The House That Morris Graves Built

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On a cloudy afternoon, the lake looks dense and as silver-black as a pool of mercury. Miniature islands sprout from the deep, and clusters of water lilies hug the shore against a fringe of cattails, ferns and giant skunk-cabbage leaves. A crystalline reflection of islands and sky shimmers on the surface, even as the surrounding forest dissolves into fog. It feels as though we've arrived at some mythic fen at the edge of the world.

This is my first glimpse of the habitat of that rare and elusive creature, Morris Graves. One of the Northwest's most revered artists — and certainly the most legendary — Graves spent the last 35 years of his life at The Lake, this remote 195-acre estate in Loleta, Calif. Graves died here in May at the age of 90 and set off a tsunami of nostalgia for the glory days of Northwest art, the days when the Museum of Modern Art and its employees bought up Graves paintings by the dozens and Life magazine made famous "The Mystic Painters of the Northwest." A charismatic personality and world-renowned artist, Graves lived a life that vacillated between the utter seclusion of his several forest abodes and a glamorous dalliance with the cream of international society. For a time during the 1950s, Graves and his companion Richard Svare lived in Ireland and were entertained by such celebrities as the Rothschilds, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and American movie director John Huston.

In the Northwest, Graves became as famous for the amazing houses he built as for his introspective paintings. But few ever saw these places, and the public was generally excluded. At the California home that was his last, Graves maintained a heavy veil of secrecy. Stories abound about his reclusiveness: He would bodily throw out guests who displeased him, and he kept handwritten signs posted at the entrance to the property. One of them read, "No visitors today, tomorrow, or the day after." The signs stayed up year-round.

So it was with gratitude that I accepted an invitation to visit this special place with Svare and Graves' friend Jan Thompson, both of Seattle. Graves' executor, Robert Yarber, who lives at The Lake and has managed it since the early 1970s, extended the offer as a way of allowing us to pay our final respects. But the invitation presented another opportunity. To truly understand the artist's work, it's important to know something about how he lived. The trip would give us the chance to publish the first documentation of Graves' houses, a rare look at the artist's personal and most encompassing art.

• • •

ALTHOUGH WE'VE arrived in California, our story begins in the Northwest, where Graves was born and grew up. Everywhere he lived as an adult — whether in a burnt-out house in La Conner, a country estate in Ireland, or the three houses he built for himself in Western Washington and California — he created something extraordinary. As his artistic fame grew, he spent progressively more of his energy and funds adapting his surroundings to suit his compulsive inner vision.

Sadly, we can't go back to see the very earliest studio the artist built for himself — it's long since been lost. Built with the help of Graves' brothers on the family property in Edmonds, it was a place his friend, the painter Guy Anderson, remembered as "a very excellent studio" in a French-provincial style. The small stone, lumber and shake structure burned down in 1935, the same year it was built. Graves was 25 at the time, and the following year he had his first solo show at the Seattle Art Museum.

For a while, Graves hung out in Seattle, living the Bohemian life. He camped out in the servant's quarters of an old mansion, shared a home on Capitol Hill with some artist friends, lived in a derelict house near Pioneer Square. He traveled a lot, but was always drawn back to this city.

It wasn't until the late 1930s that the legends about Graves' living spaces really took hold. That's when he moved to La Conner and set up residence in an abandoned two-story Victorian partly gutted by fire.

I've never found a photograph of it, but stories about that house remain an integral part of Northwest art lore. It was a ghostly place. Graves covered the floor of one room with sand and placed rocks and driftwood to make a kind of indoor garden. He painted a huge, lifelike eye on the ceiling. Several fledgling crows that Graves kidnapped had free run of the place. One enterprising local boy found the house so bizarre that, when the artist was away, he sold tours of it for a quarter. But by living there rent-free, Graves was able to scrape together money to buy his own tract of land. At that time, 40 bucks was enough to buy him some acreage on a wooded hilltop near Deception Pass, where Graves built his first house. He called it The Rock.

It was an austere cabin — no electricity, no running water — sited on a solid stone promontory overlooking Campbell Lake. Every aspect — the Japanese-style gardens, the rough-hewn lumber of the house, the spare furnishings — had meaning to Graves. This remote house, the first Graves created from the ground up, was to change his outlook and his art. He told one writer, "I had found a way of life."

