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My Lunch with Tom Lea

El Pasoans celebrate their famous native son every October with a month of art, literature, and history events.
Written by Tom Russell.

A dapper Tom Lea, with the desert landscape he loved best stretching toward his own Franklin Mountains. (Photo copyright Will Van Overbeek)

El Pasoans celebrate their famous native son every October with a month of art, literature, and history events.


In a dusty window of one of my favorite bars, there is a faded carnival-size poster for a bullfight in Juárez featuring the great Manolete. Manolete was one of the most famous and revered Spanish matadors of all time, and he was killed by a bull named Islero in Linares, Spain, in 1947. 
The year prior to his death, Manolete had appeared in Juárez, and the bullfight reporter for the El Paso Times-Herald was a young painter and illustrator named Tom Lea.

When I moved back to El Paso in 1997, my first thoughts were of Tom Lea.

I’d seen his murals in many public buildings and had read his book, The Brave Bulls. It fired my interest in Barnaby 
Conrad’s La Fiesta Brava, alongside Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and Collins and Lapierre’s wonderful book on El Cordobés, Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning.

'Sometimes I'm asked what in the world I could find so special about the dried-up, bare, empty country I obviously prefer to live and work in. First, I say I was born in it, and then I say, I love it for the intensity of its sunlight, the clarity of its sky, the hugeness of its space, its revealed structure of naked earth's primal form without adornment..." – Tom Lea

Tom Lea grew up in El Paso, spent time in Paris and Chicago, and learned to draw and paint at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Later, he taught himself to write prose. By his late twenties, he was a master illustrator hired by Life magazine. 
As a WWII correspondent, he landed on the beach with the Marines at Peleliu, seeing carnage that, as he said, “would  change a man’s attitude towards a lot of things in a moment, and he would then spend 50 years trying to forget … .” Eventually Lea would land back in his beloved Southwest and devote his time to painting, researching his two-book history of the King Ranch, and writing popular, western-based novels.

Tom Lea was a man who deeply understood Southwestern history and the spiritual lay of the land. He spent his life trying to capture key imagery: the magic of light upon rock; the miraculous West Texas skies; the desolate adobe villages; the nobility of horsemen, cattle, and fighting bulls. Beyond the historical paintings, the murals and desert landscapes, his most beautiful and affecting work is the painting of his second wife, Sarah, titled Sarah in the Summertime. If there is a more passionate visual statement of one man’s love for a woman, I have never seen it.

 A few months after I arrived in El Paso, I learned that Tom, approaching 90 years of age, was still living with Sarah on the eastern edge of his beloved Franklin Mountains. He was almost blind, but spent time in his studio every day, signing prints and books that people sent up to the mountain. I gathered this information from Adair Margo, who owned a gallery in downtown El Paso and handled much of Tom Lea’s artwork. Margo has always been, and still is, the keeper of the Lea flame.

See full article in the October 2012 issue.

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