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.
Amazing prolific talent / Walter Anderson.
Thanks for sharing, his style was uniquely his own
for sure. I like his pottery and carvings, he certainly
was driven – how old was he when he died in 1965?
Wonderful photo of the Great Blue Heron on the
Peggy, he was only 62 when he died from lung cancer — and you’re right, he was so incredibly prolific. They say he was never without a brush or pencil or some other artist’s tool in hand.
What an absolutely fabulous write up on one of my very favorite artists. You really learned as much about him it seems in your visit as I did in reading 3 different books about him. Great pictures as usual. It’s a place I wanted to return to and even more after reading this. We didn’t have nearly enough time in that cute little town and the great National Seashore.
I thought of you all the while I was writing this, Sherry. You did such an incredible “virtual tour” of Walter Anderson in your posts. His work is gorgeous. His wife Sissy’s memoir of their life together — “Approaching The Magic Hour” — is on my short list of books to read.
I knew nothing of this artist so thanks so much for this post. I found his work and the background you provided fascinating. After reading recents posts from some of my favorite bloggers I can hardly wait to explore the southeast. This looks like a great place to explore. Thanks Laurel!
This is another place that I think you would thoroughly enjoy, LuAnn. It’s a beautiful small town infused with art and plenty of nature!
Thanks for the story on Walter Anderson. I found it very fascinating. He certainly had his own style in his art work. Not sure I care for some of it. The little room looked beautiful, however. I did like his self portrait.
Beautiful day for kayaking:)
He definitely had his own style, Pam — I didn’t care for all of it, either, but I loved his paintings of birds, and so did Eric, even though he generally prefers less “stylized” art.
Wow! Another VanGogh… What a legacy to leave behind. Thanks for the stop.
Eric had the same thought — the Southern small town version of Van Gogh!
What an interesting and talented person he is! Fortunately the town recognized not only his talent but also accepted his other side. Thank you Laurel for sharing this little town that come to life with your fabulous shots and writing.
Will I see bluebonnets in the future?
It was very interesting to see the entire town inspired by Walter Anderson’s vision, MonaLiza. And yes, bluebonnets are coming up very soon! :-)
Laurel and Eric: You brighten my life with your wonderful stories of the places you visit. These past two have been especially meaningful to me–the beauty and excitement of the bird-banding site and now this most interesting story of an artist new to me. Walter Anderson’s art is very similar to the style of artwork our daughter Lorie (Ringling School of Art graduate) has produced–stylized images of flora and fauna, Thanks so much you two travelling wonders. Barbara
We’re delighted to hear from you, Barbara — and very happy to know that you’re enjoying our travels. I would love to see your daughter’s artwork — we’ll be returning to Florida next winter and would enjoy spending more time with you then.
Thanks, Brenda — so happy that you enjoyed the post! It’s a beautiful little town that we plan to return to.
Hi Laurel and Eric, I am so disappointed! My daughter lived in Biloxi for a couple of years and in all my visits there, I somehow missed this! We traveled to Ocean Springs often to the parks and restaurants, but totally missed this. Now I want to go back. You find the most interesting things!
Loretta, this just gives you and Henry a reason to visit Ocean Springs when you start full-timing! Which is very soon, right? I’m glad you enjoyed the post. ;-)