Walter Anderson: Painter, Poet, Philosopher—and Puzzle.
by Ann Gilbert
In 1949, at the age of 46, struggling Ocean Springs painter Walter Anderson had the offer of a lifetime—an exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, bringing with it national recognition and an invitation to a career in New York City.
He missed the opening and chose, instead, to use an inheritance to go to China, where he began walking north, then west. He had his heart set on seeing the murals in the monasteries of Tibet. If this seems puzzling, it is because Walter was a puzzle to most of those around him—he was a painter, poet and philosopher, but most of all, he was a recluse, and labeled eccentric, crazy and mad.
As occupation on his passport, he listed “decorator.” His only income was derived from decorating 10 pots per week at about one dollar per pot for his brother Peter’s Shearwater Pottery.
But he was a passionate and highly productive artist, leaving thousands of works, mostly on typing paper and most discovered only after his death. Recognition and promotion were the least of his concerns; he was a prodigious producer, but not for the market. He was on a personal religious and aesthetic quest, painting, sketching, sculpting and carving because it filled his soul and completed his being. Gayle Petty-Johnson, executive director of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, (See “If You Go,” below) says, “He was creating art. It didn’t matter to him that it would never be seen.” Biographer Redding R. Sugg Jr. says Walter Anderson was ambivalent to the preservation of what he drew, painted or wrote.
If he left thousands of paintings, he left hundreds of thousands of words in common black composition books, which, ever the seaman, he called his logs. They are diaries and journals, complete with sketches. They tell us what he was thinking and how he was dreaming. Stacks of the logs were found after his death.
Walter was the guy in the strange hat and mismatched clothes riding a rusty green bicycle about the hamlet of Ocean Springs on the Mississippi Sound. His four children were embarrassed and tried to ignore him when they saw him on the street. The family endured and accepted his behavior, but mothers on the street pulled their children away from “that crazy artist.”
Walter chose to live on the rim of society, a voluntary exile from “the sordid thing most people call reality.” His best friends, his soul mates, were the birds and animals he painted. His wife, Agnes “Sissy” Grinstead, a Radcliff graduate, called him an isolated artist in union with nature. Walter wrote, “Art and nature are one, and it astonishes me each time it happens.” Biographer Christopher Maurer suggests that he was somewhat Buddhist in his philosophy, especially when writing of the divine symphony—the wind, the waves, the birds, the frogs. They all sang to him. They lifted his spirit. They were his spiritual food.
In several of his media, Walter developed a signature style—repetition used to create a pattern. With birds, it gives a sense of movement or of a flock, suggests Patricia Pinson, former WAMA curator. His birds and animals take on a personality. His cows are charming, gentle souls with large eyes, not lumbering smelly, stupid beasts. Walter’s child-like nature is revealed in them.
There was a passionate intensity about Walter. Sissy wrote, “Being with him was like having intense sunlight concentrated on everything … he knew things not only by observation, but by a sort of intuition. He himself was later to define it as the ability to become one with any living thing, a tree, flower, ant or bird.”
“As an artist, he’s a paradox,” says Katherine Huntoon, WAMA curator. “He’s compared to self-taught artists, but he went to two of the best art schools in the nation, the Parsons School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He’s classified as a watercolorist, but he doesn’t fit that traditional mold, either. He had such an individual muse and unique voice.” Walter worked outside the conventions of art in a style that expressed his intense love for nature. His work does not easily fit into one school, movement or tradition. Art critic Paul Richard said he is at the intersection of Americana folk art and European fine art.
Walter’s art has been described as stylized abstract reality. His daughter Mary Anderson Pickard, who has edited several works about her father, says one of the greatest influences on his work was a book by Adolfo Best-Maugard. The Mexican artist said all art was based on seven linear motifs: spiral, circle, half-circle, S curve, the wavy line, the zigzag and the straight line. Walter warmed up with these and used them in most of his drawings and paintings.
