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Texas Originals

Tom Lea

Author and artist who is best known for the sweeping murals inspired by West Texas landscapes. His style was described as "the wonderful, ever changing light on the structure of the world."


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July 11, 1907—January 29, 2001

A mural in the El Paso Federal Court House named “Pass of the North,” typifies the work of Texas artist Tom Lea.  Larger-than-life figures representing El Paso’s many inhabitants—a Mexican vaquero, a Conquistador, Apache Indians, and pioneers—all range across the courthouse wall.  Behind them, stark desert light illuminates a mountain range, while storm clouds sweep threaten in the distance.  In Lea’s paintings, viewers see the light, space, and stillness of his beloved Franklin Mountains, as well as the energy, motion, and even violence of life.

Born in 1907, Lea grew up a part of El Paso’s colorful history.  His father was the city’s mayor, and when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa placed a bounty on Mayor Lea’s head, young Tom traveled to school with a police escort.

Lea studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and during World War II, he traveled with the 1st Marine Division as a reporter for Life magazine.  His paintings of Pacific battles brought home the emotional toll of warfare.

Lea also illustrated books for friends, including fellow Texan J. Frank Dobie. After the war, Lea began writing books of his own. Two of his novels, The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country, became successful Hollywood films.

But Lea is most remembered for his paintings inspired by West Texas subjects — the diverse cultures, the austere desert mountains, and what he once described as “the wonderful, ever changing light on the structure of the world.”


Tom Lea: An Oral  History, ed. Rebecca Craver and Adair Margo (El Paso: Texas Western Press 1995).
Lea paraphrase is from A Literary History of the American West. Western Literature Association (U.S.), J. Golden Taylor, Thomas J. Lyon, eds. TCU Press, 1987. (p. 630).
The Tom Lea Collection. University of Texas at Austin Harry Ransom Center.
Federal Building, El Paso, Texas.

This aricle first aired on February 11, 2012.