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Morris Graves
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A Short Biography
By Robert Yarber

Born on August 28, 1910, Morris Graves has lived nearly the entirety of the 20th century, and then some. The sixth son in a family of eight boys and one girl, he began his early years in remote and rural Eastern Oregon and eventually made most of planet Earth his home.

At an early age, Graves showed interest in gardening, drawing and architecture. He disliked most of school except art classes. His art teachers encouraged his innate ability to draw and convey life in his art. Away from school, Graves preferred solitude. He enjoyed walking in the forest; he collected wild flowers for church bouquets.

In 1927, the family moved closer to Seattle, therefore Graves was separated from pristine nature and his gardening. At 17, he deliberately got expelled from school and found a job the next day as a merchant sailor on the Dollar steamship line. He traveled four times to China, Japan and the Philippines. He was greatly influenced by Asian aesthetic sensibilities.

In the grip of the Great Depression of 1928-29, Graves did not want to be a burden to his family. Seeking his own independence and adventure, he traveled almost penniless across the Western United States, hitch hiking and riding the freight trains. On a stop in Beaumont, Texas, his aunt and uncle encouraged him to stay with them and their son and finish high school. Graves excelled in art and received his high school diploma in 1932.

Graves traveled to New Orleans where he was commissioned by a friend to paint a tropical fish scene. He was becoming aware that he had the confidence, intelligence and ability to paint and make a living at it.

By 1933, Graves returned to Seattle and his father offered him a studio in which to paint. Graves painted "Moor Swan," which won first prize and $100 at the Northwest Annual Invitational held at the Seattle Art Museum. Graves was introduced to some of the prominent people of Seattle society. He made significant friendships with other artists of the Pacific Northwest.

Graves' perception of religion took a new turn. Friends introduced him to Buddhism and also to the principles of Father Divine, who preached a form of non-dual Christianity.

In 1937, after his father passed away, Graves traveled to Harlem, New York, to Father Divine's Peace Mission. He was greatly impressed with the direct and tangible form that religious spirit played in the heart of the devotees.

Back in the Seattle area, Graves began receiving a subsidy from the government's Works Progress Administration project that gave artists a small income in exchange for producing artwork. While living on a lean budget, he repaired a home in rural La Conner, Washington. The concentration and intensity of his paintings increased.

He bought a 20-acre tract of tax-delinquent land at an auction for $40 which he soon named "The Rock," because it was reminiscent of Chinese paintings of the Sung Dynasty depicting steep and austere landscapes. In the privacy and silence of the Puget Sound, he built a small home studio out of recycled building materials. It was here he painted the "Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye" series, "Bird Singing in the Moonlight," and many other poignant and visionary works of art.

With World War II raging in Europe and Asia, the Museum of Modern Art, New York sent museum scouts out to recruit artists' works for a major exhibit titled "America's 1942: 18 Artists from Nine States." Graves was invited to participate. His works received high praised by curators, critics and art patrons and sold quickly with a request for more. The event became his financial turning point, and his place in the gallery world was assured.

In 1942, the Army attempted to induct Graves. He resisted and was denied conscientious objection status, yet he still refused to cooperate. Graves was put into the stockade off and on for 11 months. Finally the army released him as "un-adaptable to military service."

Graves returned to "The Rock" to paint his reflections of WWI and the shake-up of humanity: among the works: "Wounded Gull," "Blind Bird," and "Winter's Leaves 1944."

In 1946 Graves applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to enter U.S. Army occupied Japan and work with Japanese artists. It was granted and Graves sailed for Honolulu, Hawaii, to await military permission to enter Japan. While he waited, he was inspired by Chinese ritual bronzes at the Honolulu Academy of Art and completed about 50 symbolic paintings during his five-month layover.

Unable to proceed to Japan, he returned to the Seattle area.

In 1947, selling "The Rock," Graves brought property North of Seattle and built a small gate house. He stopped construction, however, with a journey by ship to England, where he was commissioned by an art patron to paint several lunettes at his Chichester house.

The agreement fell through and Graves fled to France where he lived in the town of Chartres for six months, making drawings of the magnificent Gothic cathedral.

Graves returned to Seattle and resumed construction on his studio house that came to be called "Careladen" because Graves put so much effort and care into the architecture, gardens and pond. In 1956, he sold "Careladen" and by 1954 he was living in Ireland, renting and looking for a place to purchase.

In 1958, Graves purchased Wood Town Manor, an 18th century 18-room house that was in urgent need of restoration in the Dublin mountains. While the manor was being restored, Graves made journeys to Paris, New York City, and the West Coast. In and through it all he continued to paint and have regular exhibits in New York City by the Willard Gallery until 1987, and by the Schmidt-Bingham gallery from 1987 through the present.

In 1961, Graves began a sculpture series titled "Instruments for a New Navigation". The totemic forms were to induce an inward meditative state. Graves had increasingly believed that his art would act as a balance to the fast pace of the machine age noise of the 20th Century. He failed to complete the series, then resurrected them almost 40 years later when they took place in a national traveling exhibition in 2000.

In 1962, NASA invited Graves to their Goddard Space Center in Maryland where he consulted and collaborated with NASA designers on two different space probe projects.

In 1963, Graves made extensive journeys to New York, India, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. He made new friendships with prominent artists and political figures.

By the year's end, Wood Town Manor was completely restored, though Graves was experiencing increasing friction with some of the Irish temperament. He sold the manor, contents and all, and returned to the West Coast.

In 1964, he found a tract of forest land with a pond in Loleta, California. He built a small cabin and later a permanent home and surrounding gardens.

He traveled internationally for the next 20 years, predominantly in Asian countries. He continued to paint floral still lifes and some of his more mature works of art: "Waking, Walking and Singing in the Next Dimension," "The Great Blue Heron and Rainbow Trout Yogi in Phenomenal, Mental and the Space of Consciousness," and "Glimpse of Continuing."


Additional Note to this Article: Morris Graves, one of the northwest's most revered artist, died the morning of May 5, 2001 at his Northern California home hours after suffering a stroke. He was 90. According to the artist's longtime friend and caregiver, Robert Yarber, a great blue heron that lives in the extensive gardens of Graves' estate let out a long, eerie cry just as the artist passed away. Yarber has been assistant to Morris Graves since 1973 and has served on the Humboldt Arts Council board of directors since 1997.


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Last Updated: June 15, 2003

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