26/52 A Portrait A Week

Another portrait for Ian Wilkinson’s San Luis Valley mural.  

tom tobin


This is a portrait of Tom Tobin.  He was a tracker, adventurer, bounty hunter, and killer of Felipe Espinosa– America’s first serial killer (officially 32 murders have been attributed to him, but it’s suspected he and his brother may have killed up to 60).  It’s a terribly tragic and strange story. Ian told me the the complicated outline of the Espinosa brothers, their history and motives for their killings, and how they were eventually tracked and killed by Tobin.  Tobin decapitated the brothers and brought the heads back to the American colonel who hired him, to prove he had completed the task.

The day I started painting this portrait, Ian found out that the  author of a new book about the Espinosas he had started reading would be doing a reading and author talk at Malaprop’s that afternoon.  Ian had painted a portrait to include in the mural of Felipe Espinosa’s head which had been preserved in a jar of whiskey and kept on display until it disappeared in a flood many years later.  He was able to show it to the author, discuss the history with him, and learn a great deal more about the story which he shared with me while I painted Tobin and Epi.    The story is so complex and bizarre, especially Espinosa’s devotion to the Penitentes (self-flagellants who abuse themselves to suffer as Christ did) and how that may have shaped his motivations for the murders.

ian and felipe and author


Ian already had a lot of doubts about including the above painting in the mural.  On one hand, such a strange and disturbing image would generate interest in their story and history; on the other hand, it felt disrespectful to the descendants of the Espinosas who still live in the area.  He has since decided not to include it in the mural.

I was still thinking a lot about the story when I left for my vacation a few days later.  On my thorough trek through the Brooklyn Art Museum, I came across this in an exhibit about death and ritual across varied cultures:

penitente cart


penitente plaque

I think I’ll have to borrow that book when Ian is done with it.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Trapper Gale says:

    Interesting post. I enjoyed it (and the artwork).

    1. harperleich says:

      Thanks very much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s