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Carl Morris

American, 1911-1993


Yorba Linda May 12, 1911


Portland 1993

Occupation or Type


Northwest artist

Oregon artist


Carl Morris grew up in California, the son of citrus farmers. He was influenced during high school by the ceramicist, Glenn Lukins. In 1935, after an art education in the United States and Europe, he returned to a job at Universal Studios in California. He left there for San Francisco and a teaching position at the Art Institute.

In 1938 the Federal Art Project recruited him to found an arts center in Spokane, Washington. His program, considered one of the best of the Federal Arts Project, attracted many artists, including the one who would become his wife, Hilda. It was here he also met the artists who would form what would be known as the Northwest School: Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Mark Tobey. Because the center was so successful, Morris was sent to Seattle to head a similar project there. After the closure of the Federal Art Project, Morris remained in Seattle and joined Tobey and his group. Dysfunctional group dynamics and a basic difference in orientation produced a situation that lead to his departure.

In 1941 Carl and Hilda Morris moved to Oregon where they spent the rest of their lives. During that year he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Eugene Post Office. He worked in Portland during WWII and did camouflage painting, which had an influence on his later abstract work.

Morris's art was permeated by the colors and landscape of Oregon. Nature provided the structure and visual stimulus for his work. Many of his early figurative pieces are set in the Palouse and Eastern Oregon, an area of high deserts, plains, and mountains. He was an ardent fisherman and went to that region often, absorbing its color and light. Morris received great praise and respect for his command of the figure but he tired of that subject and wanted to convey mood, thought and feeling. He felt this could best be achieved by turning to abstraction. He was in sympathy with the goals, ideals, and energies of the abstractionists and had a network of New York abstract painters as close friends. Morris based his abstract expressionist work on nature, poetry, scenery, and his own restless inquiring mind. He constantly explored new material and at the end of his career still produced work that showed growth and change. His canvases have an inner light source, a glow from within – possibly something spiritual, although not overtly so, which became more subtle over time.

In 1957 Carl Morris departed for a summer teaching position at the University of Colorado. There he found a new approach to painting, inspired, perhaps, by the brilliant light, clear air, open spaces, and arid landscape. When he returned to Oregon the muted light, semi-abstraction, dense color, heavily defined shapes, and block figures were gone. These were replaced by dazzling light, the timeless, colorful vastness of mountains and desert, with mysterious fissures, fractures and eruptions in a more abstract manner. Carl Morris, many critics agree, was Oregon's most historically important painter – a man who chose to pursue his art far from the limelight of the major art centers of the country, but who, nevertheless, achieved national stature. In 1985 Carl and Hilda Morris were honored with the Governor's Art Award, the most prestigious in Oregon.

Artist biography reproduced with permission from the authors, Oregon Painters: the First Hundred Years (1859-1959), Ginny Allen and Jody Klevit.



Related People

Associate of: Guy Anderson (American, 1906-1998)

Associate of: Kenneth L. Callahan (American, 1905-1986)

Teacher of: Mary Davis (American, 1907-1989)

Associate of: Morris Graves (American, 1910-2001)

Spouse: Hilda Morris (American, 1911-1991)

Teacher of: Patricia K. Nicholson (American, 1894-1978)

Associate of: Mark Tobey (American, 1890-1976)

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