Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a genius of the twentieth century who worked as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, novelist, historian and easel painter. He worked alone in his native El Paso for most of his life and was never associated with Art World trends.
The Tom Lea Trail is based on the Piero della Francesca Trail in Italy and connects the regional histories of eleven Texas cities: Odessa, Seymour, Dallas, Waco, College Station, Galveston, Austin, Fredericksburg, Kingsville, and Hebbronville, crossing the border at El Paso.
Seymour and Dallas intersect the Tom Lea Trail and the Texas Lakes Trail. Even though the town of Seymour was founded by settlers from Oregon and named for a local cowboy, the extraordinary skill of the Comanche Indians as mounted warriors in the region captivated Tom Lea, prompting him to paint the mural, Comanche, for the Seymour Post Office in 1942.
Two more of Tom’s murals are located in the Hall of State at the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas. When Dallas was preparing for the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration,
Tom Lea was the obvious choice for the West Texas room. A native of El Paso, he was a well-known muralist at the time, having been trained in Chicago and competed successfully for national commissions, including the Ben Franklin Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The mural demonstrates Tom Lea’s skill in designing murals and his versatility in using different styles. With the exception of the large cowboy, the painting is modern in style, describing plant life, people, animals and mountains in distilled, flattened forms arranged rhythmically with contrasting darks and lights. The central cowboy, however, is fully three dimensional and classical. He was inspired by a Lea family friend named Lawrence Cooper, a great roper who wore “batwing” chaps and posed for him. Tom Lea paid great attention to the details of Cooper’s attire, including a pack of Bull Durham tobacco in his front shirt pocket. Since Cooper was such an “ugly old rascal,” Lea chose a cowman from Sierra Blanca for the head.
Tom Lea was inspired by Italian Renaissance paintings and his figures are archetypal. The cowboy’s head is surrounded by a halo of light while the pioneer family on the opposite wall creates a holy family, with the arches over the wagon forming the arcade of a Renaissance church. At the same time, the painting tells the story of the settlement of the West with the homestead, railroad and pioneer town.
While in Dallas, also visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which houses a reproduction of Tom Lea’s painting Rio Grande, which hung in the Oval Office of the White House from 2001 – 2008. To learn more about all the cities on the Tom Lea Trail visit http://www.tomlea.net/month2013/trail.html.
For questions, or to plan a visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, call (979) 691-4000.