In 1937, José Cisneros was employed as a window dresser at White House Department Store. At the federal courthouse in El Paso, just six blocks from his work, an artist named Tom Lea had begun work on a mural to honor the people who had come to the Pass of the North throughout its history. Interested in both the historical subject of the mural and the technique of another artist, Cisneros found himself spending his lunch breaks watching Lea. He could not have known how profoundly this decision would affect his life path.
Tom Lea was an artist and writer who excelled as a muralist, illustrator, portraitist, landscapist, poet, novelist, and historian. Just three years older than Cisneros, Lea had already established quite an impressive reputation for himself. He took part in projects sponsored by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression and later served as a war correspondent in the second World War.
At this point in his artistic career, Cisneros had submitted several illustrations to the El Paso Times and several Mexico-based magazines, such as Hoy, Revista de Revistas, and Mexican Life. Some of his works were published in these outlets, but he had yet to be paid for his work in a professional capacity. After watching Lea work on the courthouse mural for several weeks, Cisneros mustered the courage to bring some of his work for Lea to critique. Delighted with what he saw, Lea tore a piece of tracing paper from his sketchbook and wrote a letter to Maude Sullivan, the director of the El Paso Public Library. The letter read:
This will introduce Sr. Cisneros, who has just come into the lobby of the courthouse to show me his drawings – which I think are EXCEPTIONAL – I thought you would like to see them, and perhaps exhibit them. This fellow has some stuff –
Sullivan must have been impressed with Cisneros’ work as well because an exhibit of forty drawings was placed in library, where it remained for more than six months. After the exhibit, she wrote Cisneros a letter of introduction to others who might be interested in displaying his work.
The Cisneros exhibit from the El Paso Library was continued across the border at the unveiling of a new addition on a school in Juárez, Mexico. Cisneros subsequently illustrated publications for the Juárez Lions Club and was asked to design a coat of arms for Ciudad Juárez, which serves as the city’s seal to this day. This exposure led to Cisneros being recruited to illustrate an innovative publication titled Mexico in 1939. This latter endeavor was the first for which Cisneros was specifically paid for his work and not just published for prestige.
If you’d like to know more about José Cisneros or see some of his amazing work, visit The Bryan Museum to see the special exhibit, José Cisneros: A Colorful World in Black & White, which runs through mid-February.