Two Sides Of A Complex Man
New Jo Mora shows feature different facets of this local legend's greatness.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Artist Jo Mora (1876-1947) stands taller than many who constitute the art history of this region because of his mastery of so many forms of expression. This genuine talent--he was a painter, sculptor, pictorial mapmaker, illustrator, cartoonist, muralist, diorama-maker, photographer and writer--was tireless as he moved from one project to another in his Pebble Beach studio. Two local exhibitions, running concurrently, explore areas of Mora''s career that were merely alluded to in a 1998 Mora retrospective at the Monterey Museum.
Curated by local art historian Peter Hiller: Jo Mora: From Pencil to Publication, at the National Steinbeck Center, and From the Studio: Jo Mora, sponsored by the Monterey History and Art Association and showing at the Maritime Museum in Monterey, promise to enrich and inform as they offer a closer look at Mora''s achievements. Both exhibitions run from Nov. 14 through Feb. 29.
Mora was born in Uruguay, but came to the United States with his family when he was one year old. He began his career assisting his artist father and his brothers. He furthered his training at the Art Students League in New York, and later studied with William Merritt Chase in Boston. He worked as an illustrator in New York City, but decided to seek adventure in the West.
In 1904, Mora lived with the Hopi and Navajo Indian tribes in Arizona, learning their language and culture; eventually, they made him an honorary member of their tribes. He served as a major in the US Army artillery, as well as an Indian language interpreter.
Mora settled in Carmel in 1920, establishing a studio at the mission, where he made the monumental bronze statue group of Father Serra and his assistants. He then moved his studio to Pebble Beach, where he unleashed his versatility.
Mora produced a Cervantes sculpture for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Brett Hart Memorial for the Bohemian Club there. He painted murals, designed fountains, did interior decoration with Julia Morgan, carved heroic heads for the Salinas County Courthouse, and designed a commemorative half-dollar for the 75th anniversary of California statehood.
But Mora was not done. He wrote and illustrated two books, Trail Dust and Saddle Leather and Californios. According to curator Hiller, the self-assured artist "sat down and typed them out in one sitting each, and these are 200-page books. The manuscripts for them will be in the Steinbeck Center exhibition, and you can see there are virtually no corrections in the manuscripts. They were printed just as he wrote them."
Photo: Happy Rancho Burro, 1936.
Hiller, the curator of the 1998 retrospective, says the two new exhibitions are designed to "take the viewer through the artistic process, the steps taken to realize a work of art."
The Steinbeck Center display focuses on Mora''s graphic work; the Maritime Museum show recreates Mora''s Pebble Beach studio. Says Hiller: "There''s a photograph of Mora''s Pebble Beach studio that shows Jo Mora surrounded by a model, paintings, sculpture, and so on. We''ve been able to get these sculptures to exhibit now along with the furniture, which has been stored away in a relative''s garage for 40 years. We''re recreating the studio according to the details of the photograph."
The Pencil to Publication exhibition explores the steps taken to realize a project. "We have a number of drawings on newsprint that led to pen-and-ink drawings, which lead to illustrations and the final published book," Hiller says.
Some of the most delightful illustrations in Mora''s varied body of work are his pictorial maps. In these, Mora fills the picture plane with layers of small images that relate to the subject, often in a humorous way. Studying them, one becomes aware of the artist''s insight into human nature.
Hiller became interested in Mora more than fifteen years ago. "I started seeing his work happenstance," recounts the curator, "As I learned more about him, I got a sense that there was a lot more out there that doesn''t get seen by the general public."
Hiller studied Mora''s work and career, feeling a simpatico at every turn.
"I felt a kindred spirit in Mora, because I grew up in the Southwest, surrounded by Navajo rugs, kachinas, Navajo culture, so my heartstrings are with that aspects of Mora''s work," observes Hiller.
"He was a very special person, an incredible father, with a great sense of humor, generous, his family was his pride and joy. He had a photographic memory and could reproduce things he saw on his excursions through the west in great detail. He was unbelievable in his versatility, working at a masterful level in any medium he attempted."
See Jo Mora: From Pencil to Publication at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas: opening reception is Friday from 5-7:30pm. 796-3833. From the Studio: Jo Mora, can be seen at the Maritime Museum in Monterey. 372-2608.