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The left-hand panel of Tom Lea's mural "Pass of the North" depicts El Paso's earliest European settlers. (Image from "The Art of Tom Lea: A Memorial Edition," compiled by Kathleen G. Hjerter)

‘A rodeo cowboy posed for the Spanish conquistador. Lea picked up the morion, cutlass and doublet from Hollywood’

Approaching the Rio Grande from the south in 1581, Spanish explorers found two mountain ranges jutting from the desert floor, split by a chasm they dubbed El Paso del Norte (“The Pass of the North”). The Spaniards weren’t the first to use the pass; Indians had been using it for centuries. Nor would they be the last, as settlers established towns on either side of the river—to the south Ciudad Juárez, and to the north, in what became Texas, a settlement first called Franklin and later renamed El Paso.

During the Depression, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts chose artist Tom Lea to paint a mural at the El Paso Federal Courthouse. His 1938 masterpiece, Pass of the North, showcased those who embodied El Paso—Indians, missionaries, conquistadors, soldiers, miners, lawmen and settlers, Mexican and American.

“The various figures all have one salient thing in common—their fierce resolve to conquer the hostile desert and establish the social order in a frontier environment,” Philip Parisi wrote of the mural in the book Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shaping of American Political Culture, Volume 1 (2001). “Their dream was to create a better life, each in his and her own way. But they all were willing to undergo extraordinary hardships.”

Above the archway separating the panels an inscription reads:


Tom Lea was certainly one of those giants.

Born in El Paso on July 11, 1907, Lea studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Italy, married and settled in New Mexico. Widowed in 1936, he returned to El Paso and was awarded federal mural projects in El Paso and for the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in Washington, D.C.; the Burlington Railroad Station in Lacrosse, Wis.; and the post offices in Pleasant Hill, Mo., and Odessa and Seymour, Texas. He also illustrated J. Frank Dobie’s books Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, First Texas Man of Letters and The Longhorns.

During World War II, Lea served as an artist/correspondent for Life. After the war, he wrote and illustrated his own books. Filmmakers adapted his classic Western novels The Brave Bulls (1949) and The Wonderful Country (1952), and his two-volume nonfiction book The King Ranch (1957) became the definitive tome about the great south Texas ranch established by Captain Richard King. Lea didn’t quit painting, however, creating portraits as well as another mural, Southwest, for the El Paso Public Library in 1956.

A rodeo cowboy posed for the Spaniard in the Pass of the North mural, Lea told interviewer Adair Margo. The artist picked up the morion, cuirass and doublet from Hollywood. C.S. Fly photographs of the Apaches inspired his Indians. A charro from Juárez portrayed the Mexican, and a priest from Saint Anthony’s Seminary in El Paso modeled for the Franciscan friar. And the prospector’s pants? “[They] were my grandfather’s buckskin britches that he used when he was a surveyor up in northern Minnesota back in the 1870s,” Lea told Margo.

“I tried to make [the mural as] authentic as I possibly could,” he said, “and had a great, great pleasure in doing that.”

Lea told a newspaper reporter that he had two hopes for the mural. “One, that it may bring to life in a few minds that vivid history of the Pass to the North. And the other, that the point of view I have taken as a creative artist may help to demonstrate that the function of a mural painting in a community is to deepen and enrich a people’s perception of its own tradition and the characters of its own land.”

While painting the mural, Lea met and married his second wife, Sarah, the subject of two of his best-known portraits. Before Lea’s death in 2001 at age 93, he would be honored with the U.S. Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award, the U.S. Marine Corps’ Colonel John W. Thomason Jr. Award for Artistic Achievement, the Texas Institute of Letters’ Lon Tinkle Award and Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award. He was also inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Westerners. Sarah survived him.

“It really got me started, that one mural,” Lea said of Pass of the North. “And they paid a decent price per square foot…I think it was just a little under $4,000 for this mural down here in the courthouse. Well, gosh darn, that’s how I got married.”

To view Lea’s artwork online, visit the Tom Lea Institute.