Tom Lea

born El Paso, TX 1907-died El Paso, TX 2001
Media - portrait_image_114919.jpg - 90510
Tom Lea, about 1938. Unidentified photographer, from Forbes Watson papers, courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
El Paso, Texas, United States
El Paso, Texas, United States
  • American

Tom Lea was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. An early art class exposed him to the work of John Warner Norton, a muralist and teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1924, Lea moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute, only to leave two years later for an apprenticeship with Norton helping to paint murals in the Chicago area. After a brief trip to Europe, during which he studied paintings by masters such as Eugène Delacroix and Piero della Francesca, Lea returned to Chicago and eventually moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he created illustrations for New Mexico magazine. In 1936 he moved back to El Paso to paint murals for the Texas Centennial celebration and compete for government-sponsored mural projects. He won competitions for post office murals in Washington, D.C.; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Odessa, Texas. During World War II, as an artist-correspondent for Life magazine, Lea traveled more than one hundred thousand miles, documenting troop activities from Greenland to China and throughout the Pacific. Back home in El Paso after the war, he became one of the country’s leading book and magazine illustrators, particularly of Western scenes. When he began to lose his sight in the 1990s, Lea shifted to a more abstract style and continued painting the landscape of his beloved Southwest. (Myrna Zanetell, "Remembering Tom Lea (1907-2001): A look at the seven-decade career of this Texas legend," Southwest Art, June 2001)