The process can leave him feeling “beat up,” but he still gets the thrill he felt when he painted for the first time after an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.
As Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought I’d share a romantic story about one of Texas’s greatest artists, Tom Lea. This is a love story, expressed in one painting, titled “Sarah in the Summertime.” I’ll tell you the story of that painting and how it came to be.
Tom Lea was a true renaissance artist in the sense that he was both a gifted painter and writer. He was a muralist and a novelist. His murals are, to this day, in public buildings in Washington, D.C., El Paso, his home town and Odessa. President George W. Bush had one of his paintings hanging in the Oval Office. Lea’s novels, “The Brave Bulls” and “The Wonderful Country” are considered Southwestern classics. His two-volume history of the King Ranch can be found in any home with a good Texas library.
Tom met Sarah in 1938, when he was working on his celebrated “Pass of the North” mural in El Paso. He was invited to a small dinner party where she was also a guest. Sarah was from Monticello, Illinois, and in town visiting friends. He was immediately enchanted by her and decided that evening that he wanted to marry her. Tom had the good sense not to confess to that wish right there. No. He waited until their first date two nights later to pop the question. She didn’t say “yes” until he met her parents. Several months later, they were married. It was a storybook romance that spanned 63 years.
Tom and Sarah were only apart for one extended period of time during their marriage, and that was during World War II, when he was an artist for Life Magazine, embedded with the U.S. Navy. He documented the realities of the war in drawings and paintings, the most famous of which was “The Two Thousand Yard Stare.” Naturally, Tom missed Sarah terribly every day.
Here I will let the famous novelist take over the narration. He wrote:
I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length, life-size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot.
I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass and summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah’s height of 5 foot 6 in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly 5 ft 6. The painting was done with devotion and without haste. First the background, then the figure, and finally her head. I remember that I worked 26 days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. … 2 years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it framed it and gave it to Sarah. I see it everyday in our living room and I see Sarah [too]. 20 years have passed. “Sarah in the Summertime” means more to me that I could ever put on canvas.
Adair Margo, his agent and decadeslong friend, and founder of the Tom Lea Institute, told me that Tom Lea would never let that painting leave the house, not for any showing or exhibition. Only once was she able to convince him to put it in a local exhibit, but only for a few hours, and it had to be back that night.
Tom and Sarah are buried side by side in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. There’s one headstone with divided inscriptions for each. On Sarah’s side it says, from Tom, “Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side. It is the side to see the day coming. Not the side to see the day is gone. The best day is the day coming, with work to do, with eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.”
This is the story of a boy who loved Christmas so much that he grew up to make it more magical for the rest of us. That is, if you have ever had the good fortune to see his paintings – and if you haven’t, I’m here to make sure your luck changes. The artist’s name is Jack Sorenson. He grew up on the edge of Palo Duro canyon, a place so rare in its quality of light that Jack’s unique talents must have been uniquely nurtured.
Jack started drawing and sketching before he remembers doing it. His mother told him that when he was three, he would put the dog on the couch to draw him and then get terribly frustrated when his canine model would not hold a pose. By the time he reached first grade, he was so proficient at drawing anything he saw that his teacher called his mother to tell her she thought he was a prodigy. His mom had never heard the word and at first thought he must have been misbehaving. Once she understood, though, she said, “Oh, yes, he can draw anything.”
I talked to Jack for about 30 minutes a couple of weeks ago. He and I are a lot alike. We are both life-long Texans. We both live on the Texas border – he in Amarillo and me in Brownsville. We are both slow talkers because of our Texas drawls. Took us 30 minutes to have a 15-minute conversation. But when it comes to art we are on different planets. When he was being called a prodigy, my first-grade teacher was looking at a free-hand eagle I had drawn and said that it was not a bad likeness of a chihuahua. So that finished my art career right then. That eagle would never fly.
Jack, now age 62, says, “I’ve always been able to draw, sketch and paint anything I put my mind to. I didn’t just discover it one day. I’ve always had it. God blessed me with a gift and I try to honor that gift as best I can, in every painting.”
He started out sketching cowboys around his father’s western town, Six Gun City, on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. But he soon found that cowboys didn’t much care for portraits of themselves, or even of their girlfriends. However, he learned that if he could capture the personality or beauty and power of their horses, they would always buy that portrait. So he drew pictures of horses and sold perhaps hundreds of them at $40 a piece.
This also taught him how to draw a horse with great accuracy and authenticity, which became one of his most praised attributes. Many say no one can paint a horse like Sorenson. No one alive, anyway. Jack’s father said first there was Frederic Remington, then there was Charles Russell, then Jack Sorenson.
Have you ever noticed that if a photograph is exceptional people say it looks like a painting and if a painting is exceptional they say it looks like a photograph? Some of Jack’s paintings look very much like photographs. I asked him if he ever painted from a photograph and he says, “No. A photograph will lie to you.”
He says that if you try to paint a horse from a photograph, your dimensions will be wrong. The head will be too big for the body, for instance. “A camera [as a means of painting], can’t get the truth of a horse, but a painting [live or from experienced memory] can,” he says.
“Each painting is a story in still form,” Jack says. Each canvas tells a story, a simple story. It is true. I enjoy reading the stories in his paintings. One shows a cowboy bathing in a river and he looks alarmed as he sees his horse, recently spooked, running off with the cowboy’s clothes flapping beneath the saddle. Tough to be stranded naked on the frontier like that. At least he had his hat and his boots.
One of Jack’s Christmas paintings tells of a cowboy arriving home late, Christmas Eve perhaps. His daughter, about 6 years old, is running through the snow to greet her daddy. Behind her is a modest frame home warmed by a good fire. Behind her daddy’s back is a brown-haired doll that looks a good deal like his daughter. She’s gonna be so happy in just a minute.