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Morris Graves Photo

Morris Graves - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: August 28, 1910 - Fox Valley, Oregon
Died: May 5, 2001 - Loleta, California
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Morris Graves

Early Years and Training

Following a failed attempt to establish a homestead farm in Fox Valley, Oregon, the bankrupted Graves family returned with their new-born son to Washington state where they resettled in Edmonds, a city 15 miles north of Seattle. Graves's biographer, Deloris Tarzan Ament writes that during her sixth pregnancy, Graves mother, "had prepared a pink layette, certain that after five sons, this would be a daughter". She was, nevertheless, enamoured with her youngest son stating: "He was a beautiful baby - big brown eyes and dark hair, with a little faraway look in his eye - and very friendly. We named him after Morris Cole, our favorite minister".

Graves was a sickly child, given to mood swings, and long spells of introspection but he developed a passion for the natural world during long periods of recuperation from bouts of pneumonia. He passed the days in the family garden watching birds and mentally designing gardens for them to live in. By the age of 10, Graves could identify some 40 varieties of wildflowers and he started entering wildflower bouquets into county fair competitions, and arranging flowers for his family's Methodist church. His mother remembers that, aged just 11, he presented an eight-foot-high Easter cross covered with flowering cherry blossoms to the church. It was around this time that Graves first daydreamed of becoming an artist. He spoke of seeing a collection of allegorical murals in Century magazine and, although he couldn't remember the name of the artist, the images stayed with him: "There was something about the volume of those forms on a two-dimensional plane that impressed me greatly" he recalled.

Lacking in aptitude for formal education, Graves dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and, in 1928, he and his brother, Russell, joined an American Mail Line ship as cadets. The ship sailed to Manila, Japan, China, Hawaii, and San Francisco. During shore leave in Japan he explored the countryside on the outskirts of Tokyo, explaining later that the Japanese had "the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature - not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air". The influence of East Asian culture would have a life-long impact on his art.

In 1930, after stowing away on a coastal steamer bound for New Orleans, Graves stopped to visit his maternal aunt and uncle in Beaumont, Texas. Although he was already 20 years old, they persuaded him to stay long enough to finish his high school education. His eccentric behaviour, including walking barefoot to and from school, was a source of curiosity for the other students and his more accommodating art teachers. One of them, Bernice Burrough, later recalled that "he was so fascinating that some students followed him around to observe his interesting antics". Graves served as art editor for the school annual, Pine Burr, decorating it with art deco and Japoniste style bird motifs, before finally graduating as a 22 year-old. He spent the summer in New Orleans where he gained his first experience as a payed artist having been commissioned to paint decorative screens for a New Orleans business owner.

Mature Period

Guy Anderson, photographed in 1987 by Paul Dahlquist

On his return to Seattle, Graves met and grew close to the painter Guy Anderson, a man with whom he haunted bookshops, travelled to the mountains and painted. They would share the same studio and an affinity for all things Oriental. Anderson was critical Graves's early flower and bird paintings, calling them "too decorative", and encouraged his friend to treat his subjects more symbolically. Anderson was happy to concede, however, that his partner "had remarkable taste and the experience of extraordinary color at his command".

Graves's painting Moor Swan, referred to by Ament as a "symbolic self-portrait", won him first prize in the Seattle Art Museum's 1933 Northwest Annual Exhibition; the major regional art event of the year and at which he would become a regular exhibitor. His win also led to the patronage and guidance of Dr. Richard Fuller, the museum's founding director. Graves and Anderson, with whom, it is widely thought, he was engaged in an intimate relationship, took a road trip to Los Angeles, along the way painting farm animals in the style of Gauguin and Van Gogh, and closely observing birds and the mineral world. They raided gardens for food, picked and sold strawberries, and camped in their truck or abandoned houses, which they also ransacked for antiques which they sold.

Graves built a small studio on his family's property (in Edmonds), but it burned down in December 1935, destroying many of his works and his cherished collection of Asian art objects. Possibly as compensation for his loss, Fuller offered Graves his first solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Around this time, he began his lifelong study of Zen Buddhism, attending the Buddhist temple in Seattle: "Zen stresses the meditative," he said, "stilling the surface of the mind and letting the inner surfaces bloom".

One of Father Divine's Peace Missions on New York's East Side, taken in December 1941

Anderson's mother had told Graves about Father Divine, a charismatic Harlem preacher who pronounced himself "God Made Flesh". Father Divine was on a mission (from God) to lead the chosen people out of the economic disaster of the Great Depression and in January 1937, Graves travelled to New York City where he spent five months with Father Divine's International Peace Mission movement. Though the Mission provided him with lodgings, Graves earned pocket-money by washing dishes and cleaning laundry. He took time out to sketch animals at the Bronx Zoo, as well as making a series of flat colourful images of Father Divine's "angels". On his return to the North West he bought 20 acres of land on Fidalgo Island at a tax sale for $40.

