Last month, the Tom Lea Institute and the Dallas Historical Society collaborated to hold "Tom Lea in Dallas," a two-day event celebrating Lea's work, life, and artistic and cultural contributions. J. P. Bryan, chairman-elect of the Tom Lea Institute, delivered an inspiring lecture on Tom Lea and Texas. Since Tom Lea Month is coming up in July, we are reproducing Bryan's remarks below along with a selection of Lea's work.
Bryan, the founder and CEO of Torch Energy Advisors in Houston, is also an avid collector of Texan and Southwestern art. The Torch collection spans 2,500 years and includes 10,000 pieces, including artifacts, documents, maps, drawings, paintings, and books. Learn more here.
Tom Lea occupies a remarkable position in the world of art and literature. His work rises to a level many have pursued, but few have achieved. He is as imposing a figure in his fields of artistic endeavor as Mt. Franklin has been to generations of travelers through the Pass of the North. It is only fitting that he should have established his residence resting against its base, like a headstone to the power of Creation—both human and divine.
His achievements are stunning when viewed in their separate parts—each the product of a fermenting mind endowed with a phenomenal range of near perfection in execution: landscapist, portraitist, illustrator, muralist, studio painter, fiction writer, historian, and poet. But to view the entirety of his creative talents is like a child's surprise on seeing a Christmas tree surrounded by a thousand gifts, all bearing his or her name. One is left to gasp at the incomprehensible mystery of his genius.
On demand, Lea could move gracefully from one artistic discipline to another without diminishing the quality of the new composition. It was as though each art form was competing to be the best among the rest, with no clear victor to proclaim. If you find little to be impressed with in the quality of his work, you cannot get out of the way of the volume of his output. It comes at you like a flood on a desert floor.
Tom Lea created eleven murals, often taking nearly a year to complete, with the final product preceded by numerous charcoal and ink drawings. He illustrated at least sixteen books for others and was generous in his illustrative contributions. In Charles Siringo's Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, he produced thirty-four separate illustrations. He also wrote and illustrated sixteen books of his own. Some of these were short in content and brief in time of production. Others, like The King Ranch, covered two volumes and took five years to complete.
The talents of artist and writer are not naturally compatible. An artist paints what he sees, either physically or in his mind's eye. A writer creates images and events from words—things unseen except as captured in the imagination of his readers.
Lea excelled not only as a fiction writer, but also as a historian. The King Ranch is the finest ranch history ever written. The collaborative contribution by Carl Hertzog also made it a "visual feast." As Hertzog said, "A beautiful book should first be an efficient instrument; it should be legible and easy to read. It may at the same time be a work of art, with a beauty and personality of its own."
Lea's first two books, The Brave Bulls, and The Wonderful Country, are his finest works. While fiction, they are not unlike the best of fictional works that build their foundation on historical fact. For The Brave Bulls, Lea did exhaustive work on learning all elements of the sport of bullfighting, from the raising of the bulls to the athletic maneuvers and courage of the matadors. For The Wonderful Country, he studied the history of the El Paso region in the 1880's and the important historical characters. Fitted with new names, they appear regularly throughout the book. It serves as an interesting precursor to the finest western novel ever written. If McMurtry did not gain inspiration for Lonesome Dove from The Wonderful Country, he certainly could have!
Tom Lea lived in a part of Texas as much Spanish/Mexican as it was Anglo, separated by a river but brought together by common historical, geographical, and cultural encounters. He lived during the last days of the last frontier of Texas, a period as exciting in its then present, as it had been in its past. A harsh desert country, but fragile; a "place of the long view" that expanded people's vision—not just of the land, but of themselves. It was a land crossed by heroes both visible and invisible, men and women both good and bad. The shadows of Jeff Milton, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Jim Gillette, and Pancho Villa were still on the land. The blood of the last Mexican Revolution was yet to dry, and the dust from the cattle drives was just settling. The raiding Apache had only recently disappeared over the horizon. Mexico was still a wild, uninhabited land, beckoning to the adventuresome spirit. The hot breath of the Chihuahuan Desert blew on both sides of the river.
It was a land calling inspiration to whomever would listen—the artist, the poet, or the creator of prose. Tom Lea answered that call, finding his inspiration for both The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country in the place, the people, and the culture of his Southwestern homeland. In all his literary works—as in every undertaking of his life—Tom was consumed by an attention to detail. This was a life-long addiction. It is omnipresent in everything he produced, but never more so than in these two books. As Carl Hertzog said, "Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle."
