UTEP Committee Picks Art Student as Tom Lea Fellow

The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Liberal Arts recently announced the selection of Cristina R. Mayagoitia as its 2020 Tom Lea Research Fellow who will study the noted 20th century artist/writer and the influence of his global travels.

Mayagoitia, a senior art major with a specialty in sculpture and a minor in art history, will start her fellowship this month. Her plan is to examine how Lea’s journeys shaped his depictions of the Southwest. She also expects to create art that will tie in with Lea’s art and ideas.

The native of Nebraska, who grew up in Chihuahua City and El Paso, said she already had studied Lea’s travels to include his work as a World War II correspondent. She wanted to show how the “Tom Lea Trail” out of Texas affected his perspective.

Lea, an El Paso native, was born in 1907. He was a muralist, illustrator, novelist and historian. He traveled throughout the world, but his hometown remained his base of operations until he died in 2001.

“I learned about my selection through email and I was taken aback,” Mayagoitia said. “I was at home and I am pretty sure I yelled in excitement.”

Her initial plan was to produce a sculpture, comparative photo essay and a written paper on being a global citizen today and in Lea’s time, but the restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced her to adapt her proposal. While not finished, she said her idea includes collaborations with the Tom Lea Institute and deep research into Lea’s travels.

Melissa Warak, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history, is chair of the four-person committee that selects the fellow, which comes from a pool of graduate and undergraduate students from majors throughout the College of Liberal Arts. Warak has been on the committee since 2016. The group is made up of faculty from the college’s different departments.

Warak said this fellowship gives students the opportunity to use local archives and primary documents to conduct research. Past fellows have presented their findings at conferences around the country, which advances the study of Lea, a major art figure in Texas and the Southwest, and his work during a 70-plus year career.

“We offer our congratulations to Ms. Mayagoitia and we look forward to watching how the project develops,” said Warak, who added that the fellowship includes a $3,500 award.

The UTEP professor lamented that some resources usually open to Tom Lea Fellows may not be readily accessible to Mayagoitia during the summer and possibly the fall because of the COVID-19 restrictions. For example, the University Library has significant holdings about Lea in its C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, but most of them are undigitized. Additional research material at the El Paso Museum of Art and the Tom Lea Institute (TLI), which are in downtown El Paso, also would need to be digitized. Warak also noted that pandemic controls would delay a planned research trip and access to Department of Art facilities.

Mayagoitia will use technology, specifically teleconference programs, to work with TLI staff. She already is scheduled to make a virtual presentation later in 2020. The art major said the fellowship will allow her to present her work to scholars and set the stage for other travel research opportunities.

The student, who has spent time as a teaching assistant at UTEP, expects to graduate in May 2021. Her immediate plan is to apply to a graduate program that emphasizes art making and research. Eventually, she said she would like to teach art history or sculpture at the university level.

El Pasoans Dee and Adair Margo established the Tom Lea Research Fellows Program in 2013. The program’s goal is to encourage scholars to prepare publication-quality investigations into the artist, his work, the ideas behind that work and theories that could broaden how his work is understood.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications