Born in Fox Valley, Oregon in 1910, Morris Graves was a leading proponent of the Northwest School, which he helped to establish. He was the last survivor of a group of four artists described as "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" in an article in a 1953 issue of Life magazine. The other three artists were Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan. They were known for a philosophy that combined Eastern religious beliefs and an appreciation for the natural world. He was featured at an exhibit titled "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942 with 30 of his works.
His painting, much influenced by Oriental art, has much symbolism and elements of surrealism. Most often he used birds, animals and trees as his theme, and his colors are muted and somber.
Graves was influenced by the "white writing" of Mark Tobey. His work also exhibits his interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies. His paintings frequently seem very old; as one observer put it, "some have the look almost of fossil rubbings."
Graves began as an oil painter; his paint was heavily handed and thickly applied. Later, however, he gravitated to tempera, gouache, watercolor, ink and wax on thin paper in a technique akin to Oriental scroll painting.
In 1933, he won his first prize in the Northwest Annual Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Three years later he had his first one-man show there. After a stint working in the WPA Federal Art Project, he joined the museum staff, thus getting a chance to study its magnificent collection of oriental art.
In 1946, Graves was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his study in Japan but, with that country still occupied, military authorities would not allow his visit.
Graves died at his home in Loleta, California in 2001.
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art