Tom Lea did not take his talents lightly. He treated them as both burden and blessing, and worked to perfect everything to which he put his hand and his signature. He admitted that for him, writing was work and painting a pleasure. Ironically, it was his critical acclaim as a writer that gave him more national recognition than his preceding twenty years as an artist. He won awards for his books and received two movie contracts, resulting in financial benefits that his paintings had never provided.
His art had provided him a living. His literary efforts provided him a financially secure life. Importantly, he proved he could write with critically acclaimed talent. Not bound by the corners of a canvas, he conveyed images and lives that inspired a wide audience of readers.
If his best years as a writer were arguably the 50's, the golden years of his artistic achievements were the 60's and 70's. During this period, he painted more than eighty oils and watercolors that he acknowledged in a 1969 letter to Henderson Shuffler to have been among his best. At that time, Lea also considered among his finest paintings, Your House Waits Yet, Juan Sánchez.
As Lea wrote, "During the whole decade of the 1960's, I have thought frequently of a fellow named Juan Sánchez, a fellow with a John Smith or Joe Blow sort of name, from south of the Rio. I have painted a number of pictures about Juan Sánchez, but until very recently I have not painted any pictures of Juan Sánchez. The fellow was always somewhere else, somewhere outside the picture. But now I am writing a novel about him; naturally, I have not only seen his face—I have done a portrait of him. He's sitting on a horse, looking straight at you, in the wildest place in the Sierra Madre."This novel was never published.
There were three individuals who influenced Lea's artistic development: one rather modestly, Fremont Ellis, one at a later stage who influenced his style, John Constable, and one most profoundly, John W. Norton.
With Ellis, Lea had two encounters: one as a teenager searching for guidance on his journey as an artist, and later as an aspiring artist who, with his wife, Nancy, moved to Santa Fe in 1933.
Ellis' influence was not that of instructor. It was more from Lea's observations of his love of the materials and devotion to the trade. Ellis was the quintessential landscapist who succeeded in the Depression, while many others sampled only failure. Lea and Nancy enjoyed a close friendship with the Ellises, but it was Norton who taught him how to paint.
From 1924 to 1933, Lea's foundational beliefs in how to capture the structure of the forms and design of the canvas came from John Norton. "Norton was a modernist but saw in modern art a new and exciting realm of purely creative form, a study of structure liberated from realism—an intellectual adventure. To copy an appearance was futile, since the limited means of pigment on canvas could never compete with reality," wrote Tom Lea. As time went on, "student Lea" became "disciple Lea."
After a trip to London in 1970, there was a noticeable evolution in Lea's work. John Norton's modernist grip on Lea's brush was beginning to lighten, and the influence of the English landscapist, John Constable, began to transform his canvases. It was from Constable that Lea recognized that light and shadows never stand still, and that light should be given prominence—even dominance. Where better does light display its wonder than in Lea's beloved Southwest, piercing the clouds and dancing on the desert mountains? Tom Lea became a Constable convert or—as a Baptist would say—he saw the light. As he wrote, "I was impressed by these wonderful sketches Constable made straight from nature and from the sky. I began having an adventure in his spirit in the Southwest."
In 1933, Norton was dying and he told Lea it was time for him to leave Chicago. "Go back to that part of the world you have held dear in your heart these many years and become your own man." So, Lea and Nancy, his wife of six years, returned to Santa Fe, a part of the world endowed with a mystical display of light, the smell of burning pinon, the sound of running water, and views of vastness interrupted by cedar and pine-covered mountains. To live there was to live at the gates of an artist's heaven.
The Leas built a one-room adobe on a hill Fremont Ellis gave them, and Tom labored as an artist—or whatever it took to survive. He even did house painting. In 1935, his beloved Nancy had an attack of appendicitis and, due to poor medical attention in Santa Fe, she died of infection some months later in El Paso.
Lea said, "I went to Santa Fe with a friend in a pickup truck, up the hill to this little house and picked out some stuff I wanted to take—drawings, sketches, old letters, and papers. The last thing was an oak easel, a gift from John Norton's wife, which John had used for most of his life." This would be the same easel that Tom would use for the remainder of his life. "The rest I left, left the key in the door, and never went back. I just forgot Santa Fe. I never saw Fremont Ellis again. I started over."
