Tom Lea: Grace Note in a Hard World


By Camilla Carr

tomlea.72.008October marks the month-long celebration of world-renowned El Paso artist Tom Lea.  It was with great intrigue and delight that Kathryn-Smith McGlynn and myself accepted an offer by Adair Margo of the Tom Lea Institute, to create and perform a play that would pay homage to this famous artist.


What I look for before agreeing to go forward with a writing projects is this: will I enjoy spending time with this character and can I get a structure out of their life, accomplishments or life choices (good or bad). I need the drama of their lives to provide me with what it takes to create a structure. Because I am going to be spending, at the very least, 6 months to year writing and developing the story, I personally need to first be intrigued and curious, not to mention absolutely committed. So I started right after the first of the year reading about Tom Lea.

tomlea.72.013From the beginning, Adair and I decided that we would focus on the first part of Tom Lea’s life and the people who influenced him in El Paso, New Mexico and Chicago’s famed Art Institute. As a teenager who regularly visited Santa Fe, Tom met the young artist Fremont Ellis, a member of Los Cinco Pintores, who made a gigantic impression on him, as Fremont’s entire life’s focus was to paint. Unlike the other established painters, Fremont took young Tom very seriously. Fremont’s belief in young Tom as an artist confirmed Tom’s belief in himself. Later, after Tom returned west, he wanted to do something for Fremont to express his appreciation, so he painted a portrait of Fremont’s daughter, ten-year-old Bambi Ellis.

tomlea.72.022At some point, Adair mentioned that her friends, Joann and Dan Longoria, have a young daughter named Libby, who actually looks like Bambi Ellis in the portrait Tom Lea painted, which hangs in the El Paso Museum of Art. I had already started writing the play and there was no ‘Bambi Ellis’ character in it.  When Adair told me this, I thought, well this will be quite a departure from the scene that starts the play now, but it might be a lot more interesting and fun for the play if we opened with ‘Tom’ and ‘Bambi,’ creating not only exposition, but wonderful dialogue between the artist trying to make a picture and a little girl who is having a hard time sitting still. So I rewrote it fast, because Libby had to have something to come in and audition with. I was equally delighted (and relieved!) that indeed, Libby does look like Bambi Ellis and she gave a terrific reading.  The part was cast.

Early on, I had this idea that the characters in the play be dressed as closely as possible like the real people, seen either in the works of art by Tom Lea or in the photographs Adair has shared with me. I knew exactly who to ask for help in selecting the proper clothing selection.  I went immediately to ARMOIRE, a local clothing boutique and begged storeowner Edwardo Herrera to HELP!!!

He got me a glass of water and sat me down on his wonderful sofa and asked me about the characters. We Googled the Bambi Ellis portrait and we both knew we were never going to find that dress. Edwardo stated, “Well, I will make it.” And proceeded to do so.


Not only has Edwardo made the Bambi Ellis dress, he has put together almost all the outfits for all of the characters. He has pulled from his store, visited thrift stores, and altered when needed. The great actor, Ray Baker, who plays Tom Lea, had no sooner arrived from New York than we learned that he, my partner (artist James Magee) and I were invited by Adair to attend the FEMAP Gala honoring Guadalupe De La Vega. I went tearing over to Edwardo’s to see WHAT could be done to get a suit for Ray (who had come directly from another job back East and had not carried formal wear with him!)  Edwardo was literally pinning up the beautiful black suit that the “Mr. Lea” character is going to wear in the play. He took out the pins, hemmed up the cuffs and it fit Ray perfectly! That suit went to the gala on Ray and makes a return appearance on Algernon D’Ammassa, who plays “Mr. Lea” in the play.

We were very fortunate to be able to secure from designer Zayra Estrada, the dress that will be worn by actress Rebecca Rivas, who plays Tom’s second wife, Sarah.  The “Sarah in the Summertime” dress has been immortalized in every book and brochure about Tom Lea. Zayra made this dress for last year’s Tom Lea Month and is reproducing it to be worn by Rebecca Rivas as “Sarah Lea” in our production.

James Magee is letting us use the hat given to him by Patricia Knop, the great writer and widow of filmmaker Zalman King (9 1/2 Weeks, The Red Shoes Diaries). Zal was honored here at the Plaza Classic Film Festival a few years before his death. This hat will be worn by Algernon’s “Mr. Lea.” Mary Jane Windle’s “Mrs. Lea” will be wearing Mary Jane’s grandmother’s luxurious mink stole as well as my mother’s Charles Jourdan shoes. Rebecca Rivas’ “Sarah Lea” will wear my grandmother’s crystal earrings and necklace and mother’s old Maud Frizon pumps with stars on the bows on the back. Cerris Morgan-Moyer will wear a gown that belonged to her grandmother back in England…Like Tom Lea; we will wear our memories on stage and in our hearts.











Photographed by Laura Bustillos

About the writer:

Camilla CarrCamilla headshot

Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director of Frontera Repertory Theatre Company and Writer/Director of TOM LEA:  Grace Note in a Hard World

Camilla Carr has written many works for long-form television involving true life stores or stories which are either based or inspired by some kind of reality, such as High and Mighty for Dolly Parton, Nobody Lives Forever adapted from Pulitzer Prize crime journalist Edna Buchanan’s novel, The Black Swan by Nobel Prize Laureate Thomas Mann, as well as her current project, developing and adapting Janice Woods Windle’s bestselling novel Hill Country as a mini-series.  The play All About BetteAn Interlude with Bette Davis, will open in Spanish, in Caracas, Venezuela starring the renowned la gran diva, Mimi Lazo, January 17, 2014.  “Five-time Tony Award-winning producer, Michael A. Jenkins, will bring All About Bette, starring Morgana Shaw as “Bette,” to New York in the spring, 2014.”