On The Lake

The mystic painter Morris Graves and his reclusive life in Humboldt



In January of 1965 the visionary painter Morris Graves wrote a letter to an old friend in Seattle:

I am now, at last, buying the forest tract of land -- near Eureka -- which is where I will build a studio and settle. It is a 380-acre tract of virgin forest surrounding a five-acre lake. The forest is magnificent old-growth redwood and white fir and spruce and all the other Pacific forest plants I love to live with, and the little lake is filled with miniature islands which grow miniature salal and blue huckleberry and dwarfed spruce, etc.

Not long after Graves wrote to his mother, Helen:

Mother dear - This is just a note in haste to say that on Wednesday the final papers were signed and the new deeds recorded. It's a terrible tussle to buy something that's not for sale, and it's taken three years -- as you know -- to get the owners to believe that they did want to sell.

He was feeling ecstatic a few months later when he wrote his friend Richard Svare:

The land purchase [is] finally signed and sealed, and I am full of joy! Full of tears of joy! Full of joyous tears of joy!  The forest lake is unspeakably beautiful, and I can hardly wait for you to see it so that you'll know so too and know that it has been waiting since the beginning of the emergence of California from the sea for me! Untouched! Undisturbed! Unspeakably serene. Only seeing it (and me cool and calm as rain-freshened moss) will dispel your uneasiness and worry about if it's right that I have bought it to educe its latent beauty and still look as though it had never been touched by anything but bird's feet and deer's toes and raccoon's tiptoes! ... 

The eight-by-fourteen-foot cabin -- in a dark grove of trees by the lake's shore -- is finished. The mile-long road through the forest is finished. I have made a huge raft to paddle about on the lake to groom the little islands and prune out the dead twigs and branches. The climate here is eternal autumn. The sky clears at night sometimes, but the Lake is half obscured by mist all day. I can hear only bird songs and the soughing of the trees if a summer breeze stirs them and the distant foghorns groaning on the sea coast.


The visionary artist Morris Graves, acclaimed as one of the major figures in American art in the mid-20th century, had found his final home. The enigmatic painter spent the last 30 years of his life in Humboldt and died here, but a scant few knew him. He was almost invisible. By design, he lived a reclusive life dedicated to painting and working in his garden, shunning visitors. A new book, Morris Graves: Selected Letters, takes a deeper look at his seclusion, how he chose Humboldt and how he felt about his art. Some of his correspondence with friends, family and associates is reprinted here.


"I paint to evolve a changing language of symbols with which to remark upon the qualities of our mysterious capacities which direct us toward ultimate reality ... to verify the inner eye,"  Graves wrote Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller in 1942, when his work was first shown there. "I find painting a relief from the overwhelming pressure of realization. I shout to relax -- I paint to rest."


Born in 1910, the sixth of eight boys, Graves grew up in the Seattle area, watching birds and learning the names of wildflowers. His life has been chronicled in Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art and other sources that outline his nomadic ramblings as well as his search for a permanent home. Graves dropped out of high school after his sophomore year, got a job on a ship heading east and explored Japan, China and Manila. He was particularly taken with Japanese aesthetics.

He returned to Seattle in his 20s to begin what he saw as his life's work: being an artist. Bearded, lean and lanky, at 6 foot 4, he cut a striking figure. In 1933, he took top honors at an annual contest at the Seattle Art Museum with a painting of a swan. In all the years that followed, Graves never married. He wrote fond and exuberant letters to male friends. But Graves was a man of his time, and throughout his long life he didn't speak publicly about his sexuality.

While working for the WPA Federal Art Project in 1939, he met the painter Mark Tobey, 20 years his senior, who taught him new techniques including painting on delicate Chinese paper with tempura. The two artists had a tempestuous relationship, played out in letters that Graves eventually burned, thinking them too personal.

Although he spent most of the 1930s traveling and painting, Graves also began his search for a remote and soul-satisfying home. He paid $40 at a tax auction to buy 20 acres on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, north of Seattle. In 1940 he began work on a house/studio there. Perched on the edge of a cliff with views of the Cascades and Puget Sound, the retreat he called The Rock would be his home until 1947. It was there that he produced some of his most famous work, including the Inner Eye and the Maddened Birds series.

Until The Rock, Graves hadn't sold much work. And he had fallen into reticent ways that lasted all his life, rebuffing gallery owners and museums, needing repeated persuading before agreeing to showings. He resisted at first when Miller from New York's Museum of Modern Art wanted to include him in a 1942 MoMA show titled, "18 Americans from 9 States." Eventually he yielded, but downplayed the work in correspondence with Marian Willard of Willard Gallery in New York City, who became his lifelong art dealer and friend. He told her that he sent the MoMa"70 unframed, half-conceived -- and far, far less than half-painted things ... a heap of half-dreamed-up ideas leaning to the poetic but out of no conviction sufficient to force itself into a language -- and coasting on the voiced enthusiasms of friends. I think they prove by their lack of vitality that I'll never be much of a painter."

Despite his misgivings, the show was a hit. MoMA ended up buying 11 of his paintings for its permanent collection and everything else he showed sold. He followed that with a solo show at the Willard Gallery and was featured at the prestigious Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. Vanity Fair wrote glowingly of him and his work -- all in 1942.

Graves shrunk from the attention. He didn't want to be famous. He wrote to the editor of Vanity Fair complaining, "I consider publicity more than an intrusion. Slight as it has been, it becomes, in the minds of even a few, the threshold of reputation -- under such pressure I am rendered vacant. Time would possibly relieve this -- but, to avoid obscuring my meaning, I will say that in my very plasm is the need of privacy carried to obscurity."

Nevertheless, his prominence kept growing. In 1953 Graves, Tobey and fellow painters Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan were featured in an extensive 1953 Life magazine piece titled "Mystic Painters of the Northwest." His place in art history was now solid, freeing him to flirt with departures that would be less well-received, including a sculpture series, "Instruments for a New Navigation," inspired by U.S. space exploration.

All along, Graves kept running up against authorities who didn't share his worldview. He tried to become a conscientious objector during World War II, and instead spent months in a stockade before a military psychiatrist recognized that he'd never adapt to military life. In 1947, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Japan, but he made it only as far as Hawaii before being refused entry to Occupied Japan. It's unclear why. But a gay draft resister would have had two strikes against him during those years.

Graves began trying out a series of homes. There was a cinder block chateau dubbed Careladen, on land he'd bought in Edmonds, Wash. There was Woodtown Manor, an eighteenth-century house outside of Dublin, Ireland. He liked the light in Ireland, mostly because it reminded him of the Northwest, but America was calling him home.

In 1957, his brother Wallace Graves wrote him describing what he considered an ideal landing spot: "If I were to define this place where you could remove yourself to, it would be something like this: it would be fairly mountainous, hard to get to by road; ... it would be far enough from the present centers of population so that during this century the great increase in population would not reach it in great degree; it would be so contoured that one could own all one could closely see; it would be blessed by Nature not with things which can be converted ... but would instead be blessed by a virtue of its own form, a delight in itself."

Morris Graves had passed through Humboldt in his travels, and liked it enough that he reached out to Floyd Hollenbeck of Holly Realty. In 1962 Hollenbeck helped him find just what he was looking for, a remote wooded area surrounding a lake near Loleta. At the time, Rex and Viola McBride owned the land around Catfish Lake with some partners, and they had no intention of selling. Convincing them took time. As Graves told the story, the turning point came when Viola, who had studied art, figured out who wanted the place. While on the phone with Hollenbeck, she asked if this was Morris Graves, the artist who painted birds. Yes it was. A deal was crafted.

Floyd Hollenbeck's son Eric (who now operates Blue Ox Millworks in Eureka) helped Graves cut brush to make way for a road to the lake and cleared space for a small cabin. When Graves wrote his mother in mid-1965, his delight seemed unabated. He'd become a Humboldt tree hugger.

Something about these great old mature giant trees makes my heart go out to them. I love them more than my fellow man. Or so I feel sometimes. They stand in the forest with such serenity and character, their lives so resolved -- so all-of-a-piece -- and the forest is so deep and in places almost impenetrable that many of these great trees have never been seen by man. This gives them some deep quietude of their own, and although you may think I'm waxing a bit emotional in this letter, I lean with my arms outstretched against these great trees when I discover them and my heart floods with tears of love for them. I am far from what's called a "naturalist" (or what's called a "bird-watcher"), but I'm not far from what's called a "solitary." I love to be alone in nature where no one has ever been and where there's not a chance that someone is going to be.

Graves enlisted Seattle architect Ibsen Nelson to design and build a proper house for The Lake. It wasn't easy going. As Nelson wrote to Graves' art dealer Marian Willard,

The first thing that we discovered when we set out to build the building was that the foundation conditions next to the lake shore were not what we had anticipated, in spite of some considerable soil investigation. At that time I told Morris, "You have two choices, Morris. You can move the house back up onto solid ground farther away from the lake, or we can bring in a pile driving machine and design a complicated pile-supported system of reinforced concrete structural supports to carry the house over the boggy terrain." ...

Morris said we absolutely cannot move the house. You know him well enough that you can probably hear him say so. We had stood there with the roof overhang mocked up on the site and Morris understood the building had to have this special relationship to the lake and it could be no other way. ...

