The Islander - By Win Riley
When Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi’s gulf coast, Walter Anderson’s legacy––as one of this country’s most important, and most overlooked artists–– was in jeopardy.
On Monday afternoon, August 29, 2005, John Anderson sat inside a plywood darkened house in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, listening to the radio. Hurricane Katrina's winds had just settled down, and there were first person accounts coming from Biloxi—just a few miles away––that the storm surge had reached the third floor of a beach-front building.
Tall and thin, with blue eyes and a quiet, measured way of speaking, John was fifty-eight when the storm hit. The youngest of artist Walter Anderson's four children, he'd grown up at Shearwater––as his family’s home in Ocean Springs is known––where the Andersons had lived and created art since the 1920s. It was a beautiful, verdant place on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. On clear days, Mississippi’s barrier islands were faintly visible from its shore. Though Shearwater had a pottery showroom that was open to the public on certain days, it was a very private place, its workshops and houses all shaded by a jungle of bigleaf magnolias and pine trees. It was also where Walter Anderson's family kept their vast collection of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures: in their homes, but also in a small building they called the vault, not far from the water’s edge.
John judged from the radio reports that it was safe enough to go outside. Emerging from the plywood cave—he’d spent the previous few days boarding up the windows–– he drove slowly toward Shearwater. Signs of the storm’s devastating destructive power were everywhere. The Biloxi bay bridge that spanned the two cities had collapsed, with huge blocks of smashed concrete jutting from the water. As he got closer, crumpled houses and debris blocked the road––forcing him to park a little less than a mile away, on Pine Drive. People that had stayed through the storm were on the streets, some weeping, some happy to be alive. As John approached Shearwater, he feared the worst.
“We always thought that the one thing we could count on,” John said recently, “was that Shearwater would always be there. In one afternoon, between Monday morning and Monday night, it all disappeared.”
In the few photographs that exist of him as an adult, Walter Anderson (1903—1965) is nearly always pictured wearing salt stained work clothes and his beaten felt hat, his eyes in shadow. Handsome, unsmiling, he looked like a Nordic hobo. His appearance, however, belied an intense and highly organized artistic life.
From his childhood through his years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Anderson worked constantly, resulting in a massive body of work. To date, it has never been fully catalogued. He would work with whatever he could lay his hands on: drift would became sculpture, and the family’s walls became murals. He favored inexpensive typewriter paper, illustrating scenes from Don Quixote, or pelicans in flight, or images of his family––some with Audubon-like detail, others shimmering into semi–abstraction. He often painted very quickly; some of his best works are little more than a few expert lines of watercolor. Anderson knew how to use the white space of the page. But he was more than just a painter or illustrator. In the decades since his death he has been described as “myth-maker, local legend, mystic poet and painter, man of light, inveterate voyager.” This reputation comes, in part, from his journals, which reveal a fiercely independent artist, eager to escape what he called “the sordid thing most people call reality.” And escape he did, often by bicycle, riding from Mississippi to New Orleans, to Texas, and to Florida—painting as he went, and sleeping in ditches along the way.
His journals––or ‘logs,’ as he called them–– reveal his day to day routine, the routine of someone living more or less outdoors. What he had for breakfast. The birds he saw. Where he slept. These mundane entries are punctuated by poetry, the occasional musings on the meaning of existence, and vivid descriptions of his most ecstatic states, which he described as ‘halcyon days.’ These were his most productive moments. The objects themselves didn’t matter much to him––he tossed many of his paintings into his bonfire––preferring to focus instead on moments of transcendence that he called “realizations”––acts of creativity where he saw himself as a kind of conduit for the unification of the natural world. “Order is here,” he wrote, “but it needs realizing.”
Not widely known outside of the South during his lifetime, he didn’t care much for gallery openings. During his first big show, in Brooklyn, in 1949, he decided to skip it in order to travel and paint; setting out by bicycle, he left a note for his family: “Gone to China.”
As John entered Shearwater, climbing over a mountain of splintered buildings, he recognized the pottery showroom. “It looked fairly normal,” he said, “but there was nothing behind the front—it was just a façade.” The trees that had shaded Shearwater were gone—gone, or knocked over or stripped bare. As he approached the remains of the building known as The Barn, where he had lived as a child, there was nothing left but two cast iron tubs and a pile of bricks where the chimney had been. It was quiet, except for the hiss of broken gas lines and rushing water from the pipes that had burst.
