Meadowlark Gallery: The Artist Biographies

Thomas E. Mails ( - 2001)

Thomas E. Mails by Cornell Norby

From his studio-home, "Hawk's Nest," high above Lake Elsinore in California, he overlooks a panorama that stretches for miles across the valley and to the ridges beyond. Early summer in this area brings a burst of wildflowers that welcomes the change of seasons, adding to what seems like a totally suitable setting for one whose work is alive with color and who reflects a promise of life's vitality. This is Thomas E. Mails, a man who has actively sought and successfully found how to serve.

Following four years service as an officer in the United States Coast Guard in World War II, Tom attended the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California. Following that, he spent nine years as an architectural designer before enrolling in the Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, to become an ordained minister. After graduating -from the seminary in 1958, he served for eighteen years at three different congregations in Minnesota and California.

His own spiritual awakening gave him the insight needed to see the wonder and beauty of the Indian life-way, the center and core of which is man's relationship to creation, and to the Creator and life-giver. It has now been more than twenty years since he began work on his first Indian book, The Mystic Warrior of the Plains. Profusely illustrated, it was published by Doubleday and Company in 1972 and is now in its eighth printing, becoming a standard reference book the world over for those interested in the culture of the Plains Indians. In the following years, an additional four books were published: Dog Soldiers, Bear Men and Buffalo Women; The People Called Apache; Sundancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge; and Fools Crow. His long-awaited book, The Pueblo Children of the Earth Mother, will be released in two volumes by Doubleday and Company in September of this year, and he is already well along with his next book on the Cherokee Nation.

During these years as a minister and author, Tom has also maintained an active position in the field of Western art. He had his first one-man show of Indian paintings and drawings in Santa Fe in 1972. Since then his work has been shown in a succession of one-man shows, including one at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Man in San Diego. Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, honored Tom with a major exhibit and he is currently serving as a member of the National Advisory Council for The Center for Western Studies at that Midwest College.

Since his last book was completed, Tom has finally had time to devote solely to his art work. When asked what has kept up his consuming interest and motivation these many years, his answer was given in two words: "Indian People." He considers himself primarily a people painter "because they are an attractive subject and people and cultures are more transient than landscapes." When he paints an Indian face, he is recording for posterity the strong character lines of a people living in harmony with their environment; the deep and spiritual essence of a people at peace with their God. Even when he paints a landscape he is aware of the people who inhabited it and whose architecture conforms to the sweep of the land in a harmonious way. In looking back on his life, it is clear that things have worked together to bring him to this place. When as a child he suffered from earaches, he was comforted by an understanding grandfather who regaled him with stories of the early days in Colorado, planting seeds of a life-long interest in Western lore.

His training and experience as an architectural designer would later instill in him a lasting respect for the symmetry and grace of Native American art and architecture. In the years Tom has spent writing and illustrating his history books, it has been necessary to work in a detailed style offering him little artistic freedom. He has no regrets about this, for his goal has been to share with others the momentous details of this life-way and costumes that are rapidly fading from sight. While his years spent illustrating books definitely restricted him, he also learned to pay close attention to accuracy and detail, and he was able to compile a vast fount of information which he draws upon so freely today. The more knowledge he accumulated the more he came to admire and appreciate the Indian people themselves.

When questioned whether he preferred to be considered an author or an artist, an author who paints or an artist who writes, he replied that "it is a difficult question for one who has wanted to be an artist since his pre-school days, but the honest answer is probably both! I have come to regard the gathering of knowledge to be as important as the rendering of it. The Indian people enjoyed a rich and varied existence as parents, hunters, horsemen, artists, builders, traders and were of deep religious faith, with a profoundly important and complex ceremonial life. I believe there is much to be learned from native peoples who for thousands of years have faced and surmounted seemingly overwhelming odds, with a grace and dignity that has enabled them to lead happy and productive lives."

A look at Tom's home and studio further shows him to be a man of amazing energy and versatility. Countless preparatory sketches cover the waus and drawing tables of his working areas. You see dozens of drawings, pastels, watercolors and oils. In one large studio are two thousand volumes which constitute Tom's research library. Most are books about Indians, but also included is a number of art books. Tom does most of his work in the studio, using field sketches as well as photographs shot on location. In his work as an ethnologist, Tom also finds it necessary to refer to black and white photos in museum archives and to examine countless artifacts. He does this to assure that his Indian people and their costumes are historically accurate. Beyond this, he does considerable on-site research to guarantee t accuracy of the people and landscapes inhabited prehistoric and historic times by his subjects. In the last two years with the Pueblo book safely in the hands of the publisher, Tom has enjoyed th freedom of working with other mediums than oil, pen or pencil drawings, as well as moving away from the meticulous details required for his generously illustrated books.

Working with transparent water colors has enabled him to express his art in so form and color. Likewise, with soft pastels he is now producing broken color in a vibrant and impressionistic style. These luminous pastels and subtle watercolors are quickly attracting new collectors and museum to join the ranks of those who have enjoyed his work for the past two decades. He finds this new work exciting and challenging and believes that much of what he is now producing has allowed him to loosen his style, and that his oils and other media are better for it. Tom's quest for knowledge of the Indian people continues unabated, and he is not restricting his interest to North America. His newest works depict the natives of Mexico, Central and South America, particularly the Inca, Maya and Aztec. "These are beautiful people with a rich cultural heritage which is inexorably yielding to the pressures of political un rest and industrialization," he states. It is hard to predict where future years will lead Tom Mails, but it is certain, with the dedicated support of his wife, Lisa, and their two young sons, Ryan,and Andrew, that he will be seeking to leam and record that which is best in those he meets. Thomas E. Mails is an extraordinary and uncommon man. With his multiple talents, warm human interest and boundless motivation, sparked by a strong inner-spirit, he is producing a great legacy of work that is destined to inform and enchant for generations to come.

Thomas E. Mails passed away on November 18, 2001.

View high resolution images of works by Thomas E. Mails when available.