Picture if you can that wonderful Morris striding around like a giant crane, his dreamy but perceptive eyes missing not a thing, watching every detail of the construction as it progressed. I came down each weekend to review the progress, to solve all of the new problems that had come up, and to discuss each and every aspect of the house with him -- endless discussions about the way the windows operated, the way that we put in the sink, etc., etc., etc. The greatest care was taken with every detail of the house. I believe that it shows. It is an achievement, and I am proud of it.

Graves ended up seriously burdened financially after building The Lake. He had mortgage payments to make and had not paid Ibsen anything at all, holding him responsible for cost overruns. He'd stopped painting to focus on the project, so he only had a little income from painting already with his dealers. Friends offered to help him by selling paintings he'd given to them, but at some point living alone in debt just seemed to be too much.

In May 1969, Graves wrote to Rex McBride saying,

I have, during the past two years, been able to pay off $40,000 of the $70,000 indebtedness. I am worn out by this struggle. I cannot seem to organize myself to continue to raise such amounts of money as well as pay taxes and loan interest and monthly living costs. There is $30,000 yet to be paid. This amounts to a burden which I can no longer carry. "Atlas" -- Graves! -- cannot stagger under this burden any longer. Because the financial load so far exceeds my earning capacity as an artist -- straining patience, energy and emotion -- my feeling for my house has changed. ... I have grown to dislike this beautiful place because I am so burdened and so tired and so trapped. I have decided to sell the place, hoping to salvage both my disposition and health and, sad to admit, my nearly exhausted ability to paint because under this burden I no longer can collect that nervous energy essential to the act of creative painting. You and Viola hold a first-refusal option on this property. She already knows my problems. ... Will you please discuss this matter with her as soon as possible. I have asked Peggy Hunt to sell the property for me in case you do not exercise your option.

Of course he did not, in fact, sell The Lake. Graves was prone to dramatic gestures and statements, and his letter to the McBrides was one of them. He eventually resolved his money problems and got back on track with his work. In 1973, he hired an assistant, Robert Yarber, who lived at The Lake, taking care of the artist's day-to-day needs and dealing with outsiders.

Now in his 60s, Graves shifted into a new phase of minimalist paintings of floral arrangements, works with a Zen-like simplicity intended as statements about the nature of beauty. He unpacked the "Instruments of a New Navigation" sculptures and completed them. He continued working in his garden, tending his flowers and manicuring the landscape of The Lake, refining beauty of a different sort. But mostly he enjoyed his solitary life on The Lake, away from the noise and hustle bustle of civilization -- and people.

His wry view of the town he called home shows in a whimsical census, written in 1997 and found among his letters, which reads in part:

Loleta population 118

113 artists

3 sculptors

2 potters

114 guitarists, country western

3 mouth organists

118 actors

1 blind man eighty years old

116 TV watchers

12 widows

5 widowers

116 Social Security, Unemployment and Medicare recipients

1 grocery store post office

18 daily meals on wheels

118 lottery ticket buyers

42 school children

106 whites

35 skateboarders

21 Native Americans

1 mulatto

16 divorcees

6 gays

6 lesbians

103 bisexuals

118 masturbators

When the Humboldt Arts Council was first getting going, art enthusiast Sally Arnot invited Graves to participate in a group exhibition. He ended up choosing the local artists for the show.

"We became friends after that," said Arnot in a recent conversation in the offices of Eureka's Morris Graves Museum of Art. "At some point in the '90s he decided he wanted to give us his personal collection of art, things he'd collected over the years. He believed his collection needed a permanent home. We literally took all the art at The Lake, wrapped it up in blankets and drove it off in our station wagons. He gave us pieces by [Jean] Arp and Mark Tobey, all sorts of things."

In 1996, when the city offered to sell the arts council the old Carnegie Library for $1, Arnot shifted into serious fundraising mode. (See George Ringwald's Journal story, "Cheerleader for the Arts" Dec. 30, 1999.) "I'd already approached Robert to see if he'd be interested in helping," said Arnot. Yarber became co-chair of the committee alongside the artist Floyd Bettiga.

Pulling together over $1 million to refurbish the library as a museum took a few years. Arnot's "Brick Buy Brick" campaign allowed for endless naming rights. Graves and the Graves Foundation gave cash and more art work of untold value.

In January 2000, to honor Graves' contributions, the Carnegie was officially renamed the Morris Graves Museum of Art. "Morris felt very strongly about the local artistic community," said Arnot. He loved all the artists. He wanted to save this building." In December 2000, the museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of Graves' work, curated by Yarber, titled "Beauty: Seeing Then, Seeing Now, Seeing Beyond."

Earlier that year, a tired Graves wrote a note to Yarber:


My problem is: I've lived too long. Life is no longer fun -- or funny.


Then in early in 2001:


We have to get me out of the way.


Morris Graves died at home on The Lake on May 5, 2001, after suffering a stroke. The reputation he never sought lives on through the museum and the foundtion that bear his name -- and through his art.



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