By this time he was already a mythic figure in Northwest art circles: tall, handsome, reclusive, both charming and outrageous in his social dealings. The Rock came to epitomize both Graves' startling sense of beauty — always incorporating something provocative or unexpected — and his taste for opulent asceticism. The artist owned very little furniture at the time, but the odd, worn pieces he scavenged were unfailingly gorgeous. Decades after Graves had left The Rock, that cabin and property remained an emblem of his style and a site of pilgrimage for other artists.

From then on, Graves alternated cycles of painting with the intensive labor of building and gardening. He believed that every aspect of life should be creative, whether it was plumbing or making paintings. And in each of his houses thereafter, Graves had the means to carry his vision a step further.

In the late 1940s, Graves moved to Woodway Park in Edmonds, and built a more ambitious house. He called it Careläden. (Graves added the umlaut and pronounced it "Carelahden" for added drama.) Set among acres of trees, the graciously proportioned cement-block structure was designed with help from architects Robert Jorgensen and Robert Shields. "Serene" is the word Svare uses to describe the house, where Graves was living when they first met. "The house at Woodway was so beautiful. The inside was all wood that we rubbed with lye and waxed by hand: It created a warmth," Svare recalls. The extensive grounds included a gatehouse, courtyard, pond and garden pavilion. Eventually, though, the postwar building boom drove Graves away from the idyllic spot, when bulldozers and chainsaws began ripping up the woods around his property for new development. The artist's anger over the encroachment is documented in his powerful "Machine Age Noise" paintings from this period. When Graves and Svare left there in 1954 to move to Ireland, poet Theodore Roethke and his wife Beatrice rented the house.

In Ireland, Graves and Svare eventually purchased an abandoned 35-acre country estate, Woodtown Manor, with a large stone house, built in 1750, that had fallen into ruin and was being used to shelter livestock. "The floors were all gone; we put in central heating, windows, all that," Svare recalls. Unlike Graves' rustic homes in the Northwest forest, this country gentleman's house and walled garden allowed Graves, with his increasing celebrity and resources, to live in a more princely style. He and Svare began to accumulate objects — Chippendale sofas and a chaise upholstered in plum velvet, 18th-century Hogarth chairs and beautiful Sheffield silver candlesticks.

In 1965, Svare left Ireland to start a theater company in Scandinavia. A year later, Graves sold Woodtown Manor and returned to Seattle. He'd already heard about a fabulous piece of property near Eureka, and soon focused his attention on acquiring it.

• • •

THE WAY GRAVES integrated the buildings and landscape at The Lake is spectacular. We stand transfixed in the spacious drawing room of the main house, which cantilevers over the water on pilings and seems to drift among the reeds and water lilies. A bank of tall windows stretches the expanse of the 50-foot room, like the panels of a Japanese screen. This is where, from a chair in the south corner, the artist would sit, overlooking his floating world. A few steps out a side door would take the painter to his studio and a small boat house. From there a trail leads on to Yarber's house. On the opposite shore stands a guest house and a Japanese-style teahouse, tucked among the cattails. Behind the L-shaped main house, Graves' formal garden, composed around a geometry of boxwood hedges, lies abandoned where his leeks, flowers and vegetables once grew. Even when he was actively gardening, though, Graves liked a little disorder. He built his gardens on Japanese principles, emphasizing mystery, rustic solitude and a reminder that whatever grows also dies.

"He liked the look of an abandoned garden that had been tended and formalized, then let go — but not too far," Yarber says.

Thompson, who drove down with Graves from Seattle when he purchased the property, recalls his fascination with the site. "We drove up to the top of that little hill, then walked in because the road wasn't built. He was absolutely in a trance. He squatted by the lake for hours just looking — it was full of logs and junk. To me, it was a mess: He had a vision of it that I couldn't see." The first order of business was clearing the lake, and Graves worked at it to the point of exhaustion, diving down and pulling out logs and weeds. "He composed it to be serene," Yarber says.

Now, when you look out from the drawing room, the view is otherworldly. Sighs of mist lift off the lake like spirits rising from the deep. The remains of an ancient, submerged forest lie here, and each miniature island sprouts from the decaying mass of a tree whose trunk, preserved by water, still reaches down some 30 feet to the lake floor. Yarber explains that an earthquake 300 years ago created a sag-pond. "That's when the land gives way, forming a bowl that fills with water. Over the decades and centuries, the tree trunks rotted down and formed humus, and then wind and birds dropped native seeds. It's very fertile, but because of the limited space, they've taken a stunted growth. It's a natural bonsai garden."

