Morris Graves is happy in the garden.
As a young boy in the Pacific Northwest, the painter spent long hours in convalescence from recurrent pneumonia and became interested in gardens, amusing himself by redesigning them mentally.
His paintings have most often been of birds and, sometimes, snakes and mice -- the sorts of creatures one encounters in gardens. More recently, Graves has painted flowers.
But none of his birds and flowers are of the Roger Tory Peterson field-guide ilk. Their special spiritual qualities are apparent in "Vision of the Inner Eye," which opens at the Phillips Collection this Saturday.
The birds are fanciful, and -- as often as not -- knighted with humor. In this exhibit of 140 gouaches, watercolors, inks and temperas, one called "Mouse Helping a Hedgerow Animal Carry a Prie-Dieu" shows a field mouse holding up the tail of a ferret-like creature with a prayer bench tied to its back. Very strange. This contrasts with the captive sadness depicted in "Blind Bird." There's not a Jonathan Livingston Seagull among them.
Graves has always had a rich inner life, which is reflected in his work. A love for the Orient can be seen in his technique: He often paints on Japanese and Chinese paper, making his work physically fragile, and the influences of Zen show up in its content.
Most of Graves' early paintings are somber -- deep greens and grays, with light used in dramatic relief, sometimes to symbolize a coming out of darkness. His later work -- the exhibit is hung chronologically -- displays a broader palette but the colors are still muted. He apparently has abandoned an old practice of leaving things out in the rain.
Earlier works show a need to give a message to the world: Some paintings are actually letters, with only the salutation, postscript and signature in writing. But of his recent floral still-lifes he has remarked, "I have stopped trying to say anything about anything -- there is no statement or message other than the presence of the flowers and light -- that is enough."
A recluse, Graves has retired to acres of gardens in the middle of a wilderness tract near the Pacific Ocean. He doesn't attend openings of his shows. MORRIS GRAVES: VISION OF THE INNER EYE -- At The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Saturday through May 29. This is the last major show before the museum closes for seven months for extensive renovation.