Mora in Store
The legendary Jo Mora finds new life (again) with three special exhibits.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Perhaps history is the last refuge of romantics. Indeed, Monterey County is the richer for the infatuation with history by two men separated by a century. Peter Hiller, 56, has taught art at the All Saints Episcopal Day School for 27 years. By all accounts an otherwise mild and sensible man who grew up in a household filled with his parent’s collections of Navajo rugs and pottery, when Hiller moved to the area in 1981, he found himself drawn to the work and the story of Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora, an immigrant artist who lived in Carmel from 1907 until his death in 1947; a man whose life’s work was dominated by his own fascination with the romance of the American West.
Hiller’s initial interest developed into what might be called an obsession as he began to haunt libraries and bookstores, tracking down Mora’s works, meeting and befriending the artist’s children, and documenting the location of Mora’s prodigious artistic output.
“It became an unexplainable drive to bring Jo Mora’s work to the public’s attention,” Hiller admitted. “At first I just came across things in different venues all over the Peninsula: menus for the Hotel Del Mar, sculpture in the Carmel Mission, carvings in the Monterey County Courthouse. I got the feeling there was more to this man than I was seeing.” Now Hiller is considered the preeminent expert on the life and work of Mora, and is curator of the Jo Mora Trust Collection. His obsession has borne fruit in three current Monterey County exhibitions which follow a major retrospective at the Monterey Museum of Art in 1998 organized by Hiller and accompanied by a catalog, Jo Mora, Artist and Writer, and a map, The Sculpture and Art of Jo Mora, showing the location of the artist’s publicly accessible major works throughout the country. Together, these are still considered the most comprehensive documentation of Mora’s life and art. It would seem that Hiller has done what he set out to do. Mora’s story is out.
Mora seemed destined for a life of creative adventuring. The son of Catalonian sculptor, Domingo Mora, Jo’s artistic lineage extended through several centuries of Spanish sculptors. His mother, Laura Gaillard, was a French-Alsatian beauty. Jo was born in Uruguay in 1876 while Domingo was working on a sculpture commission. The family soon left the political and social turbulence of Uruguay to settle in New Jersey in 1877. Young Mora studied in prestigious art academies of New York City and spent much of his youth working in the studios of his father and brother, Luis, a painter whose work includes presidential portraits still exhibited in the U.S. Capitol.
Mora became enamored of the swiftly vanishing American West and as a teen traveled to Texas where he sketched the rough life of cowboys. Perhaps the most renowned Western artist, Frederic Remington, saw his work there and encouraged him. With a legendary sense of humor and youthful enthusiasm, the young man seemed to fit in wherever he went. Returning to the East Coast, he first gained recognition as a book illustrator and a cartoonist for the Boston Herald. But in 1903, at age 27, he headed West for good. During his first winter, he took a stagecoach to the Sierra gold country where he photographed, sketched and wrote about the hard life of the gold miners. He became fascinated with the California Missions, learned to ride and followed the El Camino Real on horseback, documenting each mission and the life that surrounded it. In 1904 his love of the land and the culture of the West drew him to Hopi Indian territory in Arizona, where his respectful enthusiasm won him a rare opportunity to observe the Snake Dance, which he recorded in drawings and photographs that now reside in the Smithsonian, among the last records of this rare ceremony.
Mora lived for three years with the Hopi people, learning the language and eventually residing in the Second Mesa where he underwent a Kachina initiation, an extremely rare honor for an outsider. His drawings of Hopi and Navajo people, their daily lives, ceremonies and regalia, are vivid and loving documentations of a living culture, as valuable ethnologically as they are artistically.
Returning to California in 1907, he married Grace Needham in San Jose. The couple settled on a small cattle ranch in Mountain View where son Joseph was born and where they were joined by Mora’s parents. Father and son collaborated on sculptural projects throughout the Bay Area until Domingo died in 1911. Jo moved his family to Pebble Beach in 1922, where he lived until his death in 1947.
Mora considered his greatest work to be the Father Serra cenotaph in the Carmel Mission, a bronze and travertine sculpture showing Father Serra lying in state surrounded by his religious brethren. In San Francisco, Mora’s sculptural tribute to Cervantes and Don Quixote is among the most beloved landmarks in Golden Gate Park. Mora’s bronze historical figures peer from the walls, erupt in courtyard fountains and pedestals of the Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas. Indeed, his prolific sculptural work in marble, bronze and wood, his illustrations for such books as The Romance of Monterey (1926), his own books including Trail Dust and Saddle Leather (1946) and Californios (posthumously published in 1949) contribute rich and loving detail to the California story. Among his most beloved works were those made to be ephemeral, including illustrated charts, maps and posters like Evolution of a Cowboy (1945).
“I’m not done,” says Hiller. “So far it’s a story without an ending, I continue to find new work; he is continually fascinating.”
THE CARMEL HERITAGE SOCIETY exhibition of drawings and paintings of the missions, Jo Mora on the California Trail, continues through July 2 at the First Murphy House, on the corner of Lincoln and Sixth in Carmel. Call 624-4447 for hours.
THE JO MORA GALLERY is permanently on display at Monterey History and Art Association’s Maritime and History Museum, 5 Custom House Plaza in Monterey. The museum is open 10am-5pm daily, except for Mondays.
THE HARRISON MEMORIAL LIBRARY at Mission and Sixth in Carmel exhibits Jo Mora and the Carmel Dairy through July 2, showing quixotic menus and illustrations that for decades Mora traded for produce. Call 624-4664 for hours.