Around this time, Graves started to gain notoriety for his unusual behaviour which resonated with the bizarre antics of the Dada movement. For instance, in December 1938, he staged a protest at a John Cage concert in Seattle, arriving in regal style while his friends rolled out a ragged red carpet in front of him, spreading peanuts on the floor and brandishing dolls eyes fixed to opera glasses. In the fourth movement of Cage's quartet, Graves cried out "Jesus is everywhere!", before being escorted from the hall. He carried on the evening dancing alone outside the venue. Cage had been highly amused by the disturbance and became a devoted friend to Graves, even allowing him to move into his living room. The composer described his new friend in fact as "a colourful and pivotal figure among a small and adventurous group of young Seattle artists" while he himself started to participate with Graves in his Dadaist "performances".

Through his involvement with the Works Progress Administration (the WPA was established to employ out-of-work artists in the creation of art for municipal buildings and public spaces) Graves met Mark Tobey, an artist 20 years his senior. Graves (who was painting in brilliant reds and black, in tempera overlaid with beeswax) was impressed with the Seattle-based artist's calligraphic line and his use of tempera on Chinese paper. Graves began to deploy similar motifs of white lines seen through gauzy light in paintings such as Bird Singing in the Moonlight and Shore Birds Submerged in Moonlight. "He has put language in my hand", Graves said of Tobey. But his appropriation of Tobey's signature style, not to mention Graves's imminent commercial success in New York - achieved ahead of his elder - would lead to strained relations between the two. Tobey stated that "Without my ideas he would be nothing" but, as Ament pointed out, "by incorporating 'white writing' into narrative interpretations of nature, Graves used ['white writing'] in more metaphorical ways than did Tobey. In [Graves's] hands, it suggested a quality of consciousness".

Ament added that a frequent companion of Graves and Tobey was Lubin Petric (the then partner of Graves's younger sister, Celia). As Ament says, "Lubin, who was of solid Serbian stock, was himself a gifted painter, but his talent was lost to alcoholism. He regularly painted work in the style of Tobey and Graves - work that easily passed for paintings by those artists, especially since during the 1930s Graves did not usually sign his work". Growing tired of the WPA project, Graves headed for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the fall of 1938. He returned to the US a year-or-so later with a chest full of beautiful rocks, and a collection of paintings he had made of fighting cocks.

In 1940, Graves began building a house on his Fidalgo Island land, naming it "The Rock". The house was, to begin with, little more than a hut but over time Graves extended The Rock through a series of single file rooms, some of which had windows covered with rice paper (to capture the shadows of the wooded surroundings). The premises could only be reached by a trail and Graves had to fetch water from a service station two miles away. His close friend and New York dealer Nancy Ross wrote: "No stranger could have found it undirected, for the road that reached it was little more than wheel tracks through a forest, leading at the end up a discouragingly steep slope to a rounded mossy plateau whose stony slopes pitched down hundreds of feet on all sides [...] One entered the house by way of a Japanese style garden: sand, wind-twisted trees and arrangements of several rocks so enormous one could hardly credit the fact that Graves had brought them up here".

Between 1940 and 1942, Graves worked at the Seattle Art Museum. It was the museum's policy to employ artists on a rotation scheme (two weeks on; two weeks off) to provide them with some income while also allowing them time to create art. During his two weeks off, Graves isolated at "The Rock", becoming fully absorbed in nature and his painting. He lived a nocturnal existence, venturing out under cover of night, and painting until dawn. Many of his "nocturnal" works featured his iconic motif of birds trapped in layers of webbing or barbs. These pieces were symbolic of the artist's heightened anxieties for the survival of mankind and the natural world under the duel threats of modern industry and world warfare.

Graves participated in two group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York: 35 under 35 and Mystery and Sentiment, both in 1940. But it was in 1942 that Graves achieved his major breakthrough. Following a visit to his studio, Marian Willard Johnson and Dorothy Miller (and despite some consternation from the artist himself) decided to promote his art. Willard Johnson gave him a solo show (the first of a total of fourteen over his career) at the Willard Gallery while Miller included him in MoMA's showcase for emerging American artists working outside New York, Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States. It what was an unprecedented endorsement for an upcoming artist, MoMA director Alfred Barr purchased a total of eleven works (at $100 each) for the museum. Ament added that "Not only did all 19 of his paintings in the show sell, but so did an additional 26 pieces not on exhibit, many of them to museum staffers". Art News described Graves as the "sensation of the show [...] His haunting pictures of birds bathed in a sort of ectoplasmic moonlight are something entirely new". The renowned art collector-cum-critic, Duncan Phillips, meanwhile, called Graves an "original genius" and bought several pieces for The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. In Ament's words, Graves's "15 minutes of fame had arrived".

