Jo Mora outside his workshop in Pebble Beach | Provided Photo
By Peter Hiller
Throughout our Monterey County community is rich evidence of the artistic accomplishments of Jo Mora. His work can be found from the Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas to the high school auditorium in King City to the gallery dedicated in his honor at the Carmel Mission.
Even after his death in 1947, Mora is more than just a regional phenomena. His art — especially his maps and prints — remain iconic work in popular culture. The Byrds used a cowgirl he created to grace the cover of their famous “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” album in 1968. And, more contemporarily, singer-songwriter Mike Beck used a Jo Mora illustration for the cover of his latest CD, “Alta California.”
I have been interested in Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora for decades, and my obsession and access to the family archives recently culminated in the publication of “The Life and Times of Jo Mora: Iconic Artist of the American West,” published by the Book Club of California.
Mora was a gifted illustrator, painter, writer, cartographer and sculptor who produced work that often mixed whimsy with honest cultural depictions of the West.
I can say without hesitation that in all of the years I have been interested in Jo and all of the hundreds of people who have talked to me about him and with whom I have shared his story, I have yet to meet one who was not enamored or didn’t become intrigued with him as well. So how does just telling someone’s story engender such joy among so many people?
Begin with his family life. Mora was a wonderful husband and father. I was fortunate to have spent hours with his late son, Jo Jr., before he passed away, and he never had a disparaging word about his father.
Almost half of Jo’s life was spent on his own, on the road, discovering America. But he wasn’t just passing through. The years he spent with the Hopi and the Navajo in Arizona had depth to the extent that he learned their languages. He drew and painted their villages and ceremonial clothing, and he actually spent time as a guide for Navajo tribal members on hunting trips.
Even beyond Native Americans, he traveled the world by steamship, sensitively recording in writing and art the cultures he witnessed.
Jo didn’t stop a war, but he did train to be in one. He didn’t discover the cure for any diseases, but he brought pleasure to all whose path he crossed. All evidence points to a person with a deep sense of ethics and good will, rarely engaging in discouraging words about life around him. His versatile thinking and endless creativity were precursors of modern-day design thinking and brainstorming.
I have learned through Jo Mora that a life well lived is a valuable contribution to society. I learned that one does not need to be financially rich to take care of their family, and that it is clear that there are many people in the world who deserve attention because of their kind and thoughtful nature, not just because they are in the public eye. And finally I learned that a good story, like Jo Mora’s, is worth sharing and repeating.
“The Life and Times of Jo Mora: Iconic Artist of the American West,” by Peter Hiller, is available in limited edition from the Book Club of California.
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