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Beyond the Graves.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

An exhibit of work by Morris Graves, one of the most haunting and significant painters ever to come out of Oregon, opens Friday at Eugene's White Lotus Gallery.

The show, which runs through May 25, includes pieces never before exhibited. It spans seven decades of the artist's career.

Graves (1910-2001) rose to national prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. New York's Museum of Modern Art included him in its "Americans 1942" exhibit.

In 1954, Life magazine dubbed him one of four "mystic painters of the Northwest." The group also included Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan and Mark Tobey.

Graves is best known for his wonderfully strange, delicate and almost ephemeral bird paintings, small works done with water media on Asian papers, often using the alienated figures of birds to portray his own deep aversion to the madness of society.

The White Lotus show grew out of research for a book of Graves' correspondence that just has been published by the University of Washington Press.

"Morris Graves: Selected Letters" was edited by Vicki Halper, an independent curator who has worked at the Seattle Art Museum, and Lawrence Fong, who recently retired as curator of American and regional art at the University of Oregon's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Fong met Graves in 1991, when the Schnitzer mounted a show of the artist's work curated by Marsha Shankman. The famously reclusive Graves showed up in Eugene near the end of the exhibit and asked to tour it on a Sunday morning, when the museum was closed to the public.

The artist was tall (6 feet 5 inches), good looking and lanky. He had a reputation for not suffering fools and had a difficult relationship with most institutions, from the Army - which discharged him in 1943, following months in various stockades, under Section 8 as unsuitable for military service - to the art museums that showed his work.

"He was very handsome," Fong recalled. "Very engaging. Very quiet and very still.

"But you know, there was a complexity of thought, even in his silence."

Graves hadn't seen his work from the Schnitzer show in many years.

The UO collection consists largely of hundreds of drawings and paintings he once sold in a lot, when short on money, to Portland collector Virginia Haseltine. She donated the work to the museum.

"It was like he was going to go back and re-meet past acquaintances," Fong said. "He wasn't intimidating at all. He wasn't theatrical. He wasn't pretentious.

"He was just a substantial presence."

Self-taught artist

Graves, who was born in the tiny Linn County community of Fox Valley but grew up in Seattle, was a self-taught artist. After dropping out of high school, he got a job on a freighter that took him to Japan - a place where culture resonated with him so deeply that he became a serious student of Zen Buddhism.

A lifelong aesthete, Graves spent much of his artistic energy designing well-appointed homes and studios in Washington state.

For a time, he worked on a ruined 18th century house he bought in Ireland, where he was entertained by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and American movie director John Huston. Finally, he tackled The Lake, as he called the 195-acre rural enclave he bought in 1964 near Eureka, Calif.

It was while he was working on The Lake that he met Robert Yarber, whom he picked up one day in 1973 as a hitchhiker.

Yarber was young and looking for work. Graves needed an assistant for the massive job of cleaning up the log-filled lake that his new property surrounded and for building what eventually would be a main house, a studio, a tea house and a caretaker's house.

Graves' reclusiveness was a thing of legend. Handwritten signs found year-round at The Lake's entrance bore messages such as "no visitors today, tomorrow, or the day after."

Few photographs have been published, even today, of the elegant houses he built there with the help of Seattle architect Ibsen Nelson. Yarber and his wife, Desiree, still live at The Lake today, running the Morris Graves Foundation.

The foundation manages Graves' artistic estate and offers artist residencies in Graves' old studio. Selected artists - one was Springfield painter Kathleen Caprario - are selected to live and work for a few weeks in the deep silence and splendid isolation of the Northern California forest - no cell phones allowed.

Show covers artistic life

A few years after Graves died in 2001, Fong called Yarber, whom he had met during the Schnitzer show, and inquired whether a nonartist, such as a museum curator, also might apply for a foundation residency. Yarber agreed.

While visiting the main house one evening at The Lake, Fong noticed a line of folders on a high shelf.

"What are those?" he asked.

"Those" turned out to be scores of boxes full of correspondence: letters Graves had received from family, friends and other artists, as well as many first drafts of letters he had written himself.

"And we kept finding more and more papers," Fong said. "And so I started reading."

Over the course of visits back and forth between The Lake and Eugene, Fong introduced Yarber and his wife to Dick Easley and Hue-Ping Lin, the husband-and-wife owners of the White Lotus.

At Yarber's request, the gallery handled the sale of a painting Graves had given to a neighbor. Soon, Yarber asked whether White Lotus also might sell a collection of Graves' works to benefit the foundation.

The show that opens Friday in Eugene has about 40 pieces, ranging from a charming yearbook drawing Graves made in 1931 while in high school in Beaumont, Texas - he went back to school there while living with an aunt after his sea adventures - to highly proficient watercolor, gouache, oil and acrylic paintings of birds, goats and chalices.

"This covers his total productive artistic life," Easley said.

Easley and Lin went to The Lake a few weeks ago to visit with the Yarbers and select work. Other pieces for the show came from Graves' gallery in Seattle.

The painting with a chalice is significant, Easley said, because it's the first example of Graves' use of that particular symbol, which recurs for the rest of his career.

Despite Graves' earlier fame, Fong calls him "an under-recognized, under-acknowledged American artist." His work, Fong said, was simply out of sync with the greater U.S. art scene.

"The delicacy of his media - tempera, gouache and paper - and the scale of his work, and his palette - those earth tones - that was not what was seen as historically significant by art critics," Fong said.

"When you look at the other art of the 1940s and '50s and what it leads to, you can see why Graves got left behind."

Call Bob Keefer at 541-338-2325 or you can e-mail him at


Morris Graves: Paintings and Drawings, 1931 to 1996

What: An exhibit of work, some never before shown, by Northwest painter Morris Graves (1910-2001)

Where: White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette St.

When: Friday through May 25

Reception: At 5:30 p.m. Friday, Robert and Desire Yarber, co-directors of the Morris Graves Foundation, will talk at 6 p.m.; at 6:30 p.m., Lawrence Fong and Vicki Halper will sign copies of the book they edited, "Morris Graves: Selected Letters"


"Art and Nature, an Exhibit of the Life of Morris Graves": An exhibit of Graves' papers at the UO's Knight Library, 1515 Kincaid St., on display through Monday and then again May 3-31 in the Special Collections Room upstairs

"Effort to Bloom": A selection of Graves' works on paper from 1938-62 is up through June 2 in the Gilkey Center, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, 1430 Johnson Lane

"Morris Graves, the Man, the Myth, the Mystery": Robert Yarber, executive director of the Morris Graves Foundation, will give a slide show about the artist's life and work at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Knight Library Browsing Room

Lawrence Fong and Vicki Halper: The co-editors of "Morris Graves: Selected Letters" discuss what they learned about his family, friends, lovers and art from his personal papers and the process of editing and preparing the book at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, with a reception at 4:30 p.m.
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Title Annotation:Visual Arts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 4, 2013
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