SEATTLE — Robert Edward Graves, the former Wenatchee artist and educator for whom Wenatchee Valley College’s art gallery is named, died Saturday. He was 84.
The painter and lecturer earned his master’s in fine art from the University of Washington in 1962, studying with notable Northwest artists including Alden Mason and Mark Tobey. He taught at WVC for the next 32 years before his retirement.
While at WVC he helped strengthen art programs and oversaw the founding of the nonprofit Gallery ’76, now called the Robert Graves Gallery. Graves hatched the plan to roof the open courtyard of the existing Sexton Hall to create an art shelter, and collaborated with fellow art instructor Daryl Dietrich to carry out the plan.
The completed gallery, run as a volunteer, nonprofit operation, opened April 22, 1976. It was named Gallery ’76 to mark the year it opened, hosting the Alcoa Collection of Contemporary Art as its first major exhibit.
“He was certainly a major part of it while he was still here at the school, but at the same time, he kept his focus, I think, on his teaching,” said gallery board president John Crew.
Graves and Dietrich swapped the chairmanship of the WVC art department back and forth while lobbying for more funding, more instructors and more class space for their programs. The college’s art offerings grew to include classes in ceramics, photography, jewelry crafting and art history, as well as standard painting and drawing courses.
Graves’s own paintings, prints and sketches veered toward the abstract, said Crew.
“They have to do with nature, they relate to nature — but obviously, they take a skilled hand to work in that kind of quick fashion, stroke-stroke-stroke, and you’d better get them right,” he said. It’s a type of abstraction that looks easy, but it isn’t. If you try it as an amateur, it probably won’t come out too good.”
“For Dad, it was based in nature, probably 99 percent of the time,” said Jody Graves, the artist’s oldest child and an associate professor of music at Eastern Washington University. “… The way light plays underneath water that’s moving over rocks in a river, or how the light plays through the leaves in a moving tree.”
Her father was a prolific sketch artist, capturing scenes from life at beaches, forests or wherever the family traveled.
“There was always a sketchpad or something close at hand,” she said. “We have stacks and stacks of those.”
The WVC facility was renamed the Robert Graves Gallery in 2007, in honor of its founder. The gallery is a tenant of the college, but supported by donations and memberships.
Graves attended the exhibit of his work that marked the name change. He told The Wenatchee World that his abstract artwork in progress at the time “deals with that metamorphic transition of birth to death or spring to fall when the leaves come off. As an artist, I try to do that because I feel that it’s very, very important to understand there is a cyclic kind of thing that happens to everything that’s alive.”
Graves was formerly married to former Wenatchee World features writer Sheila Graves, with whom he had five children. He’s survived by his children and his wife Marcia Van Doren, a fellow artist and Wenatchee native.
Graves lived for the last 20 years of his life in West Seattle and on Whidbey Island, where he kept a studio. He had been in hospice care prior to his death from congestive heart failure, his family said.
A celebration of Graves’s life is planned for a yet-unspecified date in mid-November, at the gallery that bears his name.