The Nesters Sketches by Tom Lea

Tom Lea: Chronicler of 20th Century America

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by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

I think I worked as hard on that as anything I ever worked [on] in my life... That mural [The Nesters] was the first recognition that I had ever received.

(Tom Lea, 1995)

El Paso native Tom Lea (1907–2001) is best remembered as a muralist, illustrator, and author whose works express the history and character of the Southwest. His federal building murals across the United States are one of the artist’s lasting public legacies.

Between 1934 and 1942, Lea worked on a series of murals commissioned for newly-built federal buildings through the U.S. Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. The work was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of economic efforts designed to lessen the impacts of the Great Depression by providing Americans with jobs and motivation.

The Section of Fine Arts program provided art in public buildings that would be accessible to all people, part of the New Deal's larger mission to promote American art and culture. In total, the Section commissioned over 1,300 murals, awarded through anonymous competitions wherein artists submitted designs to a committee who selected the works for courthouses and post offices.

Lea won his first Section of Fine Arts competition in 1935 for The Nesters, a mural for the new Benjamin Franklin Post Office being built in Washington, D.C. The plowman toils at breaking dry, bare earth while his young wife surveys their small farm and the endless, empty horizon. The only connection to a larger world is the small mail box in the distance. To a nation gripped by economic depression and drought, the painting reflected the strength and determination of American farmers as they continued to build homes and futures for their families.

The painting was installed on the ground floor of the new Washington, D.C. post office in 1937. Painted on canvas rather than directly on the wall, The Nesters was removed from display around 1947. The original canvas is lost; it is thought to have been stored in another federal building that was subsequently demolished. Lea’s study sketches of The Nesters are the only original pieces of the artwork that remain.

The Nesters and approximately 40 Tom Lea artifacts and artworks are part of a new exhibition, Tom Lea: Chronicler of 20th Century America, on view on the Museum's third floor until January 2016.

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The Nesters Sketches by Tom Lea Artifact from El Paso, Texas
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