We are pleased to have Peter Hiller as a guest blogger this week. This article is a follow-up to my post “The Evolution of the Cowboy.” I would like to thank Peter for his time and willingness to participate in one of my research pieces —Holly Tarquinio.
In addition to teaching grade school art for almost forty years, Peter Hiller is the Jo Mora Trust Collection Curator. In that capacity he strives to bring the artistic achievements of Jo Mora to the attention of the public through writing, speaking and organizing exhibitions. Hiller has currently finished the third draft of a major biography about Jo Mora with the working title of “Twenty Five Hours in a Day: The Life of Jo Mora.” This blog entry is derived from that pending biography.
Rare is the person whose childhood passions captivates them and flourishes throughout adult life. From the time Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876-1947) was a young boy, he filled notebooks with stories, drawings and paintings focused on the American West – particularly Native Americans and cowboys. Mora’s interest in native culture inevitability sprang from his father’s similar interests.
The chapters of Mora’s life unfold like those of a well-loved novel. Mora grew up with a love of everything Western and found the pull to see the West through his own eyes irresistible. A diligent student of history, Mora traveled the California mission trail on horseback, lived with the Hopi and Navajo for almost three years, worked on the decorative elements of numerous buildings in the San Francisco Bay area, and finally settled down on the Monterey Peninsula in 1920 upon being invited to create the cenotaph memorial in honor of Father Junipero Serra at the Carmel Mission.
Mora’s artwork sprang from his interest in numerous subjects including Native Americans and cowboys, the American landscape, California history and its missions, the classics of Chaucer, and Mora’s love of animals. All of these subjects and others found expression in his work. As with all of the artwork Mora completed, he taught himself about the history of the subject matter. Jo stated, “…it is certainly worth while getting away from the stereotyped, conventional roads and pioneering in something new.”
Mora was born on Oct. 22, 1876 in Montevideo, Uruguay. “I was born in that Purple Land at the tail end of the ‘good old days’ when revolutions were in vogue rather than elections.” Mora’s father was well-known Catalan sculptor, Domingo Mora (1840 – 1911). Domingo had moved to Uruguay from Spain in 1862, several years before Mora’s birth, in the hopes of learning about the new world and its peoples. Years later, in the preface of the unfinished third book of his cowboy trilogy, Mora wrote, “Most of my material for the gaucho of the (18)50s, 60s and 70s is drawn from the data left to me by my father, an eminent sculptor, who spent 18 years of his life among these people and whose studies were exhaustive.” This would clearly influence Mora’s notable books – “Trail Dust and Saddle Leather” and “Californios,” the first two books of his intended trilogy.
“All the time I’d lived in the United States I’d wanted to see the Wild West. Something inside me kept prompting that I go west and learn all about Indians and the deserts and mountains. I had met Buffalo Bill in Boston: with his long hair and eagle beak of a nose, he seemed a sort of god of freedom to me – an incarnation of the life of the wild beyond crowed cities and suburban trains. In 1903, I quit my country home in Massachusetts and came to San Jose, California. Then I started to wander.”
With his savings from his newspaper work as an illustrator and living a spendthrift lifestyle, he would go on to learn, in intimate detail, the ways of the Hopi and Navajo Indians – their culture, ceremonies, languages and love of life. Mora also learned of both the American cowboy and the vaqueros – their sayings, their tack and most of all, their love of horses. Mora acquired his knowledge from first-hand experience, in addition to being an artist and writer he was a cowboy. From his childhood through the last days of his life, Mora sought to pay tribute, through his writing, sculpting, drawing, and painting, to these icons of the west.
Having learned much of his artistic prowess from his father, and in spite of being gifted at numerous other artistic mediums, it was his love of sculpting that sustained Mora throughout his life. From the tiny pieces of an expansive diorama created in honor of the Portola Expedition to a monumental cenotaph in tribute to Father Junipero Serra to heroic bronzes in California and Oklahoma, Mora’s use of his hands and his skilled touch would enable him to raise a family in a loving and comfortable manner.