Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a genius of the twentieth century whose extraordinary gifts as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, portraitist, novelist, historian and easel painter brought fame to himself and to Texas.
Tom Lea’s murals of the 1930s express the history and character of the Southwest on walls of public buildings from Washington, D.C. to Dallas, Texas, and are arguably the finest of the period. As an eye-witness artist correspondent for Life Magazine during World War II, Tom Lea traveled over 100,000 miles to record U.S. and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen and their machines waging war worldwide. He wrote and illustrated bestselling novels—The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country—that were adapted into Hollywood movies, and a dozen other books about subjects as diverse as mountaineering in Wyoming, horse training in 16th century New Spain, and the history of the mammoth King Ranch. His paintings depict remote and exotic places from Ecuador to China, but primarily capture subjects found near his home on the border between Mexico and Texas.
Despite his accomplishments, Tom Lea was largely unknown outside Texas when he died on January 29, 2001. His work had taken him to every continent, but he always returned home to El Paso—to paint and to write near Mount Franklin—far from current fashions and art world trends. Tom Lea never sought the approval of a critic or the favor of a museum director, placing the majority of his paintings after World War II in the private collections of his personal friends.
Those friends have generously responded to efforts to preserve Tom Lea’s work, establishing repositories at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at El Paso and the El Paso Museum of Art. Friends have now established the Tom Lea Institute, a not-for-profit corporation, to perpetuate his legacy through collaboration and education.