Tom Lea has often been quoted about living "on the east side of our mountain, it is the sunrise side, not the sunset side, it is the side to see the day that is coming . . . ." This statement is far more than an expression about enjoying the beginning of the day. It is a statement about the way he lived his life. He wanted a fresh start not just on each day, but on the events of his life. He put the things of the past behind him and moved to the high ground of new creation.
Tom Lea did not ruminate on the pains or failures of the past. He only looked back when he sought inspiration from heroes of history. He looked back to the lives of others, but not his own.
Tom Lea destroyed most of his work from the hill in Santa Fe. He said, "I admitted to myself they were not works of fulfillment. They were studies, attempts, groping to accomplish what I was not able to perform. I destroyed most of them and felt better after I did."
In 1936, at twenty-nine years of age, his journey to become one of America's great painters was about to begin. When it ended sixty-four years later, he left behind the legacy of a man with the master's touch. He was small in stature and overshadowed physically by many in his company. But when he stood on the body of his life's work, he towered above the rest.
Lea did countless portraits, almost never for a fee. His first was a copy of the Indian head penny, done as a teenager. He said it was among the very best he ever did. His last was of Adair Margo. Between those two works was a lifetime of exhibited skill as a portraitist of the living, the dead, and the immortals created in his imagination—like Don Vito Cantú, the protagonist in The Hands of Cantú. To sit for a portrait by Lea was to take great risk. He not only ably reproduced your physical appearance, but he also probed your invisible being and placed it on your face.
Lea said the following on the subject: "In a broad sense, I conceived all representational painting, every line and tone and hue of it, as portraiture. The delineation of the human face is only one segment of the world of portraiture." It was this talent as a portraitist that provided the leaven for all his artistic efforts. If he had done nothing more than paint portraits, he would have left a brilliant legacy. Fortunately for all of us, he chose to do much more.
Lea's murals are a phenomenal display of talent and style. We see the influence of modernism, realism, and the combination of both. Murals are the most physically demanding of artistic efforts and because of their size, difficult to execute. It is a challenge that few artists accept without a staff of supporters. Even John Norton had his helpers, Lea being prominent in that role.
Lea did his murals alone and lost nothing in the visual impact. Regardless of the subject, there is nothing subtle, no hidden conviction you must dig out from a mural by Tom Lea. It hits you like wind across a mountain top. Whether the Stampede, a forlorn dustbowl couple, or the desert southwest, a Lea mural evokes an immediate and appreciative response. You know the message the canvas means to convey. It communicates a sense of reverence for creation and the Creator.
In his lifetime, Tom Lea provided illustrations for no less than twenty books and numerous other publications, even menus depicting the XII Travelers through the Pass of the North. His illustrations improved the appearance of each literary effort—both his own and others—and enhanced the reading experience. On occasion, they are used to introduce a chapter theme. Importantly, they comprise a large body of work created over his lifetime by which to evaluate his talents. In no other area of his work is Lea's versatility so apparent.
In illustrating, the artist does not have the freedom to freelance the subject. His job is to embellish, to give visual impact to the written word. Lea proved a master of the trade. As an illustrator, he drew on the total package of talents—portraitist, landscapist, muralist.
Never are these talents more evident than in the work of Dobie's Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, and The Longhorns. His Apache Indian face with the look of Geronimo or Victorio gives meaning to the fear of capture by such an adversary. H. Bailey Carroll said J. Frank Dobie's liberal convictions were so pervasive that even his cows and horses were liberal. But for Lea, the cows and horses he painted for Dobie and others made no political statements; his were just pure realism, with the occasional touch of modernism. There is no better example than in the eleven oils painted for Life magazine as illustrations on the development of western beef cattle. Never reproduced by Life, they were reproduced by the Encino Press in 1967.
For much of his life, Lea was a studio painter, standing at the heavy oak easel of John Norton and pouring out his artistic genius. In his art, he chronicled the history of the Southwest settlements of the U.S. interwoven with its Mexican and Spanish heritage. Texas has the greatest history of any state in the Union, and if there is a part of our history that is totally different from the rest of the state, it would have to be history made at the Pass of the North. It is older and more diverse, with numerous heroes and countless tales to tell—of gold, outlaws, pony express riders, cavalry, cowboys and Indians, pioneer women and men, Spanish exploration, war and revolution.