An Artistic Family
The Best-Maugard book was given to Walter by his mother, Annette “Mere” McConnell Anderson. A member of an old New Orleans family, she studied at Newcomb College under Ellsworth Woodward. She encouraged Walter and her other two children, Peter and Mac, to write and draw daily and gave each composition and sketch books.
Walter’s father, George, was a grain merchant of Scottish descent; his grandfather was the mayor of Glasgow, a member of parliament and a poet. The family had 25 acres on the Mississippi Sound in Ocean Springs as a summer place and later moved there to develop an art colony. Peter was the first to follow in his mother’s footsteps, founding Shearwater Pottery on the family property and naming it after a shore bird prevalent on the Gulf Coast. His children continue the legacy of Shearwater, and several other descendants of the three brothers live and/or work at the compound, rebuilt after the total devastation of Katrina. It includes a workshop and a showroom, both open to the public. (See “If You Go,” below)
Walter was the consummate traveler of unconventional means. He preferred to travel by bicycle, boat or by foot. On his bicycle, he found freedom. He would take trips to west Texas, south Florida and even twice to the northeast. “The wheels are turning again,” he wrote. “A bicycle leaves no room for other evils.” He slept on the side of the road, in barns or wherever he could curl up for a night’s rest. With a college award, he was able to go to France and see pre-historic cave paintings, which influenced his animal drawings.
He canoed alone down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and repeated the trip with his bride of one year. Escaping from a mental hospital in the northeast—he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1937—he walked home by following the railroad tracks for 1,000 miles. At another hospital, he exited through a window, clutching a sheet. But he was not in too much of a hurry to leave a calling card on the wall—birds drawn with a bar of soap.
As the family began to grow, Sissy and Walter moved into Oldfields, an 1848 plantation home on the Pascagoula shore bought by her parents in 1904 as a vacation home. She described those as the best years, except for the war and rationing. The 400 acres were a rich sanctuary where he could heal and grow. “He came back to the human race from that far off journey of his as much as he was ever to do,” Sissy wrote.
He read the classics, myths and fairy tales deep into the hours of dawn, with the book held open with his left hand, while the ink pen in his right furiously translated scenes from Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (Sissy says that one night at Oldfields, she got up to check on Walter, who was usually drawing furiously.
Instead, she found him feeding a spoon of coffee to two cockroaches.) In the morning, Sissy would gather the sheets scattered on the table and tossed on the floor. Today, they are exhibited in museums. Pinson says Walter’s ideas about folk tales and their place in man’s history anticipate the theories of scholars such as Joseph Campbell in “The Power of Myth.”
Mary says, “My father gave me “The Dictionary of Folktales and Myths” with the admonition, “This is the only thing you ever need to know. I was disappointed because there were no pictures.” It was for her twelfth birthday. She points out that “humor enlivened his fairy tale interpretations, such as the fly on the foot of Sleeping Beauty.”
Walter was as attached to music as he was wrapped up in nature, and he painted his favorite pieces: “Every note, every chord has its color and its blend. The ‘Emperor’ was a sunset; the ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ was mountain peaks.” He often danced alone to music, his pounding feet and booming phonograph waking the children in the middle of the night. Walter needed little sleep. He compiled calendars during those Oldfield years, “clever little recordings of life at Oldfields, featuring an emblem of the day, sketched and water colored,” says Sugg. The artistic highlights of those years, however, were the linoleum block prints.
Walter was shocked by the quality of art offered in five-and-dime stores. Mary says he wanted “to provide ordinary people with good artwork at reasonable prices.” After World War II, he found a ready supply of cheap linoleum and boxes of discontinued wallpaper. He began the great series of lino block prints of nature and fairy tales, printed on the back of the salvaged wallpaper. They were influenced, says Mary, by pre-Columbian, Egyptian and American Indian art.
