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This is the Place 

Conversations with Morris Graves

In the extraordinary life of Morris Graves, periods of travel in Europe and Asia alternated with extended sojourns in two remote and beautiful coastal regions: Humboldt County and Skagit County, in Washington's northwest corner. Here and There, organized by Skagit Valley artist Ann Chadwick Reid, explores the repercussions of Pacific Northwest geography in Graves' art and in the work of contemporary artists from these regions. Like Graves, the eight Humboldt- and Skagit-based artists in this show make art that seeks to convey the spirit of place. Their work is fittingly showcased here, in the museum that bears Graves' name.

Graves seems to have been idealistic, independent-minded and susceptible to nature's beauty; in other words, he fit right in here. But by the time he arrived in Humboldt in the 1960s, he was a mature artist and had already been through more than his share of exceptional experiences.

Born in Seattle in 1910, Graves ran away to sea as a teenager and made multiple voyages around the world as a merchant seaman before turning 21. By the 1930s, he was living in New York in one of the communitarian peace missions founded by the visionary African-American preacher Father Divine. During World War II, he spent months in prison as a conscientious objector. Graves chose to live and work in the Pacific Northwest rather than relocating to New York, as most young artists did at the time. Even so, he gained a national reputation in 1942, when his paintings made their way into a major show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. After designing acclaimed country houses in Ireland and Skagit, Graves made his last move to Loleta in 1964. There he had Seattle architect Ibsen Nelson build him a house in the thick of an old-growth redwood forest, where he lived and painted until his death in 2001.

Graves was a lifelong student of Zen Buddhism, and his creative achievement places him among the cadre of American visionaries who recorded their perceptions of God's presence manifest in nature. Graves shares some ontology with the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; he shares common purpose with landscape painters like Charles Burchfield and Thomas Cole. Graves wrote in 1946 from his home on Fidalgo Island: "This Northwestern world is a CONDITION, sparse, and not overly humanized — and in it the outlooking DEMANDS inlooking."

Most of the Graves works here feature delicately rendered, semi-abstracted birds and animals, often hovering over luminous open backgrounds in a way that suggests geometricized flight. With works like "Bird and Void" (1944) or "Hibernation II" (1969) the artist does not necessarily try to achieve a realistic likeness; rather, he records the sensation that this entity impressed upon a viewer's spirit. His creaturely subjects are invested with psychic charge.

Graves's connectedness to place did not aid his career in the postwar decades, when "regionalism" was in eclipse and the American art world celebrated seemingly autonomous artworks. A lot has changed since then. Artists embrace regional specificity now that the Internet has made the picturesque margins of the world more connected, and the great cultural capitals more alike. Awareness of place can be valuable currency in such a world. This tenet is a point of departure for the eight artists whose works occupy the first floor's western galleries.

Most of these artists do not share Graves's predilection for "inlooking," or his radar for mystic vibes. Whereas Graves tapped into the seemingly eternal dimension of the natural world, artists living in the 21st century don't have the luxury of taking nature's apparently prodigal bounty for granted. It's hard now to think about nature without also thinking of the potential for its loss. So it makes sense that these artists portray the Pacific Northwest coastal zone as a delicate, perishable resource: an interconnected system whose glorious complexity is now threatened by environmental damage, habitat loss, climate change, ocean acidification and development.

Several participants responded to the exhibition brief by documenting the complexities of the natural world or contrasting the ecosystems of the counties in question. Julie McNiel's mixed media pieces bring imagery from China and the Northwest together in brusquely unexpected juxtapositions. Big, multilayered paintings by Leslie Kenneth Price feature biomorphic forms woven together as foliage might be in a garden. Eve Deisher's intricate black and white compositions layer paper and fabric to generate interconnected, organically shaped motifs. Ann Reid's paired scrolls, made from finely cut black paper in the Japanese style, contrast the flora and fauna of Humboldt and Skagit counties. And Allen Moe's velvety-looking contour reliefs are cast from sand patterns carved in the mud of the Eel and Skagit riverbeds, each as individual as footprints.

Other artists took a different approach — contributing works that engage with Graves himself, or with his legacy. Lanny Bergner shows tall, elegant crystalline constructions that speak to "Instruments for a New Navigation," Graves' sculpture series inspired by the dawn of the space age. Lori Goodman presents a "House for Morris," crafted from hemp paper bricks: a deceptively solid-looking meditation on the light versus the heavy, and the home versus the world. And Emily Silver embraces Morris as muse, even though she writes that she is drawn to open, arid landscapes so different from the foggy forests he preferred. Her "Counterpane for Morris and Me" is a dreamy watercolor full of clouds and currents, just big enough to commune with an artist's ghost.

Here and There will be on display at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through July 26 before it travels to the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConner, Washington.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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