Walter Inglis Anderson was a luminous artist—some say the most prolific Southern artist of all time. He found his inspiration and what peace he could in nature, tirelessly drawing, painting, and carving his unique stylized images of the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He was classically trained and could render perfectly any image. But what Anderson wanted most was to understand nature—to become one with the bird, plant, or animal that he was capturing with brushes, paints, linoleum blocks, clay, or wood.
A Prolific Artist Searching For Inner Peace
Anderson cared nothing for fame or recognition, and although he produced thousands of pieces of art, his efforts were purely in service to his spiritual and aesthetic quest. He created enormous lithographs and murals, but most of his work was done on ordinary typing paper, and the majority of his drawings and watercolors were discovered only after his death in 1965.
Anderson came from an artistic family and was encouraged to become an artist. He married, had four children, and for a time worked at Shearwater Pottery, the family business, dutifully painting pottery and producing odd little knickknacks called “widgets” that were made to appeal to the general public. (The family business still operates today, and still makes the bizarre figurines, along with some quite lovely folk art style pottery.) Anderson chafed at the restrictions of “normal” life, resented that work interfered with his art, and suffered from intermittent depression and psychotic episodes.
According to all accounts, his family was accepting of his need for solitude and his passion for creating art. (Or perhaps they just realized they were better off living apart from him.) His wife Sissy wrote, “He was a painter always, a lover at times, and a husband and father never.”
A Tortured, Free Spirit And Brilliant Artist
Anderson was a familiar sight in Ocean Springs, wearing mismatched clothing and a felt hat, riding his battered bike around the streets of the town, or rowing his old green wooden skiff twelve miles to Horn Island, his favorite place of solitude. “As long as he feels free, he can function in the world.” That’s what Anderson’s doctor told his family, and so they did their best to accommodate him.
As he plunged deeper into schizophrenia, Anderson spent the last 18 years of his life alone, sequestered in his little cottage on the Shearwater family compound, or on Horn Island under the most primitive and adverse conditions. On one occasion, he chained himself to a tree to experience the power of a hurricane. His daughter Mary described his mental illness as “being cracked open, vulnerable and acutely receptive to everything that comes through the senses.” In his voluminous writings, Anderson described his art as “a process, a means of experiencing the world.”
The Legacy Of Walter Anderson
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in downtown Ocean Springs is dedicated to preserving and displaying Anderson’s vast body of work. They’ve even moved Anderson’s “Little Room” to the museum. The room was the annex to Anderson’s cottage that no one—including his wife—had seen until after his death.
Next door to the museum is the Community Center that contains the murals Anderson painted in 1951 as a gift to the town. Every square inch of interior wall space is covered with his unique vision of flora and fauna.
We spent a relaxing couple of days at the nearby Davis Bayou campground in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The campground has water and electric hookups, and the location is perfect for our interests. There’s plenty of good biking, including along the waterfront and through peaceful neighborhood streets to the pretty downtown area of Ocean Springs. We also enjoyed kayaking Davis Bayou, where Green Herons, Great Egrets, Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, and nesting Osprey surrounded us. It’s an area rich in culture, history, and nature, and our time spent seeing the world through Walter Inglis Anderson’s eyes greatly enriched our experience.