Morris Graves


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Painter and occasional sculptor. An independent West Coast spirit, he painted somewhat abstracted images from nature, birds especially, emphasizing the fragility, mystery, and lyricism of creation. He developed this personal symbolic vocabulary in response to East Asian philosophical traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism. He also drew on aspects of surrealism and homegrown transcendentalism. An admirer of Mark Tobey's work, he remained almost entirely self-taught as an artist. He accomplished his most sensitive and singular work during the 1940s and 1950s. Later, he painted still lifes of a more decorative and less spiritually compelling nature. A native of Fox Valley in rural Oregon, south of Portland, Morris Cole Graves moved as a child with his family to the Seattle area. He left high school after his second year to become a seaman. Three voyages to the Far East sparked his interest in Asia. While living with an aunt and her family in Beaumont, Texas, in 1932 he graduated from high school, where art classes provided rudimentary professional training. Returning to Seattle, he painted heavily impastoed, somewhat expressionistic interpretations of birds and other motifs drawn from the natural environment of the Northwest coast. Following a stint with a federal art project, he visited New York for several months in 1937. Upon his return to Seattle, he struck up a friendship with John Cage, whose unorthodox ideas he found stimulating, and a short time later became acquainted also with Tobey. During this period, he began working mostly with water-based paints on paper. In 1939 he took up residence on an island in Puget Sound, where he lived in seclusion in a cliff-top cabin he built himself. There, he reached a mature realization of his aesthetic aims in a series of visionary works that generally incorporate abstracted birds, sometimes blinded or wounded, within painterly fields. When these were shown in 1942 at his first one-person New York gallery show and in an important Museum of Modern Art group exhibition, he quickly became an art-world celebrity. In 1947 he left his isolated home and built another near Seattle. Subsequently, he incessantly traveled the world. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he sojourned at length in Ireland, where for several years he maintained a residence. From 1964 he made his home near Loleta, on twenty-five acres of redwood forest close to Humboldt Bay on the northern California coast. There, while continuing to paint, he indulged a longtime love of gardening. By this time, his work had become less mystical and passionate in tone, as he turned his attention largely to effects of color and light in restrained still lifes of flowers, vegetables, and Chinese bronzes. In the early 1960s he also produced tabletop sculptures, collectively known as Instruments for a New Navigation, constructed primarily from metal, stone, and glass elements. He died at his Loleta estate, The Lake. His will created a foundation to maintain and administer the buildings and grounds as a retreat for artists and scholars.

Subjects: Art.

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