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 Texas : Images : Murals : Post Office Murals

Odessa Post Office Mural
Odessa, Texas

"Stampede"

1940
Artist - Tom Lea

By John Troesser
Photos courtesy Barclay Gibson, 2009
Odessa Tx - WPA Mural Stampede close up, by Tom Lea

Odessa's WPA mural: "Stampede" (detail) by Tom Lea

For all the various romantic portrayals of cowboys, some people have seen them as tragic figures. Evidently, this is a common thought, albeit one that is seldom discussed. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Keith Carradine’s hapless tenderfoot being tricked into “pulling” his gun comes to mind. Then there’s the unnamed dying cowboy in the song Streets of Laredo. Forget the adventure and romance of Saturday matinees. Being a cowboy was lonely, tedious – and then you died and were buried in an unmarked grave.

Here in the Odessa mural by El Pasoan Tom Lea, we see one particular cowboy’s end in a stylistic but classical form. Totally devoid of gore, the depiction is nonetheless sobering and the viewer is left with no doubt of the outcome.
Odessa Tx Post Office  Mural Stampede  - Cowboy Falling

"Stampede" (detail)

The clean-shaven cowboy with his fresh shirt, un-scraped chaps and slicked back hair is frozen in time like the “ghost portraits” of people left in mineral-laden glass panes of pioneer houses. With the positioning of the cowboy’s body one could easily imagine a graceful trapeze artist who lost his footing or Icarus falling to earth.
Odessa Tx Post Office  Mural Stampede

"Stampede" (detail)

The sea of glistening cow horns hammers home the obviousness of a fatal ending just as surely as the horns of the upended steer in the foreground will pierce the cowboy’s falling hat. We needn’t witness the act of goring. (Hey, people are trying to buy stamps here!)

A second human in the canvas would’ve been a distraction and Lea (if he considered one) was right in keeping the tableau simple. The cowboy’s horse in its panicked stare offers no help even as the cowboy reaches out as if to protect his equine friend.
Odessa Tx Post Office  Mural Stampede  - Raging Black Bull close up

“Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel …”
From the song Ghost Riders in the Sky lyrics by Stan Jones

The prominent steer is death personified. No mercy or pity comes from the eyes made red from the flash of lightning. It is as if Lea had been inspired by the song Ghost Riders in the Sky, a postwar hit very popular with men. But the song was written nearly seven years after this canvas was painted.
Odessa Tx Post Office  Mural Stampede by Tom Lea, 1940
Odessa Post Office Mural: "Stampede" by Tom Lea, 1940
Click on photo for large image
The song, written by composer Stan Jones, was a cautionary tale of changing one’s ways before it was too late. The lyrics are simple with no preaching. Just the threat of eternal damnation and the Sisyphean task of chasing the devil’s herd through eternity. What part is unclear?

The composer is said to have stated that an old cowboy told him the story when he was still a youngster and while there’s no record of lyricist Jones seeing artist Lea’s painting – it wouldn’t be surprising that such a stirring image would affect the composer’s lyrics.
A portion of Stan Jones’ lyrics:

“An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw.

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel …”
For those who remember the song, it made #1 on the Billboard chart in 1947.

It was first recorded by Burl Ives, then Vaughn Monroe (who made it famous) and over the years it has been recorded by notable singers like Frankie Laine, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash.
Odessa Tx WPA Mural Stampede Artist Tom Lea Signature
Tom Lea's brand-like Signature
Photographer's Note:
Subject: Odessa: WPA Tom Lea Mural
The display of this mural is the best I've seen so far. It was moved from across the street to the new Post Office, not unusual. It is well lit, accessible, well preserved and well mounted. It is in a wide area where one can stand back and admire it. - Barclay Gibson, December 15, 2009

Our thanks to photographer Barclay Gibson for his trip to Odessa to photograph this mural.


©John Troesser
Photos ©Barclay Gibson
Stampede Mesa - A Ghost Story

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Texas is a land of many legends. Some of them are just that-legends. Some of them have a germ of truth in them-and some of them are entirely true. At one time, when I was a young man, I had the opportunity to hear what some would call a legend from a man who experienced it... more
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