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Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907-2001

April 8 - May 29, 2005


Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907-2001, on exhibit at the Art Museum of South Texas from April 8 - May 29, 2005, pays tribute to renowned West Texas artist Tom Lea Born in El Paso in 1907, Lea studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was an apprentice muralist in the late 1920s and 1930s. During the Great Depression, he painted murals in Texas, Missouri and Washington, D.C., for the Works Progress Administration. He was hired as a war correspondent for Life magazine in the late 1930s, and created images documenting the raw emotion and brutality of war. (right: Tom Lea, Portrait of Dick Kleberg, 1962, ink on paper. Courtesy Mary Lewis Scott Kleberg)

Returning to El Paso after the war he produced six books, including two best-selling novels. Though he continued to write, painting again became his priority in the early 1970s. While Lea primarily focused on regional imagery of the American Southwest, his themes are universal. Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907-2001 tells the story of Lea's career through 60 drawings, watercolors, paintings and prints. It is co-curated by William Thompson, independent curator and Lea scholar, and Debora Rindge, Professor of Art History and specialist in western American art. The exhibit is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a National Division of Mid-America Arts Alliance with the Texas Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.


More on Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907-2001[1]

A painter, muralist, illustrator, and author, Tom Lea packed a lot of art-and a lot of life-into 93 years. Except for a body of work done while he was a World War II correspondent, Lea's oeuvre depicts, in both images and words, the austere beauty of the American Southwest and its stalwart inhabitants. Although Lea was a living legend in his native Texas by the time he reached 50, his fierce artistic independence and his disdain for personal homage and publicity rendered him largely unknown beyond his home state. (right: Tom Lea, Invocation, 1987, oil on panel. Collection El Paso Museum of Art)

Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907-2001, an exhibition of paintings, works on paper, photo panels, posters, and ephemera, will acquaint museumgoers across the country with an extraordinary artist. Though Lea primarily focused on regional imagery of the American Southwest, his themes are universal, and viewers from all parts of the country will find much to appreciate in his work.

Lea studied for three years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was an apprentice to John Warner Norton, one of the most respected muralists of the 1920s and 1930s. During the Great Depression, Lea painted murals in Washington, D.C., Texas, Missouri, and New Mexico for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like other prominent American regionalists, he was less influenced by European modernism and generally preferred to render landscape and people in a realistic style.

In the late 1930s, Lea expanded his artistic repertoire by illustrating books by writer and folklorist J. Frank Dobie. By World War II his illustrations-particularly his ability to portray the common person-had attracted the attention of publisher Henry Luce, who hired him as a war correspondent for Life magazine. Lea accompanied the Allied forces into both theaters of war, documenting the horrific reality and raw emotion of war in a way that had rarely been seen before.

Lea returned to El Paso following the war and took up yet another career alongside his painting-this time, that of a writer. He produced six books over the next 20 years, including a two-volume history of the King Ranch in Texas and two best-selling novels; in the early 1970s painting again became his priority, although he continued to write.

In addition to paintings and works on paper, the exhibition will include photographic reproductions of some of the artist's murals, copies of Life magazine showing his work, and Lea's sketchbooks and novels, all of which acquaint viewers with the totality of a remarkable life and career.


Tour Schedule:

Sept. 1, 2004 - Oct. 20, 2004,
First Division Museum at Cantigny;
Wheaton, Illinois
Nov. 4, 2004 - Dec. 18, 2004,
J Wayne Stark Univ. Center Galleries;
College Station, Texas
Jan. 28, 2005 - Mar. 16, 2005,
Museum of the Southwest;
Midland, Texas
Apr. 6, 2005 - May 25, 2005,
Art Museum of South Texas;
Corpus Christi, Texas
Nov. 10, 2005 - Feb. 12, 2006,
Austin Museum of Art;
Austin, Texas
Mar. 1, 2006 - Apr. 17, 2006,
El Paso Museum of Art;
El Paso, Texas


Resource Library editor's notes:

1. Additional text adapted from exhibition information courtesy of Exhibits USA; Kansas City, MO. RL readers may enjoy TFAO's article Planning, Organizing and Touring Art Exhibitions which explains how exhibition tours are arranged.

Subsequent exhibition:

In July 2009 the El Paso Museum of Art presented The Nesters, including original drawings by Tom Lea on loan from Adair Margo Fine Art. The Museum displayed the drawings from Tom Lea's 1936 mural done for the Ben Franklin Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  The Nesters was Lea's first mural project award under the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts Department. The drawings were created in Lea's studio on Texas Street in El Paso and are the only remnant of this mural.  The original was removed from the wall in a remodeling project after World War II, rolled and stashed in an unknown location.

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rev. 7/29/09

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