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Tom Lea's life and history

July 11, 1907

Born in El Paso, Texas, to Tom and Zola Utt Lea.

1912 – 1924

Attends Lamar Elementary and El Paso High Schools. Spends summers in Santa Fe. Mentored by librarian Maud Durlin Sullivan, and art teacher Gertrude Evans.

1924 – 1926 

Studies at Art Institute of Chicago. Marries art student Nancy Jane Taylor.

1926 – 1933

Leaves school to work on murals. Becomes apprentice to John Warner Norton. Travels to Paris and Italy, where he sees Italian Renaissance murals for the first time.

1933 – 1935

Moves to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Works at the Laboratory of Anthropology, copying Pueblo Indian designs. Completes Conquistadors and Old Mesilla murals, New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University), Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Returns to El Paso where Nancy, his mother, and grandmother die within the same year.


Completes Branigan Memorial Library mural, Las Cruces, New Mexico; Texas Centennial murals, Hall of State, Dallas State Fairgrounds; The Nesters mural (lost), Ben Franklin Post Office, Washington, D.C.


Completes The Baptism of Christ mural, First Baptist Church, El Paso, Texas (lost). Competes for San Antonio Post Office murals and Pass of the North mural, Federal Courthouse, El Paso. Awarded El Paso commission.


Marries Sarah Catherine Dighton of Monticello, Illinois. Adopts Sarah’s son, James Dighton.


Completes Burlington Railroad Station mural, Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Completes Back Home 1865 mural, Pleasant Hill, Missouri. Illustrates Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver and John C. Duval: First Texas Man of Letters by J. Frank Dobie. Completes The Stampede mural, Odessa, Texas Post Office. Illustrates The Longhorns by J. Frank Dobie.


Illustrates children’s book, Hills of Gold. Writes and illustrates Randado, designed and printed by Carl Hertzog.

1941 – 1946

Completes Comanches mural, Seymour, Texas Post Office. Awarded Rosenwald Fellowship he declines after hired by LIFE magazine. Travels 100,000 miles. Writes and illustrates Grizzly from the Coral Sea and Peleliu Landing. Travels to Mexico for LIFE, documenting history of beef cattle.


Begins work on a novel, teaching himself to write. Completes painting Sarah in the Summertime.


Writes and illustrates bestseller The Brave Bulls. Novel adapted to Hollywood movie with the world premiere at El Paso’s Plaza Theatre.


Writes and illustrates bestseller The Wonderful Country. Novel adapted to Hollywood movie with world premiere at El Paso’s Plaza Theatre. Writes and illustrates The King Ranch. Completes Southwest mural, El Paso Public Library. Writes and illustrates The Primal Yoke.

1960 – 1966

Illustrates Knight in the Sun for El Paso author Harper B. Lee. Writes and illustrates The Hands of Cantu. Paints Ranger Escort West of the Pecos for Texas Gov. John Connally. Paints portrait of Sam Rayburn for Rayburn Building, Washington, D.C.

1967 – 1968

Western Beef Cattle: A Series of Eleven Paintings by Tom Lea published by Encino Press, Austin. Writes and illustrates A Picture Gallery.


Writes and illustrates In the Crucible of the Sun, published by King Ranch, Inc., Kingsville.

1974 – 1997

Works as studio painter in El Paso. Receives Colonel John W. Thomason, Jr. Award by U.S. Marine Corps. Records Tom Lea, An Oral History with Adair Margo. The El Paso Museum of Art establishes Tom Lea Gallery.

January 29, 2001

Tom Lea dies in El Paso, Texas. Funeral held at the First Baptist Church, February 1, 2001. First Lady Laura Bush attends.

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