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Omphaloskepsis Blog

Morris Graves, NW Mystics, 100 birthday bash

Apr 25, 2010

Mystic Sons of Morris Graves, Seattle Lodge No. 93

I received a titillating invitation in the mail last week. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it. It was beautifully made and I loved the stamps but I first had to find out that this was a legitimate “thing.” “Look,” a friend emailed me a link. The first information I received contained this very funny paragraph:

“Initiation into the Mystic Sons is left to the whimsy of the Grand Polmarch. To qualify one must be male and exhibit an appreciation of the art of the absurd. Halting efforts have been made to form a Women's Auxiliary, but members of the fairer sex seem reluctant to perform the household chores that have been delegated to them. Interested men, however, may approach the Polmarch, who appears in full regalia at many art functions in Seattle, and express their interest in joining the Society. You will score some points by reciting the sacred oath, "Telergy, Torque, Obedience, and Krumhorns."

It wasn’t too hard to see the humor once you inspect the photo:


Count the women. 1/3. Good percentage in this field!

The Seattle Lodge 93 of the Mystic Sons of Morris Graves is having an exhibition invitational in honor of Graves’ 100th birthday, complete with a seance.

Then this article, which I loved:
Monday, December 21, 1998
(partially copied here...to read it in its entirety, link above)

Charlie Krafft is the dark angel of Seattle art. The title's his: Mr. Noir.

Even though he's capable of pushing the provocative into the seriously offensive, not even his harshest critics would deny he has produced a powerful body of work in the 1990s and engaged in activities that have enlivened the Seattle art scene.

Chief among those activities is his deliberately twisted defense of a personal hero, the painter Morris Graves


Graves  in his studio

Tired of hearing Graves called old hat, Krafft decided to shift the argument, draping a mantle of irony and subversive humor over the spiritual head of the Northwest School.

Thus was born the Mystic Sons of Morris Graves, Lodge No. 93. Krafft hatched the idea with help from Larry Reid, founder of the influential Rosco Louie Gallery and formerly director of the Center on Contemporary Art.

In recent years, Reid and Krafft have become the local art community's version of Foul Fellow and Sly Fox, cooking up dastardly art endeavors and (thanks to Reid), expertly publicizing them.

Four years old this month, the Mystic Sons lodge has its own membership charters, wristwatches, calendars, trading cards, ashtrays, portable shrines and even a theme song written by Krafft and sung to the tune of ``The Beverly Hillbillies."

Here's the first verse: ``Come and listen to our story/ About a man named Morris,/ An artist who flung ink/ On papers that were porous./ He lived in the woods/ On a lake that looked Chinese/ And every time the moon came up/ He dropped to his knees./ (Big gnarly ones. They looked/ Like a couple of redwood burls.)"

Krafft says he and Reid want to tip their berets to the Northwest tradition, but not buy it hook, line and sinker. ``We're taking out the sanctimony and adding a bit of titilation. The Northwest mystics were an urban movement, not a bunch of remote dreamers. They didn't have master of fine arts degrees. They learned on the job."



Proving Graves doesn't take himself as seriously as some of his intimates do, he responded enthusiastically to the fledging group from his Northern California retreat.

He has sent the lodge fan mail, drawings, collages and once a check too large to cash, making his own subversive joke on the subsistence lifestyles of the men behind the Mystic Sons.

``Morris wrote Larry a check for a million dollars," Krafft said, handing it over for inspection. Reid had sent Graves a copy of a story he wrote about the need for a Seattle Contemporary Art Museum to be known as SCAM, a dig at the region's existing art institutions.

``We can't cash it," said Krafft regretfully, ``but we're thinking of making a movie about trying to cash it."

Even with Graves' support, Krafft and Reid have been unable to place their Mystic Sons items in the gift shops at the Seattle Art Museum or the Museum of Northwest Art.

``That speaks for itself," Krafft muttered, slipping into his something-is-rotten-in-Denmark voice. Talking to Krafft is a bit like walking through a mine field. The landscape is lovely and lots of fun, but you have to know where the mines are buried. When in a good mood, however, he's easy to distract.


How many Mystic Sons are there?

``Say 100," he said, beaming into his red beard. A few seconds later he paused, registering a rare second thought. Usually he sticks with what comes off the top of his head.

``No, say 50," he amended. ``We don't keep records. People who want to be in, get in. They don't have to be sons. Daughters have joined. We didn't want them, but they insisted. I offered them membership in an auxiliary organization to be called the Darling Daughters of Helen Van Wyck, but there were no takers. Van Wyck has that how-to painting show on Channel 9."

