As the story goes, a year passed before anyone had seen or heard from Walter Anderson.
He’d been sent to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, for treatment, but even today there’s still some speculation about his condition.
Depression? Schizophrenia? Setbacks from with malaria? It’s said doctors suspected any and all of these things as contributors to Anderson’s breakdown.
But the artist grew tired of their banter. Time was precious, and nature summoned.
So, he walked out of the Baltimore hospital and turned up in New Orleans a year later.
“Some people say he walked the 1,000 miles between Maryland and New Orleans,” Natalie Mault says.
Mault is the curator at the LSU Museum of Art, which is hosting the retrospective exhibit, Walter Inglis Anderson: Everything I See Is New And Strange, through Sunday, Oct. 13.
The exhibit opened on Aug. 2, but some pieces are still being unpacked on this Friday in the week before the exhibit’s opening.
“This is a traveling exhibit,” Mault explains. “After the popularity of the Blue Dog exhibit featuring George Rodrigue’s art two years ago, we started thinking about bringing in another exhibit of works by another popular artist, and we thought of Walter Anderson.”
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art put the show together, and it’s shown at the Smithsonian in Washington.
“And though it’s a retrospect, it changes each time it’s shown, because the Anderson family chooses which pieces will be in each show,” Mault says.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty to see here, including Anderson’s watercolor and oil paintings, along with his pottery and figurines created for his family’s business, Shearwater Pottery.
Still, the most fascinating part of this exhibit is understanding how Anderson and his art were one. Art wasn’t something Anderson merely wanted to make; it was something he had to make.
And it was all a part of nature.
“He actually didn’t call himself an artist,” Mault says. “He considered himself an environmentalist.”
Now his environment fills the walls in the LSU Museum of Art’s main gallery.
Most times, that environment was solitary with weeks spent on the coastal barrier Horn Island carrying just enough food for survival. Most people couldn’t withstand a day with no social contact, especially these days, especially when family and friends are available at the tap of a computer screen.
But Anderson chose a self-imposed solitary confinement, even at the expense of leaving behind his wife and children. He had record nature, and to do that, he had to be by himself.
So, it’s a safe bet that had social media been available in 1950, it would have been lost on Anderson. Oh, he had lots to say, and he recorded it all in journals while on the island. But even they weren’t discovered until after his death.
His work was something more, almost a mission.
And the LSU Museum of Art begins the journey into his life with his birth in New Orleans on Sept. 29, 1903.
Now, those familiar with Anderson will associate him with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s where Shearwater Pottery is still located, where the Walter Anderson Museum of Art continues to commemorate the artist’s life and work.
But Walter Inglis Anderson was, indeed, born in New Orleans. His father was grain merchant George Walter Anderson, and his mother was artist Annette McConnell Anderson.
“He had two older brothers, and their mother wanted them to be artists,” Mault says. “And their father wanted them to make a living at it.”
So came Shearwater Pottery. Anderson’s brother, Peter, founded it in 1929 in Ocean Springs, Miss. Anderson decorated bowls, vases cups and plates thrown by Peter, and, along with brother James, established the Shearwater Pottery Annex. It was here where he produced inexpensive figurines that earned him enough money to marry Agnes Grinstead.
But the Shearwater Pottery Annex also would be the source of the first of several mental breakdowns, which landed Anderson in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and later the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.
And finally, the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, Miss.
Didn’t composer and pianist Oscar Levant once say something about a thin line between genius and insanity? Well, this isn’t saying Anderson was insane, but he was considered an artistic genius.
Anderson’s early life seems stable. He enrolled in the New York School of fine and Applied art -- now the Parsons School of Design -- in 1922. Then it was to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1924, where he won a Packard Award for his drawings, along with a Cresson Traveling Scholarship.
“His drawings earned him a scholarship for study abroad,” the Walter Anderson Museum of Art states in its biography. “He traveled through Europe and was particularly impressed with the cave art he saw at Les Eyzies in France. His wide-ranging interests included extensive reading of poetry, history, natural science and art history. He was a lifelong learner, searching for meaning in books of folklore, mythology, philosophy, and epics of voyage and discovery.”
Anderson returned to Ocean Springs in 1928 and married Grinstead in 1933. Grinstead had graduated cum laude from Ratcliff University in Virginia, where she majored in art history. She also had studied two years in France.
Mention of Agnes’ art training brings to mind Anderson’s mother’s work. She was a graduate of Newcomb College, known for its arts and crafts movement pottery.
“Our Newcomb Pottery collection ties into that,” Mault says. “It’s always on exhibit here. So, after walking through the Walter Anderson exhibit, visitors can walk through the other galleries to the Newcomb exhibit to get some background on where his mother studied. This connection will give them an idea of where she came from and how this all ties together with Shearwater Pottery and Walter Anderson’s art.”
