Book Review:
Morris Graves: His Houses -- His Gardens

  • Posted 3/20/2014
  • Essay 10731
By Richard Svare
Foreword by Galen Garwood
Hardback, 113 pages
Photographs, notes, author's biography
Process Media and Marrowstone Press in association with the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA)
ISBN 978-1-934170-42-7

For any who think of Morris Graves (1910-2001) only as a famous painter of the Northwest School, Morris Graves: His Houses -- His Gardens will put that idea to rest, for his creative accomplishments also included the houses and gardens he built and lived in. Most materials presented here -- photographs, drawings, and personal insights -- have not been previously published and they add greatly to our understanding of the important Pacific Northwest artist. Author Richard Svare, an actor and theater director, was also Graves's companion and he tells his personal story of four Graves dwellings: The Rock on Fidalgo Bay, near Deception Pass, Skagit County (1940-1947); Careladen, Woodway Park, near Edmonds (1947-1957); Woodtown Manor, Rathfarnam, Ireland (1958-1964); and The Lake, near Eureka, California (1965-present). Svare lived with Graves at Careladen and Woodtown Manor.

Like the painter Monet, Graves drew inspiration from his close natural world and, for both artists, those settings were largely self-created for solitude, reflection, and inspiration. Graves sought privacy and worked throughout his life to create quietude in which to paint. Peace-loving in an increasingly war-torn world, he found his inspiration in nature and began studying Zen Buddhism and Taoism. He was also restless by nature and traveled extensively and, as this book points out, after completing a house and garden, he would live there for a time and then move on.

In 1940 Graves met George Nakashima, an architect and furniture maker in Seattle who shared Graves's vision that form should grow from natural materials. Graves desired to build a house and studio and bought 20 acres of tax-delinquent land near Deception Pass, Skagit County, high on a ridge overlooking a lake. As Svare writes: "It was a place to listen -- the restless wind soughing through the fir and pine, the bird song and the swirling water far below the cliffs. It was a place to look and be entirely alone in sunrise and sunset, and in darkest night to observe the planets and the stars, unhindered by urban lights."

Graves built a small house -- a design he would expand upon in later years -- and a Zen garden, physically doing the work himself, which entailed moving and arranging huge boulders. The house was constructed to take advantage of the soft Pacific Northwest light that he loved. His time at The Rock was one of the most prolific periods in his painting life, bringing him worldwide recognition. The chapter on The Rock includes rare Graves' house plans and photographs taken by Frank Murphy that show the house under construction.

The Careladen chapter is especially strong with inclusion of excellent photographs taken by Mary Randlett, whose mother, Betty Willis, operated an important art studio that had been first to exhibit the work of the Northwest painters. Randlett photographed the house and lavish garden under construction. Secluded and private, Careladen reflected both Graves's love of elegance and comfort, a place where he could observe, meditate, paint, and visit with close friends.

Graves fell in love with Ireland on a visit and in 1958 he and Svare purchased Woodtown Manor, located near bogland in Rathfarnum, a southside suburb of Dublin. This time Graves undertook remodeling. The house was structurally solid yet needed extensive façade work. Svare draws on many of his own photos to tell the story of their time there.

Graves' final house, The Lake, was his masterpiece. Here he was able to achieve his dream of merging architecture and the presence of water. While visiting the West Coast, he purchased 200 acres of forest on a lake near Eureka, California. Now in his 60s and with financial means, Graves worked with architect Ibsen Nelson to create his Lake house and studio. A large one-story, the structure tucks into the natural setting, overlooking the lake. Here Graves found his privacy, watched the sunrises and sunsets, greeted the birds, welcomed occasional friends and continued to paint. Many of his paintings in the last years were of his own simple flower arrangements, and look much like Graves's flower arrangements Mary Randlett had photographed at Careladen.

Morris Graves: His Houses -- His Gardens will appeal to readers interested in the life of Morris Graves and the Northwest painters as well as to those who are interested in the art of garden design or historic photography. The book is large format (10 ¼" x 12"), well designed, and its images -- printed in duotone -- tell the story as much as the text.

For years Richard Svare refused to write about Graves, wishing to respect his friend's privacy and also not wanting to advance his own reputation through his association with Graves. Friends convinced him to write on the subject of the houses and gardens and the process took many years. The book was published in October 2013 by Process Media and Marrowstone Press in association with the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA).

By Margaret Riddle, March 21, 2014

Submitted: 3/20/2014

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