In 1942 Graves was drafted into the army. He registered as a conscientious objector, but having reported for his physical examination, he was informed that his application, which had been submitted late, had been rejected (evidence emerged later that his involvement with Father Divine had been a factor in his rejected application). He refused to take the oath of allegiance and attempted to flee before being caught by military police and transported to the stockade. On his release Graves escaped the camp and headed for home. His friends, the Japanese-American designer George Nakashima and his wife Miriam, were staying with his mother before being taken to a detention camp. Before the authorities took him away, Graves demonstrated his solidarity with his Japanese friends by hugging both George and Miriam. This innocent gesture led to allegations of being a collaborator and Graves spent the year in a military prison in Camp Roberts in California which he described as a "zone of evil" with a "regimental life and public toilet atmosphere". Graves deeply missed his dog, Edith, whom he left in the care of the Seattle curator and dealer Elizabeth Bayley Willis. He wrote many letters to the dog as well as to Willis. He pined for the Northwest saying he missed "the heavy rain on the roof, and the wonderful blue luminosity over the Sound at dusk".

While imprisoned at Camp Roberts, Graves sank into a deep depression. He became reclusive and refused to communicate with other camp members. In December 1942, a psychiatrist concluded that Graves was ill-equipped for military service and recommended he be returned to civilian life. He finally secured his military release in March 1943 with an "honorable discharge" (which he rejected). He wrote to Willis, "I am coming home home home home home home home home home home HOME. Dear God make me understand the magnitude of that privilege".

Graves's career quickly took up where it had left off. He painted the Morning Star and Journey series and held solo exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the University Gallery, in Minneapolis, all in 1943. Four of his paintings were included in MoMA's Romantic Painting in America exhibition. Other paintings were exhibited at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, in Washington, D.C. According to Newsweek, Charles Laughton bought seven of his paintings, all of which the actor hung in his bedroom.

Despite his rising star, Graves was depressed, not least about surge in the building of local industry. In a lengthy letter to Willis, he wrote, "Do you think that I could live alone among the dry rocks and starved willows and not detect the thin cloud of waste pollen drifting?". Responding to the relationship between Tobey and Willis, meanwhile, he warned her off: "If you need a lover, do not look to Mark [Tobey]". Tobey would in fact propose marriage to Willis but again Graves protested to the coupling. Ament suggests that although Graves could not spell out the reason why, "it doubtless hinged on his knowledge of Tobey's sexual preference for men - something it would have been ruinous to Tobey's career to divulge at that time in history". She added that Tobey "knew immediately when Willis refused him that Graves was responsible for her change of heart [and that] rather than any quarrel over who claimed credit for white writing, may have lain at the heart of bitter feelings between the artists".

In 1945, Graves made a second application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wrote in his application: "The artists of Asia have spiritually-realized form rather than aesthetically invented imitated form. From them I have learned that art and nature are mind's environment, within which we can detect the essence of man's Being and Purpose, and from which we can draw clues to guide our journey from partial consciousness into full consciousness ... I seek to move away from that Western aesthetic which emphasizes personalized expression of forms without a profound content to support them ... to move away from exhibitionism called self-expression; and toward Eastern art's basis of metaphysical perceptions which produce creative painting as a record ... an outflowing ... of religious experience".

Despite public criticism from the likes of Clement Greenberg, who, writing in the British journal Horizon, said the range of Graves's work had "turned out to be so narrow as to cease even being interesting", Graves received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947 and headed for Japan. However, his passage was blocked by the US authorities and he was obliged to decamp in Honolulu for five months. In that time he produced some 50 paintings, inspired by ancient Chinese pieces in the collection of the Honolulu Academy of Art, and attended Japanese language classes at the University of Hawaii. Having had his visa to enter Japan rejected (probably because of his besmirched military record) Graves returned, with the Hawaiian-Japanese painter Yoni Arashiro, to Seattle where he used his grant money to construct a house in a forest above Richmond Beach.

