Morris Graves

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Morris Cole Graves
Born (1910-08-28)August 28, 1910
Fox Valley, Oregon
Died May 5, 2001(2001-05-05) (aged 90)
Loleta, California
Nationality American
Known for Painting
Movement Abstract Expressionism, Northwest School

Morris Cole Graves (August 28, 1910 – May 5, 2001) was an American expressionist painter. Along with Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, William Cumming, and Mark Tobey, he founded the Northwest School. Graves was also a mystic.

Early years[edit]

Born the sixth son of a Methodist family in Fox Valley, Oregon, he moved with his family to Seattle in 1911. He was a self-taught artist with natural understandings of color and line.

Graves dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and sailed on three American Mail Line ships with his brother Russell. Upon arriving in Japan, he wrote:

"There, I at once had the feeling that this was 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."[1]


Although he attended high school in 1932 in Beaumont, Texas at the urging of his aunt, Graves returned to the Northwest before actually graduating and never got his high school diploma. He spent much of his professional life in Seattle and La Conner, Washington, sharing a studio for a while with Guy Anderson. Graves' early work was in oils and focused on birds touched with strangeness, either blind, or wounded, or immobilized in webs of light.[1]

In the early 1930s, Graves studied Zen Buddhism. In 1934, Graves built a small studio on family property in Edmonds, Washington, that burned to the ground in 1935, and with it, almost all of his work. His first one-man exhibition was in 1936 in Seattle's Art Museum (SAM).[2] In May 1937, he bought 20 acres (81,000 m2) on Fidalgo Island. In 1939, he began working on the WPA Federal Art Project, but only for a few months. It was there that he met Mark Tobey and became impressed with Tobey's calligraphic line. Later in the year, Graves went to the Virgin Islands and to Puerto Rico to paint.

In 1940, Graves began building a house, which he named The Rock, on his Fidalgo Island property, and befriended an architect, George Nakashima, who had recently visited Japan. He lived at The Rock with a succession of cats and dogs, all called Edith, in honor of poet Edith Sitwell.[2]

In 1942, his paintings were part of the New York Museum of Modern Art's "Americas 1942" exhibit, bringing Graves national recognition.

In 1952 photographer Dody Weston Thompson used part of her Albert M. Bender grant to photo document the unique home and surroundings of Graves who she considered a close friend.

In 1954, Graves staged the first Northwest art "Happening", sending invitations to everyone on the Seattle Art Museum mailing list:

"You or your friends are not invited to the exhibition of Bouquet and Marsh paintings by the 8 best painters in the Northwest 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."

In September 1954, Life Magazine did an article on "The Mystic Painters of the Northwest," featuring Graves, and including Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Mark Tobey; this changed his life.

His mid-career works were influenced by East Asian philosophy and mysticism, which he used as a way of approaching nature directly, avoiding theory. Graves adopted certain elements of Chinese and Japanese art, including the use of thin paper and ink drawing. His painted birds, pine trees, and waves. Graves works, such as "Blind Bird" often contain elements of Mark Tobey, who was inspired by Asian calligraphy. Graves switched from oils to gouaches, his bird became psychedelic, mystic, en route to transcendence. The paintings were bold, applied in a thick impasto with a palette knife, sometimes on coarse feed sacks.[3]

In the 1950s, Graves returned to oils, but also painted in watercolor and tempera. From 1954 through 1964, Graves lived in Ireland and sculpted.

Later years[edit]

Graves moved to Loleta, California, near Eureka in 1964 where he eventually had a home constructed that was designed by Ibsen Nelson.[4] His later paintings were increasingly abstract, and while they retained their delicacy, the Asian influence was gone. In later years and especially at the end of his notable career, Graves returned to sculpture, originally created forty years earlier, and received critical acclaim for his "Instruments of a New Navigation," works inspired by NASA and space exploration.[5] Morris Graves died the morning of May 5, 2001 at his home in Loleta, hours after suffering a stroke.


The Morris Graves Museum of Art located in the restored Carnegie library building in Eureka bears his name and contains a small collection of his works and much of his personal collection of works by other artists.[citation needed]

The Morris Graves Museum in Eureka, California was formerly a Carnegie Free Library and is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Additional reading[edit]

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