No one has ever given us a better depiction of these events than Tom Lea, and he wrapped around them the dramatic landscapes where history was played out. He witnessed the U.S. in its finest century. He saw its end coming and preserved it as an enduring gift to future generations.
Two final observations about Lea are his contributions as a poet and his war years. As a poet, there is not a large volume of work to examine, but his poetry continues to emerge in small phrases throughout his literary efforts. As a child he wrote:
"I am the wind on the top of the mountain.
Through ages I have whispered to the sympathetic grass and whistled little tunes to stiff faces,
rocks who never seem to hear.”
His book, Randado, published in 1941, was at least —as he said—"half poetry."
"O land that lost your horseback men, remember you the riders, the long gone riders, the grey dust rider in the far-off music of the dreams of Randado."
He also wrote a poem to his imaginary friend, Juan Sánchez, which closed as follows:
"Why did you ride, Juan Sánchez?"
"Pues, señor, I rode from the choke of the noose.
I rode in the fine silver saddle on the stallion of Don Jesús."
"Will they take you now, Juan Sánchez?"
"I do not think they will.
The tracks of the wind are all they'll find
on the other side of the hill."
In The Wonderful Country, he wrote this:
"He was not prepared for the depth of the Barranca de Bavinuchi:
for the steep fall of shade on it,
for the bluffs that walled it,
for the sparkling river that watered it,
for the loamy banks that nourished it,
for the fields, gardens, orchards, groves, and
houses that adorned it,
blue beyond blue, ridge beyond ridge,
paling to the lost edge of the world."
Similes like this appear almost on cue:
The fog was thicker than a Naval secret.
Where the actual pursuit of poetry was more an avocation, it makes its appearance throughout Lea's literary career. It is not line-by-line, verse-by-verse poetry, but it is poetic expression—with metaphors, similes, and vibrant phrasing. It is best described as prose emerging as poetry. It was rarely a separate, independent method of expression, but it was Lea's ready ally when he wished to evoke emotion and imagery.
It is not poetry, but Lea's selection of names for his primary characters are a delight. Most fiction writers lose their audience over a name that either is common, silly, or a misnomer. Not with Tom Lea. His names have significance like Luis Bello in The Brave Bulls—bello, meaning beautiful in Spanish. Martin Brady in The Wonderful Country, or said Martín Bredi in Spanish. In The Hands of Cantú, there was Telco Paz—paz meaning peace, fitting to his role in life, and Don Vito Cantú—cantú meaning bell, a man calling to the world around him. But best of all is Martin Brady's horse, Lágrimas, or tears. Why would one name his horse "tears"? Because to lose him would cause one to weep forever.
When war broke out, Tom Lea was thirty-four years of age. He had a great career in the making. There was no need for him to go to war. He was too old to be drafted, so he accepted a job as a war correspondent for Life magazine. His motivation was simple: an answer to the call to duty. His country was at war. He was determined to do his part to record the events. If he had written of his war experiences as fiction, readers would have rejected them us unbelievable. As it turned out, Tom endured incredible hardships for four years. Death was a regular visitor as he traveled over 100,000 miles on assignments in the North Sea, the Pacific, Africa, China, and India. His traveling conditions in C47s, B25s, and C54As were cramped, cold, and painful. His naval experiences in the North Sea and the Pacific were especially horrifying. He nearly died in a violent storm in the North Atlantic.
Tom witnessed the sinking of the USS Wasp and left the aircraft carrier, Hornet, the only remaining carrier in the Pacific, three days before it was sunk. He was with the First Marine Division at the invasion of Peleliu Island. It was the bloodiest engagement in Marine Corps history, when considering the number of men involved. The Marines lost 1,250 of which 358 were captains or lieutenants and 5,275 were wounded. For thirty-six hours, during the worst of the invasion, men did not know if they were living or dying. Lea endured every terrifying moment, armed with a pencil and a sketchbook. He watched as soldiers, known and unknown, fell at his feet, dead or wounded—men with bloodshot, sleepless eyes, peering into the dark at an unseen enemy, and suffering in a cauldron of heat and a bed of lice and bugs. The total U.S. casualties on Peleliu, including the 81st Infantry Division, which relieved the Marines, were 1,794 killed, 8,010 wounded.