Some people seek membership, and others have it thrust upon them.

``Think of it as our version of the MacArthur Foundation," he said. ``The Mystic Sons letter arrives in the mail. It's an unexpected honor. Somebody's done something we like, in the Graves' spirit, and we want to reward him."

Interestingly, Krafft as a painter has little in common with his chosen father figure. Krafft paints to explore craft values and Graves paints to transcend them.

I’ve seen Krafft’s work at a recent show at Ouch My Eye. I thought it was terrific. I found the show overall to have some engaging work, but his work was by far the most engaging. His site here.

To understand the movement a little more as the Time propaganda machine made it, below is that famous Time article.


Red Powder of Puja II
Tempera on paper
46 x 23 3/4 inches

Northwest Mystics: The Mystic Artists: A Puget Sound Quest
Published: March 12, 2006

THE painting — a big, dark cityscape of Seattle as seen from Capital Hill, with Lake Union shining like a whale in the foreground and the hump of Queen Anne Hill rising behind into the belly of a low black cloud — is so tactile and kinetic it makes you want to touch the paint. And that's exactly what John E. Braseth, co-owner of the Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery in Seattle, does.

"My God, I never noticed those figures in the foreground — see them on the steps?" Mr. Braseth is rubbing a thumb over two barely discernible pedestrians on a flight of stairs at the painting's lower left corner.

Though I keep my hands to myself, I share Mr. Braseth's excitement. This 1942 Kenneth Callahan oil on board called "Lake Union, Capitol Hill" is the grail I've been searching for — an iconic Seattle setting painted by an iconic Northwest master. Ever since a 1953 Life Magazine article anointed Callahan, along with his fellow Seattle artists Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Guy Anderson, "Mystic Painters of the Northwest," they have become local legends known as the "Big Four." Never mind that by the time the article appeared, they were barely on speaking terms. The label stuck. Rightly or wrongly, the mystics are still the region's main claim to artistic fame.


“Hibernation” tempura

And yet, for titans, they are surprisingly elusive in their own city. There are no plaques on their houses; no snapshot-encrusted bars or cafes; with the exception of Pike Place Market, which Tobey sketched over and over, hardly any recognizable urban landmarks or vistas that they claimed as their own. Which is why I'm so thrilled to be standing just inches from Callahan's 1942 oil. It's from the period when the artists were closest, gathering weekly at Tobey's University District studio or the Capitol Hill house of Kenneth and Margaret Callahan to talk politics and art. This was their world — dark, stormy, torn by depression and war. This was their default palette — subdued, grayed-out earth tones and slate blues with the occasional neon blaze of saturated color.

Here are a few facts about Graves pulled from Wikipedia:

Graves dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and sailed on three American Mail Line ships with his brother Russell. Upon arriving in Japan, he wrote:

        "There, I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air."[1]

Graves' early work was in oils and focused on birds touched with strangeness, either blind, or wounded, or immobilized in webs of light.[1]


Bird Experiencing Light, 1969
In the early 1930s, Graves studied Zen Buddhism. In 1934, Graves built a small studio on family property in Edmonds, Washington, that burned to the ground in 1935, and with it, almost all of his work. His first one-man exhibition was in 1936 in Seattle's Art Museum (SAM).[2]

In 1954, Graves staged the first Northwest art "Happening", sending invitations to everyone on the Seattle Art Museum mailing list:

        "You or your friends are not invited to the exhibition of Bouquet and Marsh paintings by the 8 best painters in the Northwest to be held on the afternoon and evening of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, June 21, at Morris Graves' palace in exclusive Woodway Park."

In September 1954, Life Magazine did an article on "The Mystic Painters of the Northwest," featuring Graves, and including Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Mark Tobey; this changed his life.

His mid-career works were influenced by East Asian philosophy and mysticism, which he used it as a way of approaching nature directly, avoiding theory. Graves adopted certain elements of Chinese and Japanese art, including the use of thin paper and ink drawing. His painted birds, pine trees, and waves. Graves works, such as "Blind Bird" often contain elements of Mark Tobey, who was inspired by Asian calligraphy. Graves switched from oils to gouaches, his bird became psychedelic, mystic, en route to transcendence. The paintings were bold, applied in a thick impasto with a palette knife, sometimes on coarse feed sacks.[3]



Museum of NW Art

Morris Graves Was the Antic Genius of NW Art
by Regina Hackett

YouTube video Krafft sent me on old post


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