Carmel drivers pass the statue at Camino Del Monte and Alta daily, often without recognizing its connection to some of Monterey County’s most storied structures, sculptures and works of art. Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora created the oak shrine to Father Junipero Serra, who established nine California missions, at the request of Pebble Beach Company Founder Samuel F.B. Morse in 1922. Two years later, Mora’s now celebrated Serra monument was unveiled at the Carmel Mission.
Peter Hiller, an All Saints’ Episcopal Day School art teacher and collection curator for the Jo Mora Trust, has promoted that sculpture, and the artist’s other illustrations, paintings, books and maps, for 17 years. He’s especially excited about a pair of rare Mora holiday murals headlining a Sunset Center event this December.
“It’s important for people to have a sense of this artist who lived in the community where they live, and whose work they see on a regular basis,” Hiller says.
The Uruguayan-born Mora moved to the United States as a child. Before making his way to the Monterey Peninsula, he studied art and worked as a newspaper illustrator in Boston. His editors sent him to sketch developing news stories, and those drawings accompanied articles in the days before photography was standard. As Mora strengthened his graphics skills, he also created three-dimensional works with his father, a sculptor.
That versatility helped Mora earn a living solely through art. “Over the course of his career, his work was fairly evenly divided between two-dimensional and three-dimensional work. He was gifted at both,” says Hiller. “He was always hustling and looking for work, but by the same token, he was fortunate to have enough work coming his way that he was able to comfortably take care of his family.”
Mora eventually moved to Arizona and spent time living in Hopi and Navajo communities. His personal interactions and cultural explorations inspired pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, sculptures, and a continued interest in the American West shaped many of his future art and writing projects.
Mora and his family came to Carmel in 1920, and his Carmel Mission cenotaph honoring Father Serra was dedicated in 1924. The artist reportedly considered the life-sized bronze monument, and a corresponding cross and altar, one of his most significant achievements. Locally, it’s one of his most well known, but other Mora creations remain on display throughout Monterey County. Some work hangs in the courthouse in Salinas. Mora also made decorative elements for King City High School’s auditorium as part of a 1930s Works Progress Administration project. In addition to the Mora Chapel Gallery at Carmel Mission and the statue at Camino Del Monte and Alta, the artist crafted clay-glazed figures now in the El Paseo Building courtyard in Carmel.
“If you look at those pieces and then look at the cenotaph at the Mission, you see three very different techniques. The feeling from the three pieces is very different, yet they’re all equally engaging and interesting,” Hiller says.
Mora also worked with Carmel Dairy, fashioning murals, menus, calendars and decorations in exchange for milk, butter and cheese. He created an exterior light sconce with two cows that still hangs on the former dairy building at Ocean and Mission. Mora made Christmas cards distributed by the business, too, and designed cards sent by his own family. Each features an intricate illustration that puts a playful spin on the holidays: animals on skis and ice skates, pine trees covered with snow, candles, carolers and more. Some have rhyming poems; some summarize the past year’s activities.
The Jo Mora Trust holds copies of many of those cards in its archives, along with a few holiday murals largely unseen by the public since the 1940s. Among them are one signed as a gift to Mora’s daughter, and another that advertises Mora’s Carmel map made in celebration of the season and sold for 50 cents. (Mora’s series of maps, or cartes, depicting national parks and various California cities, including one of Carmel-by-the-Sea, are among his most recognized pieces.) Two of those holiday murals are on exhibit during this year’s Sunset Center Holiday Open House, an event that leads up to the city’s evening tree lighting ceremony.
The venue’s development manager, Barbara Davison, believes Mora’s local ties make his murals a natural fit for the family-friendly celebration.
“Jo Mora had such vast experience as a California- and Monterey-area artist, historian, sculptor, painter, photographer, illustrator, muralist and author,” she says. “He used his art and his words to speak to the child as well as the adult in each of us.” Hiller hopes sharing these holiday murals with the community will bring new attention to the artist’s achievements.
When he introduces Mora’s varied work to others, he sees them walk away with a smile.
“I attribute that completely to him and the quality of his work and how engaging he was as a person,” says Hiller. “What he did in his lifetime was kind of overwhelming for one person.”
The Sunset Center Holiday Open House, featuring two Jo Mora murals, starts at 3 pm on Friday, Dec. 6. Visit www.sunsetcenter.org for more information. For details on Jo Mora’s work, or to order the Jo Mora’s Art in Public Places map that highlights where to find the artist’s public works, visit www.jomoratrust.com.
From momentos in the family archives, it is certain that the Moras clearly enjoyed celebrating the holidays. This mural, in recognition of Christmas, is an outstanding example of their joy.
Jo Mora and his family had a deep affection for animals of all kinds. These woodland creatures were a continuing theme in many of Mora’s light hearted pieces. Jo was generous in gifting his children examples of his work, (this one, a gift, to his daughter Patty.)