Sited in a grove of cedar and maple trees, "Careladen" was one of the first homes in the Northwest to be built of cinder block. Designed with the help of architect Robert Jorgensen, the house was conceived along the lines of a French country house with 14-foot-high ceilings. Sadly (as far as Graves was concerned) Richmond Beach had proved a popular location for developers and the rising noise pollution caused by bulldozers and other industrial machinery would drive Graves away from Careladen. He could no longer hear the sounds of insects and birds chatter, or the movement of trees and expressed his torment through a series of paintings called Machine Age Noise. In a letter to Willard Johnson, he wrote: "The roads that have been smashed through woods in a day - a single day! - with bulldozers ... and the houses (flashy shacks) that are being built in a day along these roads (within earshot of Careladen) breaks my heart. HELL is here and now in all its Dante-terror".

In 1949, Graves exhibited at the XXIV Venice Biennale while also featuring in a traveling exhibition, Milestones of American Painting in our Century, organized by Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. However, by the end of the decade Graves's stellar position in the New York art world was starting to fade as a result of the of rise of the New York School The New York critics had begun to disparage his work. Sam Hunter suggested that his painting lacked depth and was "more [...] autohypnotic hallucination than metaphysical revelation", while Robert Coates of The New Yorker wrote that "one feels that underneath the surface charm there is only emptiness, or at most, a thin, vaporous mysticism".

A despondent Graves traveled to England in the fall of 1949 as the guest of British art collector Edward James. James offered Graves a commission to paint murals in lunettes at his mansion at West Dean Park in Chichester, West Sussex. Although he declined James's offer, Graves stayed with his host for more than a month before crossing the English Chanel to Chartres in France. Renting three rooms in a seventeenth-century abbot's residence, he spent three months there in near solitude. He painted at Chartres Cathedral every day, describing it as "a great diagram of how to enter heaven" but rued that to gain entry to heaven "requires tremendous skill, and this I must acquire through the act of painting".

Returning to Seattle in 1950, he destroyed most of his Chartres works (Willis, one of the few to see the Chartres pieces, stated that "the work was sort of hard drawings and a few paintings of gargoyles; in fact nothing that I wanted him to show to anyone") and would fly into a rage when his paintings did not find a buyer. Although Willis continued to sell works by Graves (and Tobey) in Seattle and New York, demand for his work started to decline. "He was never the same again", suggested Willis, "All the old and beautiful sensitivity had faded, the Inner Eyes, the consciousness, all that was gone".

Late Period

The completion of Careladen took up most of 1952 and, in the spring of the following year, Graves staged an event that might be described in the future as a "happening". He sent invitations to everyone on the Seattle Art Museum mailing list. The invitation read: "You or your friends are not invited to the exhibition of Bouquet and Marsh paintings by the 8 best painters in the Northwest [The eight included Graves's friends and neighbors Clayton and Barbara James] to be held on the afternoon and evening of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, June 21, at Morris Graves' palace in exclusive Woodway Park. Refreshments will be served".

Guests, some arriving in formal evening wear, found the driveway blocked by a trench. A banquet table with a 10-day-old turkey feast was drenched by a garden sprinkler as mood music and farm animal sounds played over speakers. With Graves and his cohorts refusing to answer the door, guests, some amused and others irritated, responded by storming off, sketching the scene, or stealing silverware from the table. Graves observed the chaos through a gap in the cinder-block wall. Ament wrote: "The principal casualty of the evening was Graves's friendship with Clayton and Barbara James, whose names he had added to the invitation without consulting them. They were not amused. In addition to having dug a trench to cross the access road, he had put coiled barbed wire on the ground between his place and the James's house. They were so offended that they put a painting he had given them inside the barbed wire and severed their friendship".

In September 1953, largely due to the efforts of Seattle gallery owner Zoe Dusanne, Life magazine ran a major article on the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest". It focused on Graves, Tobey, Anderson and Kenneth Callahan. By this time, however, the four men were barely on speaking terms. Callahan in particular was furious with Graves for dodging military service and took Tobey's side against him. Meanwhile, Life depicted Graves as a hermit and mystic: "When he is not creating [...] he devotes himself to the forest hideaway, potting gnarled, dwarfed trees, pushing huge rocks into strange formations, tending his flock of exotic fowl or merely sitting, contemplating new visions of the inner eye". The piece cemented Graves's place as an artist of national importance. But Willis noted that "When he became famous [Graves] lost all need for his beloved role as exhibitionist. The poverty-struck saint was also out of order. Further than that was the deadly, deadly fear that he could not create - knowing that his way of life had finally murdered the beautiful innocent generous child within him - the child who identified himself with absolute directness to every aspect of nature".

