EL PASO, Texas (CBS4) — American soldiers marched off to the uncertainty of World War II with guns in their hands, but one soldier from the Borderland armed himself with something very different.
Adair Margo, founder of the Tom Lea Institute and first lady of El Paso, knew this soldier very well.
“He really realized that his best contribution was with a pencil and a brush in his hand, to be able to communicate what others experienced,” Margo said
His name was Tom Lea, and he was an admired painter during World War II who spent his life in El Paso. Margo has been sharing stories of the late artist since she was a young woman.
Lea was willing to leave his beloved El Paso when his country needed him the most.
“He said, 'I can’t paint Mount Franklin while the rest of the world is on fire. But when I get home, I’m going to know all the more what Mount Franklin means to me,” Margo said.
A new magazine promised its readers to capture the violent, harsh realities of war. Tom Lea answered the call of Life magazine, trading his life in the desert for life on the Pacific.
Lea completed four tours overseas during the war.
While commissioned by Life magazine, he sketched the Battle of Peleliu, which lasted a couple of months.
He showed Americans back home how bloody and disturbing the battlefield was.
Amongst the gory, gruesome sketches, there was one photo that would turn into his most precious painting.
“He carried a little Kodak picture of his wife Sarah in this beautiful dress that was backlit. When people asked him what his magnum opus was, he said it was right behind him in the chair and he said, 'Why, it’s 'Sarah in the Summertime.' Where there is Sarah, there is life,'” Margo said.
She said Lea came back to the Borderland, the place he loved, after the war, to work out his difficult memories of it.
That’s when he painted wife Sarah and other more calming masterpieces, including the mural "Southwest," which can be found in the El Paso History Museum.
Many of his paintings can be found in the El Paso Museum of Art, but not a single war painting is there. You will only be able to see those during Tom Lea Month in October.
Kevin Burns, the assistant curator at the El Paso Museum of Art, explained why the gory paintings are not on display.
“They’re not a part of the museum’s collection and that’s because, when Lea was commissioned to complete these for Life, Life put them in their archive of World War II artwork and then gifted them to the Department of Defense. So, they are owned by the government, on loan to us from Fort Belvoir,” Burns said.
Lea was an artist who answered the call and gave his fellow Americans a glimpse of war.
In the end, he returned home to Sarah and the Borderland.
“He said, 'Never have I tried so hard to be a voice for others. I knew they were with me and I was with them and that’s a feeling that few artists feel,'” Margo said.