The wallpaper was 18 to 20 inches wide and 6 to 8 feet long. When exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1949, the prints curator said she “had never seen block prints so large and so finely executed.” Walter predated Picasso and Miro, who would do similar work in the ’50s. It was the first such show of monumental prints in the United States. Orders for prints came in from throughout the country, and it established the Ocean Springs artist as an American master, says Pinson. Sadly, it was also the only important exhibit of his work held during his life.
In 1950, Walter saw an opportunity on viewing the vast walls of the new Ocean Springs Community Center. He volunteered to paint them, but friends had to overcome the objections of some community residents. Paid one dollar, he had to provide his own paints for the venture, and was not allowed to let children help him. His use of oil on the rough cement created a soft, fresco-like effect. The murals’ subject matter is the nature and human history of Ocean Springs. Biographer Anne R. King says Walter’s goal at the OSCC was to provide art that would “teach, guide, provoke change and speak of life through myth, legend and history. The murals also “fulfilled a sense of social obligation.” Upon completion, some residents demanded the murals be covered with white paint. Mary writes, “It was father’s last attempt to share his vision with the world. He retreated to his cottage.”
The Little Room
Walter tried to live as a member of a family in society, but finally moved out of Oldfields, and away from Sissy and the children, retreating to a cottage at the Shearwater compound. Sissy wrote, “I came to realize he could not face the routine of making a living. His whole soul was crying for the pure art he needed to express with his painting.” Walter wrote of work, “Man apparently lives the life of some sort of draught animal as soon as he begins to work.”
On the death of her father, Sissy and the children moved into the Shearwater barn with her mother-in-law. On the 24 heavily wooded acres, the hermit artist still had his privacy in the little cottage. Sissy got a job as a schoolteacher.
After Walter’s death, Sissy and her sister Pat entered the little cottage where Walter had lived in solitude for 18 years. In the filth, there was much of value, says one biographer. Raising the lid of one chest filled with paintings, the women saw the papers move. A nest was underneath. But the grandest surprise lay in the locked little room no one had ever seen. The walls and ceiling were covered with a swirling, vibrant testimony to creation. It was Walter’s last mural: his graphic translation of the Old Testament Psalm 103.
During those long years at the cottage, there were times when even that isolation was not enough. Calling himself the Islander and driven to record the flora, fauna, landscape and seascape of the Gulf Coast, Walter began to separate even further from family and society. Several times a year, he climbed into a small skiff and sailed 14 miles to the barrier island named Horn, stashing in a garbage can the barest of essentials to sustain human life and his art supplies: pen and ink, watercolors and brushes, and typing paper.
For shelter, he flipped his boat over and snuggled under it, hanging a cloth for a door. Horn Island would be his refuge for some 18 years. Season after season, generation after generation, he felt the birds and animals came to know him. Climbing into trees, lying in the marsh, crawling on his knees, he came face to face with his subjects. He wrote in his log, “The aquarium deposited by the tides is at my door.”
Walter would stay bivouacked on the island for as much as three weeks. “The world of man is far away and so is man,” or so he thought. The family worried about him. More than once, fishermen found him swamped in rough water. He often refused to be rescued; it took a lot of convincing to get him to accept an extended hand. Once he asked his rescuer to trawl for his possessions, lost when his boat was overturned. The captain acquiesced, and found everything. During Hurricane Betsy, he tied himself and his boat to trees, so he could experience a storm. Back at his cottage, he hopped on his bike and headed to New Orleans to share his insights with meteorologist Nash Roberts.
Walter learned to live with the weather, but even on his island, he could not escape those who torment. Boaters would anchor off shore and focus their binoculars on “that strange man.” Hunters and campers would bang on his boat—amusing themselves “by scaring the hermit out of his shell,” as one biographer aptly put it. Returning to his camp after painting, he would find it ransacked, with food and even his logs stolen. Some of the pranks were life threatening, as when holes were shot into his water jugs. What must have been most heartbreaking was to lose the rabbit he befriended and shared evening meals with. Someone shot the furry companion and tossed the carcass into the camp.