Lea was one of a group of journalists sent to draw, not photograph, the war. His images are dramatic in their capture of the mechanized might of war, the horror of combat with the twin demons of death and brutal injury held at bay only by fate. For Lea, fate chose life instead of death. He returned home with no hero's welcome. He received no medals from the armed service and he pinned no medals for bravery to his chest in any of his writings. Never did he express any pity for the years he was away from his family. He simply got on with the job of drawing what he witnessed. Thankfully, it made him famous.
J. Frank Dobie said the experiences gave Lea a better perspective of the land to which he returned. I would say that he also got a better perspective on the value of being alive; grateful to have returned to his wonderful country, a place where light and the time of day changed all that one beheld—a country that for Lea started on the east side of a mountain. Lea said, "It is a thirsty, bare and mostly empty country. It is tan, not green; it has no abounding grace of fertility and little softness to evoke ease in man's spirit. Its richness is in space, wide and deep and infinitely colored, visible to the jagged mountain rim of the world —huge and challenging space, to evoke high and challenging freedom."
Tom Lea was the greatest artist, illustrator, and writer that Texas has ever known. The same arguably can be said about his place among the entire American community of artists, illustrators, and writers. If not him, then who with similar talents has a more worthy claim to the crown? Lea's wife, Nancy, understood a lot of what he would need to do to achieve his potential. She wrote this in 1935: "Knowing him as I do, I see he must have a rude awakening. He thinks he is speaking about the country he came from by drawing a recognizable steer, a real cowboy, a rifle. That is all very well, since he must learn the realities first. But he is much more than that. If he sees it someday, he'll become a great artist; if he fails to, he will be known only as an historical reference. If someday he can paint just one human face, he'll have a lien on immortality. He is so terribly wrong in his belief that one can get at the heart of any matter by wallowing in it. He shall never see his Southwest until he climbs to the top of a very tall tree and looks down and sees that his Southwest is so infinitesimal it cannot be picked out. Then, God willing, he will see the whole of things, the one unity of life.
"The great men of this world have been ordinary, in the sense that they have been human. They fool us in their written works, or in their paintings. Their work is always better than themselves, or it could not be good at all. He cannot do little inconsequential things and not have his work reveal it. He must be constantly impressed by the burden of his obligation to humanity, until he feels quite frequently that his soul will break under its weight. He must be a lonely creature in life, if later he would walk with the immortals. He must never dodge the smallest of issues; he must face them squarely, manfully. And likewise then, he shall meet such issues in his work."
How well Lea lived up to the standards his wife articulated. She would have been proud. He, however, didn't climb a tree. He climbed a mountain, and he recognized the smallness of West Texas against the enormity of the world, but saw its uncommon character amidst all the places he had seen. Tom Lea captured beautifully that part of the West that fit so distinctly into the whole of the universe.
O Pass of the North
Now the old giants are gone
We little men live where heroes
once walked the inviolate earth.
Tom Lea should have included himself in this inscription because, with his death, one of the last of the old giants is gone. He was a hero who shared his experiences in life, including a land so magnificent he could not hold it for himself, but gave it to us—The Wonderful Country.
Tom Lea paid this tribute to his friend, Fremont Ellis:
"In love with paint, he was also in love with the land where he lived. He was not a portraitist, not a figure painter, he was a landscapist: his grand subject was Earth outdoors, under the light of the open sky; for him, a particular piece of Earth, under the light of a particular sky, the mountains and plains, the hills and valleys, the mesas and gulches, the settlements with their adobe walls under the trees by running water, the cornfields and horse pastures, the aspens and the pines, and small mankind under the light of heaven. Northern New Mexico. In daylight and dark, in storm or shine, in summer, winter, spring, or fall, for sixty-seven painting years, he felt the land's enchantment. He put his skill as a painter with his love for the looks and the moods of the land he lived in, and left us some superb pictures of it.
"I believe that Fremont Ellis addressed his deepest feelings about the Almighty and His handiwork —with a paint brush in his hand."
—Tom Lea, at El Paso, December 1989
If Lea had expanded his description to include portraitist, illustrator, muralist, studio painter, writer and poet, he could have substituted his own name for that of Ellis and properly described himself.