Tom Lea was a muralist, author, illustrator and fine artist known for his Texas landscapes and for his work as a war-time artist and correspondent.
Tom Lea was born in El Paso, Texas to a prominent local family. His father, an attorney, was mayor of El Paso from 1915 to 1917, during the Mexican Revolution. After Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, Mayor Lea vowed to arrest Villa if he tried to enter El Paso. Villa responded with a 1000 peso gold bounty on the Mayor. As a result, the Lea house was under 24-hour guard and young Tom and his brother, Joe, had a police escort to and from school for six months.
Lea attended El Paso schools, graduating in 1924. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924 to 1926 and then apprenticed with Chicago muralist John W. Norton. Norton suggested that Lea make a tour of Europe to study the masters so in 1930 Tom and his wife of three years, Nancy June, sailed for Paris and then spent four months touring Italy before returning to the U.S. aboard the Ile de France.
In 1933, Lea decided to return to the Southwest, and he and Nancy settled in Santa Fe where they could enjoy the camaraderie of other artists. Lea joined the staff of the Laboratory of Anthropology (then a private research organization and now a unit of the Museum of New Mexico) where he did his first book illustration project, H.P. Mera's, The "Rain Bird;" A Study in Pueblo Design (1937). He also did illustration work for Santa Fe Magazine along with any other jobs that would help him scrape together a living during the depths of the Depression. The Lea's time in Santa Fe was cut short when Nancy endured a botched appendectomy in 1936, and the couple moved to be with family in El Paso. Nancy died shortly thereafter.
Lea won his first mural commission (independent of John Norton) in 1935, for paintings honoring the Texas Centennial Celebration at the Texas State Fairgrounds. The same year he started a mural for the Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico. These were followed by U.S. Post Office murals for government buildings, commissioned by the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. They included: the U.S. Post Office Department Building in Washington, D.C.; Federal Courthouse, El Paso, Texas (1938); U.S. Post Office, Pleasant Hill, Missouri (1939); U.S. Post Office, Odessa, Texas (1940); and U.S. Post Office, Seymour, Texas (1942). In 1956, Lea donated a mural to the El Paso Public Library.
While painting the El Paso Courthouse mural, Lea met Sara Dighton Beane who was visiting from Illinois. They were married in 1938. Sara had one son, James, who Lea adopted.
Lea began his second book project in 1937 illustrating cowboy life and the Southwestern landscape for J. Frank Dobie's Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver (1939) followed by Dobie's The Longhorns (1940). While working on the former volume, Lea met the El Paso book designer and typographer Carl Hertzog, and they began a life-long friendship and collaboration. In their first project together, Lea illustrated a book of square-dance calls, Honor Your Pardner (1940), that Hertzog was publishing. By that time, however, Lea had turned his attention to writing as well as illustrating his own books. In 1941 they published Lea's Randado, the story of an 18th century Texas ranch.
World War II interrupted the publishing collaboration, but not Lea's new writing career. In the summer of 1941 Lea received an offer from Life magazine to be an artist/correspondent with the U.S. Navy. Giving up a generous Rosenwald fellowship which would have given him freedom to paint as he chose, Lea jumped at the chance to travel and to assist in the war effort. His deployments aboard ship took him to China, Great Britain, Italy, India, North Africa, the North Atlantic, the Middle East and the Western Pacific. He witnessed and recorded such events as the sinking of the USS Wasp in 1942 and the U.S. invasion of the island of Peleliu in 1944. Lea's articles and illustrations appeared in Life between April 1942 and July 1945. In 1946 Life commissioned Lea to paint a series depicting the history of western beef cattle which the magazine gave to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
Lea's wartime experiences gave him ample material for his illustrated book projects. Hertzog published Grizzly from the Coral Sea in 1944 and Peleliu Landing in 1945. Thereafter, Lea returned his attention to the Southwest and Mexico, publishing Calendar of Twelve Travelers through the Pass of the North in 1946 and Bullfight Manual for Spectators in 1949. Lea then tried his hand at fiction with The Brave Bulls (1949) and The Wonderful Country (1952), The Primal Yoke (1960), and The Hands of Cantu (1964). Published by Little, Brown, and Company in Boston, the novels received wide attention. The Brave Bulls and The Hands of Cantu both won literary prizes from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Brave Bulls also became a motion picture (with Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, 1951) as did The Wonderful Country (with Robert Mitchum and Julie London, 1959.)
Lea continued to write and illustrate non-fiction histories including The King Ranch (1960), In the Crucible of the Sun (about King Ranch operations in Australia, 1974), and the autobiographical The Southwest: It's Where I Live (1992). He also published three books of his paintings: Tom Lea: A Portfolio of Six Paintings (1953), Western Beef Cattle: A Series of Eleven Paintings by Tom Lea (1967), and A Picture Gallery: Paintings and Drawings by Tom Lea (1968). Lea illustrated twelve books by other authors in addition to those already mentioned.
Aside from the book illustrations, most of Lea's paintings from the 1950s on were commissions or special requests from friends. Most were the southwestern landscapes and cowboy genre pictures he was known for. Lea also enjoyed portraiture, but he did not take portrait commissions, saying: "I select my subjects. They don't select me." Two notable exceptions to his rule were Mexican President Benito Juarez (1948) and U.S. Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn (1966).
Lea received many awards and accolades for his lifetime of accomplishment including honorary doctoral degrees from Baylor and Southern Methodist Universities. The first dinner held at the Texas governor's mansion after the inauguration of George W. Bush was in honor of Lea. Bush quoted Lea in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President, and Laura Bush selected a Lea painting, Rio Grande, to hang in the Oval Office. In 2007 more than a dozen public institutions in El Paso and Las Cruces joined together for a month-long celebration of Tom Lea's life. President Bush served as the honorary chairman.