Peter Hiller’s new book on the iconic artist is a window into the prolific world of Jo Mora.
June of 2021 marks the opening of an important exhibit in Western Art at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. The exhibit, “The Western Sights of Jo Mora,” explores and celebrates some of the most iconic work of this multi-talented artist. For some, even those who follow Western art, Jo Mora may not be a readily recognizable name. The Elko exhibit, which continues through October 2, 2021, is timed with the release on what most surely be the benchmark biography of the artist and his treasure trove of a lifetime of diverse works.
Author Peter Hiller has given us a deep-dive into the life and work of Jo Mora with his new book, The Life and Times of Jo Mora, published this spring by Gibbs Smith. The author first became interested in the work of Mora over 25 years ago while working as an art teacher. He had come across two of Mora’s famous cultural maps, “The Evolution of the Cowboy” and the “Indians of North America.” (A portion of “The Evolution of the Cowboy” was famously used by the folk-rock group, The Byrds, as the cover for their 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.)
Hiller was initially intrigued by the amazing detail Mora created as well as the amount of information he delicately included. Soon after, Hiller started to see other works by Mora in the artist’s own stomping ground of Carmel, California, where Hiller was living and working. These experiences started Hiller on what would be an amazing journey following and exploring the life of this dedicated and unassuming artist.
Joseph Jacinto Mora (1876–1947) was born in Uruguay. His father, Domingo Mora, was a celebrated Catalonian sculptor who moves his family to Boston, where Jo and his older brother, Luis, spent their childhood. Both boys attended art school in Boston, and then the Art Students League in New York. Growing up, Jo Mora dreamed of the Wild West and would create his own stories and illustrate them with his drawings. But after so many years in art school, that Wild West of his dreams was calling, and in 1894 he set out for the Promised land—Texas and then Mexico.
He enjoyed various adventures working as a cowboy, a guard on a Mexican railroad, and visiting the Hopi tribe in the Southwest—even meeting the artist Frederic Remington. During his travels he worked to support himself as a staff artist at the Boston Herald doing various illustrations and cartoons. In an era before newspapers would use photographs, illustrators such as Mora created everything from political cartoons to urban streetscapes and comical animals—something Mora did as a specialty and would ultimately be the subject of illustrated books to which he contributed under contract to a New York publisher.
The regular work paid the bills, but he found it cost him the freedom to head West. So in the early 1900s he moved on, ultimately to California, working at the Donahue Ranch, north of Santa Barbara near the Santa Ynez Mission. (The ranch would later become a large part of the town of Solvang.) He got married in 1907 and settled his young family in Carmel, where he continued working and broadening his capability with a huge variety of work.
As Hiller writes of Mora, he was an amazing person, both in character as well as capabilities. “This was a gifted man—a loving husband and father, unpretentious in manner and dress, with the laid-back insight and humor of an old friend. He had a list of abilities as long as a well thrown reata and served as illustrator, painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, photographer, architect, pictorial cartographer, cartoonist and working cowboy—all of which enabled him to express his love of Western history.”
And express it, he did. As Hiller explains, “Mora continually derived inspiration from the people, colors, geography, textures and history of California. And one of the many ways he found to celebrate and share that history was to illustrate a series of pictorial maps or ‘cartes,’ as Mora referred to them, preferring the French term.” These numerous illustrated cartes may be his best known and most highly visible work. Each carte required close study, as he was able to include a tremendous amount of information on each. Be it one of his regional maps or cultural ones—such as “The Evolution of the Cowboy,” detail and accuracy were his guiding lights, and these maps continue to entertain and be highly collected today.
Equally fascinating were his sculptural and commissioned architectural works that included everything from park monuments to courthouse details to a cenotaph created to celebrate Father Juniperro Serra at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. The cenotaph, a monumental tribute to Serra, is available for viewing today and illustrates the delicacy yet massive skill Mora and his assistants brought to the project. His sculptural work done for the Monterey County Courthouse column caps depict his love and knowledge of the Californio vaquero lifestyle that romanticized early California. This knowledge was continued in his two legendary books on the West, Trail Dust and Saddle Leather (1946) and Californios: The Saga of the Hard Riding Vaqueros, America’s First Cowboys published two years after his death. Both are still considered source books on the authentic ways of the West.
One could take pages and pages to illustrate the fullness of Jo Mora’s creative life, but luckily Hiller has done just that in the well-over 300 pages of this wonderful book. He knew the Mora family intimately and helped create the Jo Mora Trust, of which he is curator and directs its efforts. The Trust’s goal is to preserve, organize and grow its Mora collection, endeavoring to honor the memory and integrity of Mora and his artistic works. Reading Hiller’s knowledgeable tome on Jo Mora, one cannot help but be amazed at the incredible historic contribution Mora left, as well as the unbridled enthusiasm he had for the American West, its people and culture.