Morris Graves Bio


Morris Graves (1910 – 2001)

Morris Graves, a member of a group of artists who became known as the Northwest School of Visionary Art, was born in Oregon. When Graves was two years old, the family moved to Seattle. The spiritual bond to the culture and terrain of the Pacific Northwest that Graves forged as a child had a profound and lasting influence on his art. Brief service in the merchant marine at age seventeen took him to Asia, where he was able to experience an aesthetic approach far different from that of the Western tradition.

Graves received his first formal art training while in high school in Beaumont, Texas. Returning to Seattle, he began to paint full time and received regional recognition in the annual exhibitions of Northwest artists at the Seattle Art Museum. Graves had his first national exposure in 1942 when 30 of his paintings were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. He traveled widely in Europe and in Asia and in 1954 settled in Ireland. Graves moved back to the United States in 1964, establishing a studio on the coast of northern California, where he stayed until his death.

Graves’s art does not fit easily into accepted categories, for his style was affected by both regional and international influences. After being labeled a surrealist early in his career, Graves quickly abandoned most stylistic elements associated with surrealism. He did, however, remain committed to the surrealist credo that art should reveal the creator’s subconscious and serve as a means of psychic exploration.

Another major force that shaped his art was his association with Northwest artist Mark Tobey, who introduced him to Zen Buddhism and other aspects of Asian culture. Zen, which offers a path to enlightenment through meditation, was of great importance to many artists in the Pacific Northwest and became a central theme in Graves’s art. Graves painted natural and recognizable forms that carried spiritual meaning, drawing on their potent symbolic power as well as their intrinsic beauty. He became know for gentle images of plants and animals that embody a spirit of transcendence. Duncan Phillips found Graves’s work the embodiment of a prophesy he had made in his 1931 book The Artist Sees Differently: “The trend in art will be toward a fusion of Orient and Occident…art which hints at a universal aesthetic language, aiming at the universal…”