You can see why Graves had to have this piece of land. It's the same kind of secluded, forest landscape he always chose for himself when he lived and painted in the Seattle area — only more so. By the time Graves purchased the extravagant piece of property, he was in his 50s, and commanded high prices for his work. The scale of this project was huge compared with the two other houses he built. Here at The Lake he could shape an entire landscape: He owned everything his eye could see. When he bought the property, he told Thompson, "I have one more house in me."

Building the place to suit his exacting vision took everything Graves had, and then some. An audacious man, he was always willing to spend all his resources of strength, money, inspiration and time to create something of exceeding beauty. But this time, with unforeseen construction bills piling up, the artist, desperate, had to ask his friends to help by selling pictures he had given them as gifts. Both Thompson and Svare complied. And Graves himself parted with the entire contents of a trunk containing hundreds of his early drawings, sketches, studies and paintings, which he sold en masse to Portland collector Virginia Haseltine. She donated the work to the University of Oregon.

The runaway budget was the source of a major falling out between Graves and Seattle architect Ibsen Nelsen, who collaborated with him on the house. Graves chose Nelsen impetuously, according to artist Hans Nelsen, the architect's son. When Graves first saw the low, clean lines of the YMCA administration building that Nelsen designed in the early '60s near the UW campus, he was swept away. "He saw this building, walked in and asked who built it, then went straight over to Ibsen's office and asked to talk to him," Hans says. The architect and the artist began their collaboration enthusiastically. As construction progressed, however, each blamed the other for cost overruns as the budget ballooned to twice the original amount.

Part of that was because Graves insisted on the house being sited within six feet of the shore, even when it turned out the ground was unstable. Graves acknowledged responsibility for that initial expense, but told Thompson and other friends that Nelsen had opted for more expensive building materials than they had agreed on. Whatever happened, by the end of the project, the two weren't speaking. Graves never paid the architect his fee, although he did, some years later, send him a painting. Despite the problems, Nelsen told a Seattle art historian he didn't regret doing it. "It was the best house that he did without a doubt, and he knew that," Hans says. "And it was Morris's influence. The way that building worked and how it was sited, its whole feeling and ambience — a lot of that was Morris." Still estranged, the two men died within months of each other this year.

• • •

WRITING ABOUT Graves' houses is a difficult task. I hesitate to breach the privacy he so strenuously maintained, and yet his estate at The Lake is at the brink of a new incarnation. As director of the Morris Graves Foundation, Yarber, 50, will open up the house and studio by invitation to select artists, writers and musicians for work and study. He is planning to selectively log some trees, replace the redwood shingle roof with metal, and install skylights to illuminate the house. With its northern exposure and steep, overhanging roof, the house stays perennially dark and prone to dampness, even with its several fireplaces and woodstoves crackling constantly to keep off the chill.

Although The Lake will remain, perhaps it's fitting that traces of its enigmatic owner disappear. Thirty years ago Graves complained to a critic about performance artists who felt the need to record their work for posterity. He said documentation was the antithesis of his purpose, which he maintained was spontaneous and private. Some of Graves' old friends recalled his philosophy last May when, eerily, just weeks after Graves' death, his cabin at The Rock caught fire and burned to the ground. Its caretaker, Terry Smith, died in the blaze.

Graves eventually sold Careläden in Edmonds, and, though still beautiful having passed through several owners, it exists in a much different style from the days of its first inhabitant.

As for Woodtown Manor, Graves sold it to a member of the Guinness brewery clan. When Svare last visited, the house had been rented to a famous rock band, its lovely interior and furnishings trashed.

Seeing The Lake as Graves left it — where every object, every piece of furniture, every view evokes him — has been a rare privilege. But I also found it a little depressing. By the end of his life, the austerity of the artist's early environments had given way to an accumulation of beautiful objects, too many to fully appreciate. He had ordered a vast estate to suit his need for a harmonious environment, yet that serenity remained outside him. "Morris was surrounded by so much beauty, and still it wasn't enough," Yarber said. "You could say his whole life was a three-dimensional painting — just composing things."

• • •

An exhibition of Graves' work, "Morris Graves and Seattle," shows at Seattle Art Museum through Oct. 20, 2002; 10 a.m. — 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays (Thursdays until 9 p.m.), 100 University St., Seattle; $10, adults; $7, students and seniors; free for members, 206-654-3100.

Sheila Farr is The Seattle Times' art critic.