Accredited War Artist-Correspondent of Life magazine. During the war, he served aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic.

Tom Lea during World War II

In his book “The Southwest. It’s Where I Live” he described his experience during the war:

"I became, for deeply felt reasons, an eye-witness reporter, in drawings and paintings, of men and their machines waging a war worldwide.

I want to make it clear that I did not report hearsay; I did not imagine, or fake, or improvise; I did not cuddle up with personal emotion, moral notion, or political opinion about War with a capital-W.  I reported in pictures what I saw with my own two eyes, wide open."

Lea’s artwork never glorified war. Instead, it caught the terrible human trauma that it inflicted on everyone. “The 2,000 Yard Stare” might be the most haunting painting of the war.

The 2,000 Yard Stare
After the war, Lea picked up the pen and started writing. Among his writings was the novel The Brave Bulls (1949), which Time Magazine declared The Brave Bulls "the best first novel of the year".

Lea died January 29, 2001. He’s buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas.

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