Renowned El Paso artist Thomas Calloway Lea III’s work always depicted the richness of where he lived.
That included countless people of all walks of life whom he befriended on his journeys – and many others whose stories he never quite got to know.
“Tom Lea didn’t function in the art world; he functioned in the whole world,” said Adair Margo, founder of the nonprofit Tom Lea Institute, which pays tribute to the artist by documenting, presenting, teaching about and exhibiting his work.
“Amistad: The Rich Relationships of Tom Lea,” explores those friendships during this year’s Tom Lea Month celebration honoring the muralist, illustrator, novelist and historian.
A slew of events are slated throughout October, with some scheduled into the new year. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some events will be held online on YouTube Live, while in-person events will have limited capacity and require attendees wear facemasks.
“Our video programming is beautiful, high-quality and will make you feel as if you’re there live,” said Holly Packard Cobb, the institute’s executive director.
“But we really felt people wanted to get out and experience some events in-person, so we designed many outdoors and following COVID guidelines.”
Margo and Packard Cobb said that though the events will be on a smaller scale, their importance and impact remain wide-reaching.
Born in El Paso in 1907, Lea attended El Paso High School and spent his summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left school to work on murals. After traveling to Paris and Italy, he returned to Santa Fe and then to El Paso.
He completed murals in Wisconsin, Missouri and across Texas before being hired by LIFE Magazine, serving as a war correspondent during World War II. He later was aassigned to Mexico to document the history of beef cattle.
Over the years, he authored and illustrated books, painted more murals across El Paso and the Southwest, and became a studio painter.
He died on Jan. 29, 2001, in his hometown, leaving behind a treasure trove of art, stories – and friends.
“His friendships marked significant milestones in his life,” Packard Cobb said.
That included politicians, business and community leaders, and other artists and writers such as notable printer, book designer and typographer Carl Hertzog; sculptor Urbici Soler, who built the 39-foot-tall statue of Christ on Mount Cristo Rey; and Jose Cisneros, the world-class Mexican illustrator who settled in El Paso after the Mexican Revolution.
Many others Lea considered friends were everyday people, some of whom he sketched or painted not always knowing them intimately.
One of those is Juan Sánchez, the name he gave a man he sketched in Mexico.
That striking and detailed painting titled “Qué Tal, Juan Sánchez?,’ depicting a strong, dark-skinned man wearing a blue shirt and sombrero atop a horse, is on the cover of this year’s Tom Lea Month promotional materials.
Lea wrote that it was unclear to him if Sánchez was a horse thief, a revolutionary or just a man on a horse.
But he was so intrigued he made him the subject of a verse in his book, “A Picture Gallery: Paintings and Drawings by Tom Lea,” which in part reads:
“How did you ride, Juan Sánchez?”
I rode as a horseman will ride,
I rode alone, dry, with hunger,
I rode touching lightly, with pride.”
“Lea would always say all of his opportunities came from friends,” Margo said. “And he sure had a lot of them.”