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John Mottram was born in the Towle, California where his father owned a gold mine. As a boy, Mottram excelled at music and art. In 1924 he enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts and then continued his education at UC Berkeley. Mottram exhibited widely in his lifetime, showing his strong modernist works in San Francisco, Oakland, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the National Academy of Design. Mottram accepted a teaching post at San Jose State College in 1947, a position he’d keep until his death in 1956.