And while moving through the other galleries, visitors will want to top by the museum’s permanent collection exhibit, whose showstopper is one of Anderson’s cat figurines.
A similar figurine is included in the Anderson exhibit, decorated in a green wash. But LSU’s is decorated in swirls of blues, reds and yellows and was featured on the cover of Laura F. Lindsay’s book, Treasures of LSU, published by LSU Press in 2010.
“Ours is a beautiful cat,” Mault says. “That’s not taking anything away from the cat in this exhibit. It’s just that we’d like for visitors to see the cat in our collection, as well.”
Mault is right. The museum’s cat figurine and exhibit of Newcomb Pottery have a way of combining with the 60-plus pieces in the Anderson exhibit provide a comprehensive look at the artist’s life journey, beginning with his early work.
“During his first years as a professional artist, Anderson painted in oils, sketched the wildlife around him and created small block prints to sell in the Shearwater showroom,” the exhibit label states. “In the little time available to him for painting, he did several oil portraits using a rather dark palette, influenced, perhaps, by Cezanne and the German Expressionists.”
Anderson, meantime, lived with his wife in the Cottage at Shearwater, where the artist, according to the exhibit label, “worked on furniture and rugs, evidence of a lifelong interest in design, and his belief, shared with William Morris, that ‘ ... a man should be able to make all that he needs.’”
Everything seemed to be going well. The couple had three children, Anderson was offered a Works Progress Administration commission to pain murals for Ocean Springs High School, followed by another.
But the second commission wasn’t to be, as Anderson suffered the first of his mental breakdowns. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art’s biography attributes the cause to severe depression, but it’s said doctors at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital diagnosed him with schizophrenia.
“He grew tired of decorating pottery, and he wanted to paint,” Mault says, gazing at a few pieces of Shearwater Pottery on a table in the museum’s gallery.
Each piece has been carefully unpacked and awaits placement in a display case. For now though, everything is in the open, as it would have been at Shearwater Pottery all those years ago.
And one can only imagine what it would have been like for an artistic genius to be standing here, decorating one after another in factory-like fashion, when he’d rather be out painting nature.
“He became frustrated,” Mault said.
Frustration seemed only to amplify what was going on mentally, and Anderson ended spending 1937 through 1940 in and out of hospitals.
Which ended at Pratt Hospital with his year-long disappearance.
What might he have seen during this time? What did he draw along the way?
It’s a legitimate question, because Anderson recorded his surroundings through his artwork no matter where he went.
Take Oldfields, for instance. It’s the next segment in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit. Oldfields was Agnes’ father’s antebellum home in Gautier, Miss. It seemed the perfect place for his recuperation and time with his family.
“During this period he rendered thousands of disciplined and compelling works of art which reflected his training, intellect and extraordinary grasp of the history of art,” the Walter Anderson Museum of Art’s biography continues.
Finally, in 1947, with the understanding of his family, Anderson moved back to Ocean Springs. He lived alone on the Shearwater compound and began rowing to Horn Island.
The trip was 12 miles in his small skiff, which was just big enough to carry minimal necessities and art supplies.
“Anderson spent long periods of time on this uninhabited island over the last 18 years of his life,” the Anderson Museum biography states. “There he lived primitively, working in the open and sleeping under his boat, sometimes for weeks at a time.
“He endured extreme weather conditions, from blistering summers to hurricane winds and freezing winters. He painted and drew a multitude of species of island vegetation, animals, birds, and insects, penetrating the wild thickets on hands and knees and lying in lagoons in his search to record his beloved island paradise. Anderson’s obsession to “realize” his subjects through his art, to be one with the natural world instead of an intruder, created works that are intense and evocative.”
And now here they are on the LSU museum’s wall, the butterflies, the berries and grasshoppers. This is the legend come to life, Anderson’s solitary world in his bright colors and joyous movement.
“This morning I drew bulrushes while the flies stung,” Anderson remarked in his journal. “Later I made a watercolor under my boat while the rain poured. Such is the life of an artist who prefers nature to art. He really should cultivate art more but feels his love of art will take care of itself as long as it has things to feed upon.”
It almost makes you wish you were there, sitting beside him as he created. Then again, that would have defeated the purpose.
Solitude was Anderson’s intention.
LSU’s exhibit doesn’t end here. Segments are devoted to Anderson’s murals, travels, linoleum block prints and his children’s book character, Robinson the Cat.
But his travels to Horn Island seemed to mean most to him. Anderson rowed there one last time in October 1965, and was hospitalized in New Orleans upon his return.
He died in the city where he was born. Lung cancer was the cause.
“Much of the work survived only by chance,” the Anderson Museum’s biography continues. “It was discovered in drifts, like autumn leaves, throughout his cottage after his death. Those found treasures present the viewer today with a fascinating opportunity to share Anderson’s vision.”
And the LSU Museum of Art is ready to share.
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