Shortly after Walter’s death, Sissy began to write down all the details of their life together—18,000 pages, which were edited into her memoir, “Approaching the Magic Hour.” She writes of her husband, “Oh, weird and wonderful one, how will I ever be able to keep up with you?”
One day early in their marriage, he missed lunch and missed work at the pottery. Sissy recounts the story: “He had noticed a flock of pelicans and spent all day following and observing them, slogging through the marsh in all of his clothes and spending the night with the birds on a beach, until they flew off at dawn. ‘Where WERE you?’ I screamed upon his return.
“‘I was in heaven,’ he said, crawling into bed smelling like guano.” He wrote that the pelican has “the song of the thrush and the tenderness of the dove.” He compiled a dictionary of their sounds.
Walter forced himself to live within the confines of society, and it was hell. The death of his father sent him into a downward spiral, and for over three years he was in several mental institutions. During a stay in Baltimore, the physician explained the use of experimental shock treatment by injection, and asked for his consent. Walter said, “Life in this state is no life at all. Death is preferable.” Mary, his daughter, describes his mental illness as “being cracked open, vulnerable and acutely receptive to everything that comes through the senses.”
Walter’s art came at a costly price to those around him. Sissy wrote, “He was a painter always, a lover at times, and a husband and father never.” Daughter Leif Anderson shares in her book, “Dancing with My Father,” “(his) reality keeps him distant, makes him strange; in fact, it deprives me of his presence and his love … People fall in love with him through his art. They get to love him as I wasn’t allowed to do.” Then the dancer/artist questions, “But if I had not been born of my father, would I know beauty so well?”
Hurricane Betsy was Walter’s last trip to Horn Island. He was coughing up blood and asked Sissy to take him to the doctor. In New Orleans, he mused that this was the first hospital he had entered of his own free will. Ever the unconventional character, he demanded wine from the nurse, saying it would soothe his cough. The doctor prescribed a glass of wine. “It was approaching the magic hour before sunset,” as Walter described his favorite time of day. He died of lumg cancer November 30, 1965. At his gravesite, a bird suddenly appeared and squawked loudly during the minister’s prayer. The family smiled knowingly. Walter had come to say goodbye, and then he flew off.
Forty-three years after his death, the museum struggles to introduce art lovers on a national level to the legacy of Walter Anderson. The Smithsonian had a major exhibition in 2003, “but he is only in regional galleries, for the most part,” says Huntoon. “We have some hurdles to get over.” WAMA has two or three exhibits traveling to museums throughout the South and as far north as Pennsylvania this year. Mary says, hopefully, “The next layer of art history books will include Walter Anderson.”
What the critics have said
John Russell in the New York Times in 1985: The paintings have a quietly exultant power that puts them among the best American watercolors of their date.
Lawrence Campbell in “Art in America”: Anderson’s originality merits him an honored place in the history of American 20th century art.
Art historian John Paul Driscoll: The pattern and color place him in the general sphere of Matisse and Picasso.
Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985: His paintings are like van Gogh’s in the way they bombard viewers with more visual information than they can handle comfortably. Though modest thematically, they project a grandiose, intense, poetic interpretation of the world.
New York Times: The printed panels suggest richly hued stained glass or mosaic work with the background surrounding the often life-sized figures filled in with primitive motifs.
If you go …
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art opened in 1991 and is dedicated to the celebration of the works of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) and to his brothers, Peter Anderson (1901-1984), master potter; and James McConnell Anderson (1907-1998), painter and ceramist. It operates in part by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. A special exhibit, “Shearwater at 80,” opens September 18. 510 Washingtion Ave.; Ocean Springs, Miss. Telephone: 228-872-3164. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and Sunday, 12:30- 4:30 p.m. Adults, $7; seniors, $6; children, $5.
Shearwater Pottery is an historic American crafts site and facility with workshop and showroom open to the public. Group tours arranged by appointment. 102 Shearwater Drive; Ocean Springs, Miss. Showroom open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m-5:30 p.m. and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.