Tom Lea, LIFE and World War II
THOMAS CALLOWAY LEA III
July 11, 1907 – January 29, 2001
Tom Lea was a genius of the twentieth century with extraordinary gifts as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, portraitist, landscapist, novelist and historian. His murals, dating from the 1930s, express the history and character of distinct regions of the United States and are found on the walls of public buildings from Washington, D.C. to El Paso, Texas. They are arguably the finest murals of the period. As an eye-witness artist correspondent for LIFE magazine during World War II, Tom Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles to record U.S. and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen waging war worldwide. He wrote and illustrated bestselling novels —The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country — that were adapted into Hollywood movies, and a dozen other books about subjects as diverse as mountaineering in Wyoming, horse training in 16th century New Spain, and the history of the King Ranch. His paintings depict remote and exotic places from Ecuador to China, but primarily capture subjects found near his home on the border between Mexico and Texas.
Despite his accomplishments, Tom Lea was relatively unknown outside of Texas. His work took him to every continent, but he always returned home to El Paso—to paint and to write near Mount Franklin—far from Art World trends. Tom Lea never sought the approval of critics or the favors of museum directors. His work was placed primarily in the private collections of his personal friends.
Thomas Calloway Lea III died on January 29, 2001.
Slightly more than a year before he died, Tom Lea told me there are so very few artists with enough reverence for the vastness of the world…the definition of two things: infinity and eternity. You know, that’s the majesty and mystery of what’s all around us.
Tom’s greatest desire was to use the tools of both artist and writer to express the wonder of life.