In 1940, El Paso Artist Tom Lea drove to Odessa, Texas to install his freshly painted mural intitled Stampede. Lea had been awarded the contract by the United States government to paint a mural as part of the New Deal. The painting, which measures 7 feet high and 17 feet long, was originally glued to the wall above the door to Postmaster W.T. Henderson’s office. In 1970, it was framed and moved across the street to the new post office where it hung until 2013. As part of a pilot program with the United States Postal Service, the Museum and Odessa Arts (formally known as the Odessa Council for the Arts & Humanities) were asked if they could restore and house the mural in a protected environment. After an extensive restoration process, the painting now hangs in the Permanent Collections gallery of the Museum as part of a 25 year renewable loan.
The Move and Restoration
The Tom Lea mural being removed for restoration.
July 30, 2015
In 1970, the downtown Post Office was moved to a larger location across the street. The Mural was peeled off the wall, glued to a plywood backing and then framed as you see it today. The Mural hung in the lobby from 1971 to 2015.
In 1995, The Ellen Noël Art Museum (then called The Art Institute of the Permian Basin) held a rededication ceremony of Stampede in conjunction with the exhibit Dignity Beyond Borders: A Tom Lea Retrospective. Tom Lea and his wife, visited the mural and toured the exhibition at the museum. The museum director, Marilyn Bassinger, recalled his visit. “As [Tom Lea] walked through the galleries, he said softly, ‘This has been so important for me. This is the last time I will see these paintings, you see.”
On September 23rd 2014, a group of Odessans traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in a two day conference at the Smithsonian Institute entitled The Art of Tom Lea: Preserving Our National Heritage, a Case Study for Preserving New Deal Murals in the United States. This began with a program, organized by the Tom Lea Institute, which consisted of several panels and presenters discussing such questions as, ‘Does Regional Art Matter?’ ‘Do Regional Murals Communicate To The World?’ and concluded with a talk by Tom Lea Institute President, Adair Margo, entitled, ‘Transcending Texas: The Tom Lea Trail.’ This conference would open the door for future discussions in restoring Stampede.
In May of 2015, the Museum and Odessa Council for the Arts and Humanities collaborated with the United States Postal Service in a ground breaking program for non-profit organizations to help preserve New Deal Artwork owned by the USPS. This project will be used as a case study for future collaborations across the country between the USPS and other nonprofits.
In the 1990’s, the mural was damaged by vandals. Most damaging were multiple cut marks made by a box cutter. Tom Lea came to Odessa to fill in the slash marks made by the knife. The most noticeable repair was on the cheek of the cowboy where Lea used a large amount of flesh colored paint to do the restoration. Note the yellowing drip on the cowboy’s shirt at the top and the white blemish on the sleeve in the lower right corner of the photo.
Removal of Lea’s restoration reveals several cut marks on the canvas and the original texture of the paint on the cowboy’s cheek. Now that the cleaning has been finished, the yellowing drip and the white blemish on the sleeve are gone.
Thomas Calloway “Tom” Lea III was born in El Paso, Texas, on July 11, 1907, to a frontier lawyer and his wife, Tom and Zola Utt Lea. Tom Lea Sr. was mayor of El Paso from 1915-1917 during the stormy years of the Mexican Revolution. Tom Lea attended public schools in El Paso from 1912-1924 and, through his art teacher, learned about the Art Institute of Chicago and the noted muralist John Warner Norton, who taught there. Lea attended the Art Institute from 1924-1926, studying briefly under Norton and becoming his apprentice. From 1926-1933, Lea worked as a mural painter and commercial artist in Chicago, leaving in 1933 for the place he loved visiting as a boy, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
In Santa Fe, Tom Lea worked for the Laboratory of Anthropology, did illustrations for Santa Fe Magazine and worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) before returning to El Paso. Living back home, Tom Lea completed murals for the Texas Centennial celebration and for the Branigan Library in Las Cruces. He competed for government projects under the U.S. Treasury Department, Section of Fine Arts and won competitions for murals across the United States including the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Washington, D.C.; Federal Courthouse, El Paso, Texas; Burlington Railroad Station, Lacrosse, Wisconsin; Post Office, Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Post Office, Odessa, Texas; and, Post Office, Seymour, Texas.
From 1941-1946, Tom Lea became an eye-witness reporter for Life, traveling over 100,000 miles to theaters of war where American forces were involved, including the North Atlantic, the South Pacific on board the Hornet in the South Pacific, a trip to China where he met Theodore H. White, and landing on Peleliu. His writing and painting appeared in Life Magazine between April, 1942 and July, 1945. Lea’s experience of landing with the first assault wave of the First Marines on Peleliu became a book he wrote and illustrated Peleliu Landing (1945).
The last mural Tom Lea completed was for the El Paso Public Library in 1956. Entitled Southwest, the painting was done as a gift for the citizens of El Paso by the artist, assisted by his wife Sarah. Lea’s later years were devoted to the easel, in oil, watercolor, casein tempera, pastel and Chinese ink with landscape as the predominant subject landscape.
The first dinner given by Gov. and Mrs. George W. Bush in the Texas Governor’s Mansion was to honor Tom Lea. The governor read from Tom Lea, An Oral History, recorded by Adair Margo, for friends that included Mrs. John Connally, Lady Bird Johnson, and the Kleberg family of the King Ranch. When accepting the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 2000, George W. Bush quoted Tom Lea about living on the “sunrise side of the mountain, “ and, after his election, he made it known that a Tom Lea painting would hang in the Oval Office.
Tom Lea died on January 29, 2001 following a fall at home. Laura Bush traveled to El Paso for the memorial service, the first trip she made as first lady of the United States. While in El Paso, she requested the loan of Tom Lea’s painting Rio Grande from the El Paso Museum of Art to hang in the Oval Office.
Inspiration for Stampede
After getting the bid from the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, Lea was tasked with deciding the subject matter for the Odessa Post Office mural. In the early spring of 1940, Lea was asked by Frank Dobie to illustrate a book that he had just written about longhorns. Lea studied the anatomy of cattle and was inspired by the song Little Joe the Wrangler. He would use these two factors to determine the subject matter of the Odessa mural.
Little Joe the Wrangler
Jack Thorpe, along with John Lomax was the first to see the value of collecting cowboy songs. Producing the first book of cowboy songs in 1908 (Songs of the Cowboys) Thorpe penned the classic cowboy song, “Little Joe the Wrangler.” This one song captures something essential in our idea of the American West. It is about an orphan, alone in the Wild West, who is taken in by a cowboy crew and asked to do a man’s job. Unfortunately, Little Joe’s life ends in tragedy.
Frank Dobie had sent a carbon copy of several chapters to his new book The Longhorns to Lea in the early spring of 1940. The publishers in Boston wanted Lea to illustrate the book. In preparation for that work Lea conceived a color painting of a stampede (shown to the left). Lea spent several days studying and diagramming the anatomy of cattle, attending local rodeos and visiting stockyards. Overall, forty-three black and white illustrations and the one-inch scale color design for Stampede where made and sent to the printers just before Christmas of 1940.
Study for Stampede
Tom Lea, Study for Stampede, 1940, oil on canvas, 14 3/8 x 34 1/4 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976