Adair Margo met artist Tom Lea as a child through family connections and later represented his work at her gallery in El Paso. She also completed an oral history with Lea, at the request of the University of Texas at El Paso. That history, published by Texas Western Press in 1995, was the University of Texas Christmas gift that year and the Christmas gift from Governor George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
Margo is founder of the Tom Lea Institute and was chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities during the two-term presidency of George W. Bush.
Q: Those who admire Tom Lea’s work are passionate about it. Why do you think there’s such a deep connection?
A: Tom’s work was done for his friends. He called his pictures “a personal conversation between me and my friend.” And they were about subjects of interest to them both. Lea was much more interested in his subject than he was in a personal style. He used to say, “I don’t care if people recognize Tom Lea; I want them to recognize my subject.”
Q: How did you come to meet Tom Lea?
A: My great-granddad, the Rev. Joseph Franklin Williams, baptized Tom Lea when he was 8 years old. Tom’s mother, Zola Utt Lea, was a strong Baptist. Tom told my mother that when the Rev. Williams died, his mother took him to the mortuary to see him. He said he thought that must be what God looked like.
I grew up hearing about Tom Lea, and he was a good friend of my grandparents. My parents and grandparents had his books and art. My father bought a wonderful charcoal of revolucionarios sitting up on our rocky mountains with serapes protecting their faces from the wind. My husband, Dee, bought one of his last large oil paintings called ‘Invocation.’
Q: Why is his work particularly important in Texas?
A: He used to say that art helps people realize what they already know, they just haven’t recognized it yet.
He helps those of us in El Paso see Mount Franklin and love it more by showing it to us. The King Ranch family said they didn’t know their own history until he wrote it.
In the words of J. Frank Dobie, who was his friend and colleague, Ley’s work has come:
“Growing out of the Southwest’s own soil,
“Burned by its own suns,
“Sifted by its own winds,
“Given perspective by its own spaces,
“And humanized and dramatized in the personalities
That made up its own people.”
Q: For people who are new to Tom Lea — his art and his writing — where do you recommend they begin to get an idea of his work?
A: The best place would be this wonderful talk Tom gave that was published by the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in 1992 called “The Southwest Is Where I Live.” Also, there’s “Tom Lea, An Oral History,” published in 1995 by Texas Western Press. It’s very conversational and gives you a great overview of his life. Lea also wrote “A Picture Gallery” published by Little Brown in 1968, which is beautifully printed in two volumes, one with his words and one with loose prints of his paintings that can be framed. It’s like a walk through his life, but is out of print, although it can be found on ABE books or online.
Q: What is the current work of the institute?
A: We sponsor Tom Lea Month every October with events all over Texas. This year we’re kicking it off in D.C. with a conference at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on preserving WPA-era murals with Tom’s work as a case study.
We’re also doing a conference at Fort Belvoir on his World War II art, hopefully drawing attention to the great repository in the Army Art Collection there.
We started a Tom Lea Trail, and this year we’re bringing an Italian Renaissance scholar, Luciano Cheles, who will compare it to the Piero della Francesca Trail in Italy. Luciano will speak in Washington D.C. and then travel to El Paso, Odessa, Seymour, Austin and we hope Dallas in October. We also publish and exhibit Tom Lea’s work.