GALVESTON — You may not have heard of Tom Lea, but you have probably seen his art.
An American painter, author and illustrator, Lea has deep roots in Texas that wind all the way from El Paso to Galveston, where part of his legacy will reside.
The Bryan Museum, opening on the island in the spring of 2015, will include about 50 pieces of Lea’s work that represent highlights of his long career.
“Tom Lea occupies a remarkable position in the world of art and literature,” museum owner J.P. Bryan said. “His work rises to a level many have pursued, but few have achieved.”
A founding member of the Tom Lea Institute, Bryan will house his collection in the 1895 Galveston Orphans Home, 1315 21st St., once renovations are complete.
Also on the island are three of Lea’s Chinese ink paintings, which are a part of the permanent collection at the Blocker History of Medicine Archives at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s library.
The best known of these is “The First Recorded Surgical Operation in North America, Cabeza de Vaca, 1535,” an artful depiction of the marooned Spaniard operating on a hapless Native American from the Karankawa tribe, who, according to legend, survived.
“Lea was a trained muralist, painting 16 murals on big wall surfaces in oil on canvas, and he was an easel painter using oil, watercolor, pastel and Chinese ink,” said Adair Margo, president of the Tom Lea Institute.
Lea also was an illustrator, a war correspondent, a novelist and a historian.
“Tom was born in 1907 to Zola Utt Lea and Thomas C. Lea Jr., who was an attorney and for a time, the mayor of El Paso,” Margo said. “As a young boy, Tom had to be escorted to school by a policeman because Pancho Villa placed a bounty on his father’s head, and there was concern that the children might also be harmed.”
Lea attended the Art Institute of Chicago for two years and apprenticed with a Chicago muralist. He traveled widely in Europe and settled for a time in Santa Fe, N.M., where he made illustrations for the Laboratory of Anthropology.
Lea competed for public murals under the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts in the 1930s and painted large murals in federal courthouses, post offices and other public buildings in Dallas, Odessa, El Paso, Seymour, Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and Las Cruces, N.M., among others.
“Tom became friends with J. Frank Dobie and illustrated some of Dobie’s books, including ‘The Longhorns,’” Margo said.
From 1941 to 1945, Lea was embedded with the military all over the world, recording the war for Life magazine.
His visceral drawings of the Battle of Peleliu — observed first hand — were the subject of two of his most famous paintings — “The Price” and “That 2000 Yard Stare.” Some of the work will be exhibited at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg in 2015.
In time, Lea returned to El Paso where he worked virtually until his death in 2001.
The Tom Lea Institute was established in 2009 to preserve and share his legacy. Its board of directors met at The Hotel Galvez and Spa in May to tour the site of the new museum and view the paintings at the Moody Medical Library.
In addition to the Cabeza de Vaca surgery, the library has two portraits by Lea, one of Ashbel Smith, the father of Texas Medicine, and Dr. Truman G. Blocker, first president of the University of Texas Medical Branch, and Lea’s friend.