A surrealist and mystic by nature, Morris Graves is perhaps the most enigmatic of the Northwest School’s “big four”, which included Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Guy Anderson (1906-1998), and Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986). Graves is known for his incorporation of Eastern spirituality and symbolism into his artwork, often using the images of the bird or “inner eye” to communicate his own form of transcendental philosophy. Though he exhibited widely during his time, the artist was somewhat of a recluse, preferring the solitude of his island home (which he nicknamed, “the Rock”) to the hustle and bustle of urban Seattle. “The Rock” consisted of 20 acres on Fidalgo Island, north of Seattle. Graves built a house and studio there beginning in 1940, and lived there until 1947.
Graves rose to prominence in 1942, when Dorothy C. Miller, curator for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, included the artist in a show at the museum, entitled “Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States”. In this publication, page 51, Morris Graves wrote: “I paint to evolve a changing language of symbols, a language with which to remark upon the qualities of our mysterious capacities which direct us toward ultimate reality. I paint to rest from the phenomena of the external world —to pronounce it —and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye.”
In 1949 Graves sailed to England and followed up a month there with a trip to France, spending three months drawing and painting the gothic cathedral at Chartes. He returned to Seattle in 1950 and in 1953 he was included in a Life Magazine article about the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest". This same year he hosted the first of his “Northwest Art Happenings” at his home called “Careladen” in Woodway Park. This turned out to be a bizarre event that included a large table with a 10 day old turkey dinner being soaked by a sprinkler while sounds of various farm animals were broadcast over speakers.
In 1954, after a brief trip to Japan, Graves moved to Ireland, where he eventually settled in a rustic 18th century house near Dublin called Woodton Manor. There, he was inspired to create paintings inspired by the night sky that were part of a series called “Hibernation”.
He returned to Seattle in 1964 and in 1965 the artist purchased 380 acres of richly forested land near Eureka, California which surrounded a five acre lake and remained there until his death at home on May 5th 2001. He referred to his home there as “The Lake”. Prior to his death, the artist created the Morris Graves Foundation, which turned his idyllic home into an artist’s retreat.
In the 1970’s, Graves’ style leaned more toward minimalism and he created simple floral still lifes as he spent more time tending to his own real-life garden. He continued to lead a mostly solitary, quiet, introspective life.
In 1982, Graves’ work was included in a show of Pacific Northwest artists at Osaka's National Museum of Art, along with art by George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Richard Gilkey, Leo Kenney, Philip McCracken, Mark Tobey, and other artists chosen for their interest in the Asian tradition.
Over the ensuing years of his career, Graves exhibited at prestigious museums throughout the United States, including the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington.
Morris Graves' artworks continue to be exhibited nationwide and were included in a show presented at the Seattle Art Museum in 2014: Modernism in the Pacific Northwest, the Mythic and the Mystical. This exhibition showcased the talents of the four artists who together became known in the 1930's and 1940's as the Northwest School of Modern Art. This group included Morris, as well as Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. The show explored the theme of art as a spiritual quest and included works that feature elements of the Native American and Asian traditions that are often found in the Northwest United States.
The Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California bears his name, and holds his work in its permanent collection. In the 1990’s he gave his personal art collection, which included works by other artists including Mark Tobey and Jean Arp, to the museum. The building was originally the Carnegie Library and was repurposed to hold the art collection. It is now owned and operated by the Humboldt Arts Council.