Tom Lea, LIFE and World War II
Nov 11, 2022 — Feb 11, 2023
This exhibit made possible with the generous support of Oats & Marino.
This exhibition features a selection of Tom Lea’s output as an artist-correspondent for LIFE magazine during World War II. Between 1941 and 1946, Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles to document service men and their surroundings. From Canada to Algiers, from China back to the United States, Lea painted and sketched significant events of the time, but with the firsthand experiences of service members in mind. His frank and dramatic images are still poignant.
Time and again in his role as an artist-correspondent, Lea would deploy with or visit service members in the military so he might observe them as soldiers and as people. As a painter and draftsman, he had the skill and creative freedom to reinterpret his observations into impactful, detailed compositions that provided a great narrative sense of events. This was a result of the time he spent with his subjects making sketches and taking notes. It was a personal exchange, even if it was brief. Because he was there in person, he understood the stresses of combat, as well as the environments in which it took place. His notes and sketches could cut through the thick fog of the North Atlantic or acrid battlefield smoke in Micronesia. The implied clarity and sense of purpose in Lea’s work provided his LIFE magazine audience with a sense of what war was like, as well as the military and personal ramifications of the events he documented.
So why was Tom Lea’s work important during wartime and why is it important to revisit now? The uncanny emotional resonance of his images communicated the gravity of what was at stake when they were new. Now it serves as a reminder of what can happen during a time of global economic and social upheaval.
Tom Lea, LIFE Magazine, and World War II is arranged in chronological order beginning to the right of this text proceeding clockwise. The World War II LIFE Magazine Collection is on loan from the United States Army Center of Military History.
Thomas Calloway Lea III was born in El Paso, Texas in 1907. His earliest memories include a band playing outside the family home after his father was elected mayor of El Paso. He also famously recounted being escorted by police to school because Pancho Villa put a price on his father’s head. Another formative moment from his school days included learning about the Art Institute of Chicago from his art teacher Gertrude Evans. He eventually made it to the AIC where he studied under the noted muralist John Warner Norton. Later he settled in Santa Fe and worked for a short while for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression before moving home to El Paso. There he won mural commissions across the United States including the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in Washington, D.C. and the Federal Courthouse in El Paso, Texas, among others. Lea was also an author known for his bestselling novels The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country. Another project for which he gained renown was the two-volume history, The King Ranch, written in collaboration with Richard King. Their words and Lea’s illustrations gave voice to the storied institution that shaped the American beef industry and ranch culture. Lea had a robust studio practice and many patrons that supported him until his death in 2001.