Graves believed his happiness and survival depended upon self-isolation and he could no longer tolerate life at Careladen (he sold the property in 1957). After a five-week spell in Japan, he moved to Ireland in 1954. Graves lived in various parts of the country before buying Woodton Manor (with the proceeds from Careladen), a dilapidated 18th century house near Dublin in 1958. Having spent a year restoring the property, Graves painted a collection of fantasy-folk creatures that became known as his Hibernation series. He was fascinated with the night sky and stories of space exploration, leading subsequently to "Instruments for a New Navigation", a collection of precisely rendered totemic bronze, glass, and stone sculptures inspired by the dawning Space Age. (Failing to find a market for these unusual celestial pieces, he dismantled them and did not display them again until 1999.) In 1957 Graves became the first US artist to receive the Windsor Award, bestowed by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and in 1962, as the guest of Indira Gandhi, he visited India where he met with Indira's father and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Graves sold Woodtoown Manor in 1964 and destroyed much of the work he had done there before returning to the US. He stayed briefly in Seattle before buying another property, this time in Loleta, 18 miles south of Eureka, Northern California. The farmhouse was situated beside a small lake, in a forest of old-growth redwoods. "Something about these great old mature giant trees makes my heart go out to them", Graves wrote to his mother, "I love them more than my fellow man". Following the design pans of the Seattle architect Ibsen Nelsen, Graves built a secluded cottage - called "The Lake" - at the end of a narrow dirt road leading into the forest. The art critic Gino Pennacchietti suggested that Graves's story was very similar to "other deep ecologists and artists/thinkers who are connected to the natural world, and [who] choose to exist in a state of perpetual sauntering through the wilderness". In this respect, Graves followed the example of "Emerson and Thoreau [who] set out the archetypal template in the American experience of this way to think about nature and living harmoniously with the land".

The move to Eureka marked a dramatic shift in Graves's paintings. He would spend the remaining 35 years of his life a near recluse, observing the wildlife and watching sunrises and sunsets. Many of his paintings in his final years were of his own simple flower arrangements, marking a dramatic shift from the metaphysical bent of his earlier works. As Ament observed, "Gone were the black and gray washes [and in their place were] still life paintings that glowed with incandescent yellows, and rosy pinks, and deep, jewel-like carmine".

Although a sign posted at the entrance to his cottage read "No visitors today, tomorrow, or the day after", Graves occasionally allowed welcomed family members and old friends. One rare public outing was a music/dance collaboration, Inlets, in 1977, with John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Graves's stage design for Inlets consisted of a large disk that moved slowly across the back of the stage, evoking the atmospheric cycle of a moon. In the last decades of his life he returned to his treasured theme of birds producing notable tondos works such as Spirit Bird and Waking, Walking, Singing in the Next Dimension in chalky circular sweeps. Graves died peacefully at home on May 5, 2001, just a few hours after suffering a stroke.

The Legacy of Morris Graves

The film director John Huston, who lived near Graves while in Ireland, described him as "the last living legend of the American West - the archetypal hermit of the wilderness". Indeed, in spite of his extraordinary critical and commercial success during the 1940s and early 1950s, Graves remained the quintessential artistic outsider who exerted little direct influence on the grand narrative of modern art. He was even damned with praise by the British art critic and painter Patrick Heron who called him a "charming illustrator". Graves was perhaps too individualistic to make a significant impact on any one movement or major figures, however, echoes of his work can be found in many Northwest artists including Jay Steensma, Nicholas Honshin Kirsten and Elizabeth Sandvig.

The Morris Graves Museum in Eureka, CA. The Humboldt Arts Council rededicated Eureka's old Carnegie Library as the Morris Graves Museum of Art in January 2000.

Graves's personification of the "artist-shaman" did, however, see him emerge as an important figure for the 160s counter-culture movement. Joseph Beuys would embrace the same persona and was fully aware of Graves's work through his interactions with John Cage in the early 1960s Fluxus movement. The painter and paleontologist Wesley Wehr was another admirer. He wrote that Graves's paintings "were not only beautiful aesthetic objects; they were, for me, paths to other kinds of personal knowledge and living". The poet Kathleen Raine said Graves caught "the essence of the very soil of America [...] an example of the new beauty attainable when that union is authentic and profound". On a slightly more irreverent note, a modern-day Dadaist brotherhood, who went by the name "The Mystic Sons of Morris Graves", paid homage to the artist by staging events such as the "Glorious Ruins Raffle", in which chances were sold to smash "a priceless piece of art glass by Seattle's renowned media darling, Dale Chihuly".

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Morris Graves Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 07 Feb 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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