Paradise Padlocked: The World of Walter Anderson
The opus of a reclusive artist beats with Gulf Coast color, outliving him.
Deer at noon, a detail from the mural in "The Little Room" by Walter Anderson, Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Photo: Bill Bishop
Consider what's happening right now — the Earth is revolving around a giant zinnia:
Most explosive and illuminating
Summation of all flowers,
Essence of excentric form
Essence of concentric form!
This is the cosmology of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903- 1965), an exceptional but little known artist from Mississippi’s Gulf Shore.
Near the town of Ocean Springs, east of Biloxi, Anderson's parents bought land and set their three sons up as Shearwater Pottery. It was a Deep Southern version of the Arts & Crafts movement dream: to earn a livelihood through artistry, the making of beautiful yet practical things. Walter designed and painted the ceramic bowls and figurines. He had been trained at Parsons School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studied in Europe, and absorbed from his mother, also a painter, an affinity for the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.
In 1928, Walter returned to Mississippi and began working at Shearwater; from all accounts, he considered his hours at the ceramic shop a kind of theft, stealing his creative fire.
Redding S. Sugg, Jr.’s fine book, A Painter's Psalm, shows Anderson’s desire to paint freely was nothing short of a compulsion — “like a physical craving,” Anderson wrote to his wife, Agnes, “like hunger, or sex, a necessity, a burning, a pulling of the thread tighter and tighter.”
In 1937 he suffered a mental collapse and was hospitalized. After his release, Anderson and his young family moved to the in-laws' antebellum home in Gautier, Mississippi. "All that you give yourself for is to see that I remain normal," Walter wrote to Agnes, "to see that I live in the world and not in a hospital. I am grateful for these beautiful years, but you have to understand something, too. I am normal."
In 1947 Walter Anderson left his wife and four children, to live alone in a cottage near the shore, making frequent visits by rowboat to Horn Island.
Butterflies and moths from "Night" – one wall of "The Little Room" by Walter Anderson
Photo: Bill Bishop
When he died of lung cancer in 1965, Agnes entered the house to find his opus of art and vernacular philosophy. There were paintings scattered with ashes on the floor, a chinaberry tree poking through the roof, rats nesting in a trunk full of his watercolors. Padlocked shut was one tiny room. Agnes and her sister opened it to discover all four walls painted from ceiling to floor. Walter Anderson had created a day in Paradise, Sunrise, Noon, Sunset, and Night, painted in colors of the Gulf Shore – coral, green, gold-yellow, and blue. A flock of black skimmers dives into reeds and a doe stands in a stream. Huge night moths ““ orange and brown ““ flutter next to a goddess girl with antlers on her head, painted on the chimney.
Overhead, a bare light bulb was hanging from the center of a giant zinnia flower, rendered like a Mayan glyph for Life-Itself.
“All movement is to invisible music,” Anderson wrote, “although only a few people hear it. It comes from the sun and the wind and the movement of water and a running rabbit and a crowing cock, and together it is like a part of a great symphony. The longer we listen and the quieter we are, the more we hear of it, and when we do, we are part of the music, instead of an unwelcome interruption.”
In 1991, the walls of the cottage were moved into Ocean Springs ““ to be the heart of the Walter Anderson Museum. Here also are many of the artist’s stunning watercolors of flowers, crabs and owls, all painted with such excitement they validate his rhapsodic philosophy. Currently, the museum also has on exhibition a show of Shearwater Pottery, works in which Walter Anderson had a hand and others by his relatives.
Zinnia, ceiling of "The Little Room" by Walter Anderson
Photo: Bill Bishop
We had never heard of Walter Anderson, until a friend gave us a copy of A Painter’s Psalm. “Omitted from mainstream histories of American painting, Anderson’s work has not received sufficient critical attention,” wrote one commentator, “perhaps because he chose to live in a small Southern town, patiently acquiring what he called “˜definite knowledge’ of local forms.”
Was — or is — there such an artist in your part of Yonder? If so we would be eager to hear about him or her.
The Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is open Monday – Saturday, 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM”¨, Sunday 12:30 PM – 4:30 PM.