Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Morris Graves: Mysticism & Asian Aesthetics


It was an assignment in an art class to report on a dead 20th century Northwest artist who was accomplished enough to have a body of work and have been known in their lifetime. That's how I came to find out about Morris Graves (1910-2001).

He was native Northwesterner (Fox Valley, Oregon) and a born artist. His parents had no idea what to do with the little artist. They were sure his fate was to be penniless.


Lacking guidance, Graves wasn't sure of his direction either, so at age 18 he joined the Merchant Marines. A voyage through the Orient would prove to be one of the most profound influences on his art.

In spite of being largely self taught, at age 23 he won first prize at the NW Annual Show held at the Seattle Art Museum. (By age 26, Morris had his first one-person show at that museum.)


 From 1935 to 1954, Seattle had an informal art community. The artists group included Graves, Mark Tobey (who influenced Pollock), Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. Together, these four artists heavily influenced each other, so that they were referred to as the "Northwest School of Masters." During this time, Life magazine placed the four on the cover of an issue with the title: "The Mystic Painters of the Northwest." 


They were called mystic painters because they all sought understanding of themselves and their relation to the cosmos including Eastern concepts of consciousness and creation. Graves studied and used Taoist, Buddhist and East Indian symbolism in his paintings.

Throughout his lifetime, Morris would produce art that was sparse and beautifully illuminated. This is where viewing his art provides so much more than a photo.  (Quite a few pieces of his art are in the collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art located on the University of Oregon campus and the Morris Graves Museum of Art, Eureka, CA)




At the end of this life, he requested a painting titled, "Triumph" be brought to him. He looked at it and saw not tulips, but angels rising to the heavens and so he, too, departed. To the end of life, Morris saw and created mystic symbolism.  



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