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Tom Lea Biography


Thomas Calloway Lea III was born in El Paso, Texas, on July 11, 1907, at 4:44 in the morning, at Hotel Dieu Hospital. A day and time, his father said, would ensure he would be "lucky as hell at craps." His father was Tom Lea Jr., a frontier lawyer; his mother was Zola Utt Lea. His childhood memories included the sounds of the horses from the fire station trotting down Rio Grande Street and the excitement of being awakened by a typical band playing in front of their home on Nevada Street after his father was elected mayor. 

He also recalled the details of being escorted by police officers to Lamar Elementary School with his brother Joe after Pancho Villa put a price on his father's head and threatened to kidnap the Lea boys. Young Tom attended public schools in El Paso from 1912-1924. Through his art teacher, Gertrude Evans, he learned about the Art Institute of Chicago and the noted muralist John Warner Norton, who taught there. Lea attended the Art Institute from 1924-1926, studied briefly under Norton, and became his apprentice. He quietly and independently built his standards, taking whatever seemed helpful to him as a craftsman from his academic training.


From 1926 to 1933, Lea worked as a mural painter and commercial artist in Chicago. He perfected his skills and was grateful for anything that came along – lettering for a five and dime store: Talcum Powder 59 cents, or drawing weekly portraits for the speakers scheduled at the Jewish Relief Fund. He said that every job that came along gave him the opportunity to perfect his craft.

While in Chicago he married fellow art student Nancy Jane Taylor and he earned enough money to travel third class to Europe in 1930, seeing the works of masters such as Eugene Delacroix in Paris, and Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli in Italy. Upon returning from Europe, he continued to work for Norton, leaving in 1933 for New Mexico, the place he loved visiting as a boy.

And I knew exactly where I wanted to go, but we came back to El Paso first and I bought a 1926 Dodge sedan for seventy-five dollars. One of the back windows of this sedan got broken and never was replaced. That was a two-day journey to Santa Fe in that old Dodge, and I saw my friend Fremont Ellis up there and he didn’t live on Camino del Monte Sol anymore. He lived out about eleven miles south of town in this place that he had bought, called the Rancho San Sebastian… He let me have four acres… and I had enough money to build this one-room adobe house.

In Santa Fe, Tom Lea worked for the Laboratory of Anthropology, did illustrations for New Mexico Magazine, and worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After Nancy Lea suffered a botched appendectomy, the young couple returned to El Paso where she died in 1936.


While working and living in El Paso, Tom Lea completed murals for the Texas Centennial celebration and for the Branigan Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He competed for government projects under the U.S. Treasury Department, Section of Fine Arts and won competitions to create murals across the United States including the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Washington, D.C.; Federal Courthouse, El Paso, Texas; Burlington Railroad Station, Lacrosse, Wisconsin; Post Office, Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Post Office, Odessa, Texas; and Post Office, Seymour, Texas.

In 1938 he met and married Sarah Dighton, who became his lifelong partner. Sarah was from Monticello, Illinois, and had a seven-year-old son, Jim, whom Tom adopted as his beloved son. He met the typographer and book designer Carl Hertzog, as well as the noted Texas writer J. Frank Dobie. These friendships led to numerous collaborations. Lea illustrated Dobie’s books Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver and The Longhorns. In 1940 Tom Lea applied for and won a Rosenwald Fellowship, but declined it after receiving an invitation from LIFE magazine to become an accredited war artist and correspondent.


From 1941 to 1946, Tom Lea was a War Artist correspondent for LIFE magazine, traveling over 100,000 miles to theaters of war where American forces were involved, including the North Atlantic, the South Pacific aboard the USS Hornet … a trip to China where he met Theodore H. White, and the landing of the Seventh Marines on Peleliu.

The next four years were a huge break from work in my cherished corner of homeland.

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.

Doing it that way I traveled more than a hundred thousand miles outside the United States, north and south of the Equator, east and west of the International Date Line, in lights and shadows as shaky as the Aurora weaving mysteries over the empty Ice Cap of Greenland, or a shine of parachute flare bringing night-time flash of gunfire from black jungle on a coral island.

In those years, 1941-1945, I saw, and I drew, and I painted, many kinds of things, many men, in many situations, in many places.

To this day, you see a man here who is proud- exceedingly proud – that he went out and saw it, and came back home bringing a legible, trustworthy record of what he saw. And to this day, you see a man here who is grateful- humbly grateful – that he got home with his hide intact.

I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. It was a good picture of her, taken in the sunlight in our back yard on Raynolds Boulevard. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length life size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot.

It was a painter’s votive offering made in the gladness of being home. I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass in summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah’s height of five feet six inches in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly five feet six.

The painting was done with devotion and without haste, first the back-ground, then the figure, and finally the head. I remember that I worked twenty-six days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. The canvas would stand in the studio untouched during intervals when other work made immediate demands, but I went back to the portrait each time with an interest that grew rather than diminished.

Though I used oils, it was something like painting a fresco: the design was firmly established beforehand, the painting itself was executed area by area within predetermined contours. Two years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it, framed it, and gave it to Sarah. I see it every day in our living room, and I see Sarah... ‘Sarah in the Summertime’ means more to me than I could ever put on canvas.


After World War II, Tom Lea taught himself to write. His first novel was The Brave Bulls, which he illustrated using brush and ink in a controlled, stylized way. It became a bestseller and was turned into a motion picture. His next book was The Wonderful Country, a story set in a fictitious town called Puerto – based on the city of El Paso. He illustrated it with pen-and-ink drawings that were very different than those for The Brave Bulls. Tom Lea never strove to develop an identifiable style, but preferred using the style his subject demanded. The Wonderful Country also became a bestseller and was adapted for the big screen.

In addition to works of fiction, Tom wrote and illustrated the two-volume history of The King Ranch. When he was hired, he and Bob Kleberg thought it would take about a year to complete the project and they agreed to this. The result was to be a single volume to commemorate the ranch’s centennial anniversary, but the more Tom learned, the more the project grew. It was an epic story, grew to two volumes, and was released four years after the King Ranch Centennial.

Other books include The Hands of Cantu about the training of Spanish horses on the North American continent, and In the Crucible of the Sun about King Ranch operations in Australia.


After achieving success in the literary world, Tom Lea returned to the art studio, painting southwestern subjects and scenes from his travels to Mexico and other lands. He kept a list of friends who requested his work and called them when a new one, with a subject of particular interest to them, was complete. Tom Lea never had a representative until 1993 when he asked Adair Margo if she might help him with his work.

In a broad sense I conceive of all representational painting, every line and tone and hue of it, as portraiture. To portray a tree or a stone or a lizard, a storm cloud or a horse, a river or a rainbow, is to engage in a kind of portraiture. Each requires its own study. Each demands its own probity of for . . .

Good or bad, I became a most independent practitioner of the limner’s trade, and by a notably easy method I have maintained that independence to this day. When the occasional portrait commission is offered to me, I decline it. I reserve portraiture for my own pleasure. I select my subjects, they don’t select me…

What I’ve tried to do as a painter is to express, when it comes down to it, the great privilege of living in such a majestic and mysterious world made by the Almighty. We have the privilege of living in this life in this marvelous place. And writing and painting to me don’t have anything to do with who I am and what I do, but with what is so wonderful about what’s out there. Having love in your life, having energy enough to pursue a thing with all your might and all your spirit. You’re not telling anyone about how good you are, but about how good they are because look at what they can see and do and feel in this marvelous life.

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