There is a framed poster in the Cowboy Publishing Group office kitchen. This poster has fascinated me from the first moment I saw it. First, it is big! Second, its detail is on a level that can only be described as mind melting, but in a good way. The poster, “Evolution of the Cowboy”, is a second edition of a rodeo poster Uruguayan-born artist Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora illustrated for the California Rodeo Salinas in 1933.
The original commission was a full-color poster that included a map of the Salinas and Monterey peninsulas on each side of the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” image at the top center. Our copy has faded through the years, and it has a black-on-yellow silhouette of cowboys on horseback and a horse drawn wagon in place of the Salinas/Monterey map. The poster is packed from edge to edge with accurately detailed and humorous illustrations of cowboys, their tack and their rodeo styling. It really is a remarkable illustrative work made even more extraordinary by Mora’s story.
As a young child in 1880, Mora moved with his family from Uruguay to the northeastern United States. He grew up in an artistic family. His father was sculptor Domingo Mora and his brother, F. Luis Mora, became a member of the National Academy of Design. Mora studied art at the Art Student’s League in New York and the Cowles School in Boston. He became skilled in many areas of art including sculpting, drawing, painting, photography, art history and illustration. After working as a cartoonist in Boston, he decided to move west.
Inspired by Western culture, he moved to California. He then spent time living with the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona, where he chronicled his observance of Native American life through photography and drawing, even learning the languages. He spent the remainder of his adult life in California, drawing, sculpting, writing and illustrating. Some of his more famous works, the cartes (illustrated maps), including “The Evolution of the Cowboy,” were a strong example of Mora’s skill as an illustrator.
In researching Mora, I discovered an official website for the Jo Mora Trust, jomoratrust.com. Its mission is to honor the memory and artistic accomplishments of Mora. The website is a wonderful resource. Its curator is educator and Mora art historian Peter Hiller. I had the pleasure of speaking with Hiller by phone to learn more about the poster and about Mora.
The “Evolution of the Cowboy” poster is one of Mora’s more famous cartes. His son, Jo Jr. was his sales manager and saw potential in the “Evolution of the Cowboy.” He convinced his father to revise the original Salinas version so it could be sold elsewhere. Reproductions were printed through the 1940s and ’50s and as recently as the 1990s. The rock band The Byrds used a partial image, “The Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” on their 1968 album of the same name. It was also used as an advertisement poster for dealers of Levi jeans and as a promotional piece by the California Beef Council. Reprints of the carte are currently available from a Wyoming group called “The Seasoned Cowboy” (cowboybooks.com/mora_prints.html). They list the version timeline for the poster as well as other Mora cartes for purchase on their website.
Another site I discovered in my search, which Mr. Hiller was complimentary of, is of map collector David Rumsey, www.davidrumsey.com. A quick search for “Jo Mora” will pull up several of his cartes, including a faded original of “Evolution of the Cowboy.” This site allows for a remarkable digital experience. Viewers can zoom in and see ever detail of these maps. It could take hours maybe even days to scour any one of Mora’s maps. According to Hiller, Rumsey is in the process of donating his map collection to Stanford University (The David Rumsey Map Center) to ensure its continued use in education and prosperity. I can only hope the website remains intact.
Hiller is currently working on a new biography of Mora and his works. His knowledge of the Mora family comes first-hand from a friendship he had with Jo Jr. who wanted his father’s artistic legacy to be shared. Hiller has done so over the years through public speaking, teaching and writing. Please keep an eye out in the coming weeks for a second part to this blog post, when Hiller shares more of Mora’s story.