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The Nature of Beauty

"My focus is beauty. We live in a world of
opposites tugging at us. Beauty alone has no
opposite ... I should use beauty as an opiate
and if I can pull it out of nature and hint at it
in paint, then I should, and hand it as an opiate
to any who will have it."

-- Morris Graves, 1942
(in a letter to Marian Willard, an art dealer)

Beauty: Seeing Then, Seeing Now, Seeing Beyond is an exhibition hanging this month and next at the Morris Graves Museum of Art. It is a collection of 26 works by the man whose name graces the museum.

The curator of the show is Robert Yarber, Morris Graves' assistant for the last 27 years. (In above photo) On a gray afternoon the day before the exhibit opened, while Yarber's assistant, Matt Wachs, was leveling the paintings and putting a final polish on the glass that protects some of the pieces, Yarber offered us a guided tour through the world of Morris Graves.

He began by explaining the title of the show. "What I mean by that is that Morris is a seeker of truth. The fruit of a life striving for truth is beauty. That's the ultimate truth."

What was the genesis of the show?

"The museum is the beginning," said Yarber. "Without the museum the show wouldn't have happened."

One could also say that without Graves the museum wouldn't have happened. It bears his name because of the generous gifts he has made to the Humboldt Arts Council over the years. He donated the bulk of his personal collection of art, acquired in the course of his long career, and made a cash contribution that gave the project a final push to completion.

"He's given his art, he's given his money," said Yarber. "And in a sense he's trying to give the spirit and pass it on as he is getting ready to leave this material plane. He's saying to us, `It's your turn now.'

"In his own quiet way, he has been encouraging artists for years. In tangible ways he's helped people because he has been helped he's been helped throughout his life, so he's trying to pass it on."

Born in Oregon in 1910, Graves grew up in the Northwest and had his first solo exhibition in 1936 at the Seattle Art Museum. For the current show, Yarber assembled works from throughout Graves' career, hanging them roughly in chronological order. But our tour did not begin at the beginning. As you walk into the gallery, straight ahead you see the triptych that previously hung in the entry way of the museum. The title tells us more:

The Great Blue Heron Yogi and the Great Rainbow Trout Yogi in
Phenomenal Space, Mental Space and the Space of Consciousness

[Great Blue Heron painting]

On one level the painting's subject matter is a bird and a fish, but Graves' works do not communicate on just one level.

"There's always some sort of comment," said Yarber. "Here he talks of the three kinds of space: fundamental space, natural space and the space of consciousness. When you experience art, sculpture, even theater, you should see where the artist is coming from.

"Does it involve the phenomenal space where you have the tangible concrete forms? Or is it a space where you get into the more imaginative mental state of ideas, where matter is less tangible and becomes more and more ethereal? You can manipulate space, move it around and imagine the infinite possibilities. That finally moves toward a single consciousness where all form and space merges into a state of oneness. In that state of oneness the observer disappears."


Time of Change 1944

[Time of Change painting]

"This and other pieces reflect the times when he struggled, when things weren't going well. This piece shows a time of change the three birds are moving from right to left, going through different spaces.

"This bird is him this is Morris journeying through the darkness, struggling with his own darkness, trying to figure out where he fits in. It was a time of turmoil the time World War ll was raging.

"Morris had tried to get Conscientious Objector status -- he didn't want to fight in the war so he went for C.O. status. They rejected him and threw him in the guard house. He escaped twice during those 11 months. After that they let him go. They labeled him unadaptable to military service and basically said, `Get out of here. We've had enough of you. We're tired of you.' And Morris was tired of them. He said, `I'm sorry I'm such a pain in the ass, but I'm not a warrior. And I'm not going to fight your war.'

"This painting is him struggling with himself and with the way world events are coming together. He sees that it's all necessary: the darkness, the turmoil, the struggle. Each of the different layers or blocks of color has meaning: the black stands for inertia, the vermilion is action, the white is balance. They stand for the three constituents of nature. In a way we are all of those qualities. In this vermilion space we see a grappling with the dark issues inside yourself. As we move toward the more reflective consciousness, you see within yourself and you realize that all the answers are there."


Dove of the Inner Eye 1941

[Dove of the Inner Eye painting]

"The dove basically stands for the soul, the quiet part of our lives. The writhing serpent is the struggling person working his way through life. All of this calligraphic white writing stands for the energy that sustains us as we work our way through consciousness."


Spring With Machine Age Noise #2 1957

[Spring with Machine Age Noise painting]

"This piece speaks of ecology and reverence for the earth. He gives visual language so you can almost see sound. It shows the encroachment of suburbia in the Puget Sound area where he lived. He built a beautiful home in a maple forest called Carelden, because it was laden with care. Over the years there was an encroachment of sounds like jets, lawnmowers, chain saws on his space of quiet. He gives visual expression to that. Some will look at it and say, `So what. That's what America is about.' But some will say, `You're right, let's do something about it. I've heard one critic call him a `green mystic.' He applauds all of the people working on planting trees, restoring watersheds and bringing the salmon back. He thinks those people are great artists in their way."


Mouse Helping a Hedgerow Animal Carry a Prie-Dieu 1954

"Morris was living in Ireland at the time. The hedgerow animal symbolizes Ireland. It's an imaginary animal carrying the Papal throne on its back. The mouse symbolizes Rome and the Catholic Church. He's making a comment on the Irish temperament and Ireland's relationship with Roman Catholicism."

Magnolia Spring Bouquet 1981

[Magnolia painting]

The Flower Paintings: (clockwise from top left):
Spring Bouquet 1981, Iris 1972, White Anemone 1960,
Bouquet for Tammy 1991, Winter Sunflower 1976 (inset)

"And then we have the simple beautiful quiet still life: irises and anemones from the garden, the sunflower he painted in Ireland. With these paintings of flowers he's not trying to make any kind of definite comment, just saying, `Have a look at the way the light falls, take a moment of quiet to enjoy the beauty.'"

While they may not make the same type of "definite comment" as his more complex paintings, Graves' flowers have something to say in their simple quiet beauty. In their own way the flowers, stuck in bottles or in simple vases, speak volumes, with their radiant glow suggesting a mystical inner light.

One can only imagine that Graves has that same sort of radiance himself. While he has lived somewhere outside of Loleta for 35 years, few have seen him. It is unlikely that he will show for at Arts Alive! next Saturday for the official opening of Beauty He prefers a life of solitude and contemplation.

"In a way Morris is a mystery and will remain a mystery," said Yarber. "If you look deeply we all are mysteries. None of us knows what we are ultimately. People have labeled him a great mystic. Call him what you will, but he's as human as you or I. I'd like to demystify him. He's just someone who has focused his life on what he sees as his contribution.

"Morris is an artist all of the time. He loves to garden, he loves architecture. On some level he's always composing, no matter what he's doing. To him, art is a state of mind.

"He followed his own path and because he's taken a solitary path and not the route of the mainstream, it's given him the opportunity to glimpse what is uniquely his. A strength of character and integrity kept him true to his path and his vision. The message for all of us is to be true to yourself."

Report by  BOB DORAN


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