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Rev. Thomas E. Mails

Thomas Mails

Thomas E. Mails was a painter, illustrator and writer. He was born in California and studied at California College of Arts and Crafts and Luther Theological Sem., St. Paul. Mails is best known for painting and illustrating Indian culture and sketching in the Southwest. He collected Indian artifacts and authentically illustrated them in his paintings.

Following four years of 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. He then 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.

It was his own spiritual awakening as a minister that 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. His training and experience as an architectural designer would also instill in him a lasting respect for the symmetry and grace of Native American art and architecture. Mails spent years writing and illustrating Native American history books.

The first book he worked on was titled The Mystic Warrior of the Plains. The book was illustrated by Mails himself and was published by Doubleday and Company in 1972 and is now in its eighth printing. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains has become a standard reference book worldwide for those interested in the culture of the Plains Indians.

Following his first book, Mails also authored: Dog Soldiers, Bear Men and Buffalo Women; The People Called Apache; Sundancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge; and Fools Crow, The Pueblo Children of the Earth Mother, and the Cherokee Nation.

Mails 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.

Mails often says that it was “Indian People” who truly motivated his career as an artist and author. 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. Through Mails' documentation of the Native American way of life, it was necessary for him to work in detailed style offering little artistic freedom. He had no regrets about this, for his goal was 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."

Mails was listed in "Who was Who in American Art," "Master Index 1917-1993, Artists in Southwest Art," Samuels "Contemporary Western Artists," Samuels "Encyclopedia Artists American West" and authored 14 books on Indian people such as "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains," "The People Called Apache," "Hotevilla, Hopi Shrine of the Covenant, Microcosm of the World," "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains," and "Dog Soldiers, Bear Men and Buffalo Women."

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



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