From there John could see the vault. “ I was over-joyed that it was still there,” he said. “But when I got closer I realized that the outer door had been ripped off and the inner door had been bashed in. We built it with an airlock; it had an outer door and then an inner door-- so that the heat and cold wouldn’t go through….a beam had gotten trapped in that airlock and acted like a ram and bashed through the metal door.”
The next morning at dawn, with the help of his cousin, Vanja, John was able to pry open the door to the vault entirely and to carry out drenched boxes and folders filled with his father’s art. He began moving them to his sister Leif’s house at Shearwater–– one of the few buildings that had survived, though it was still without electricity.
Tuesday night, exhausted from carrying boxes of artwork, John stayed at Leif’s house. He couldn’t sleep. “I got back up and I had a little LED headlamp that I had brought with me and I went downstairs at Leif’s house and picked up one of these soggy folders with paintings in it and put it on the table and opened the folder.”
Using a small pocketknife, John carefully separated the protective layer of acid free paper from one of his father’s watercolors. “In its damp state it was very intense. The colors just leapt out at you. The colors seemed more intense than it had before it got wet.” He pulled out another painting.
“The paintings were glimmering and I had, I felt, a wonderful glimmer of hope.”
“My love was for the island,” Walter Anderson wrote in The Horn Island Logs, first published in 1973. Philosophical, aphoristic, the logs describe his journeys from Shearwater to Horn island, ten miles away. Stretching about eleven miles long and roughly half a mile wide, the island is a thin ribbon of sand, pine trees and palmettos. Teeming with eagles, osprey, and alligators, it had been largely uninhabited by humans until the early 20th century, when the US military constructed a laboratory there for the creation of biological weapons. It was a strip of wilderness that became Anderson’s home in his later years. He described it as ‘his island,’ seeing the sand dunes near his favorite campsite as the back of Moby Dick, and the lapping waters as Odysseus’s wine dark sea. His preferred vessel was a leaky rowboat, with a makeshift sail, that doubled as his shelter. “He was extremely fond of remoteness,” John said, “extremely fond of being on the edge, a little bit beyond.”
Walter Anderson would stay on the island for weeks at a time, climbing trees in order to paint bird’s eggs, or sneaking up on raccoons to sketch them as they slept. He was spending so much time on the island that at one point the family bought him an outboard motor for his rowboat. When it wouldn’t start, he dropped it overboard. “There was light in everything,” he wrote of Horn island. “ No lost places disappearing without definition. Everything needed to be considered in relating the strange and transient unity.”
Anderson’s own relation to nature was not always harmonious.
In the early 1930s, shortly after marrying Agnes Grinstead, known as ‘Sissy,’ they took a trip to the barrier islands with friends. Finding a massive sea turtle on the beach, Walter ran to it, flipped it over, and slaughtered it. Years later he was tormented by memories of the turtle. It was the very beginning of the most difficult period in his life. In the late 1930s Anderson had a psychotic breakdown and was placed at the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore under the care of Dr. Rudolph Meyer. The diagnosis was murky. It was dementia Praecox. It was profound depression. It was schizophrenia. It was brought on by undulant fever. In the words of one of his doctors:
“Although Mr. Anderson has been with us a year now, I do not believe we are near a diagnosis, nor do we know what was the cause for his marked improvement, except that his life must have appeared much pleasanter after the metrazol was stopped….we know little more now then we did a year ago.”
For the next few years Anderson was in and out of various hospitals—and not always out through the front door. He escaped from Mississippi State Hospital, in 1940, by tying bed-sheets together and climbing through an upper window. The next day hospital staff found a drawing on the wall near the hanging sheets—birds in flight, drawn with ivory soap.
A drawing done during one of his hospitalization shows his profoundly changed view of the natural world. It’s a roughly drawn image, depicting a hunter, pointing his gun at a deer. An angel, descending, pushes the hunter’s gun down. “In order to realize the beauty of man,” he wrote years later, “we must realize his relation to nature.”
In the years to follow, Anderson slipped further from what he called “the dominant mode onshore.” He was spending increasing amounts of time on Horn. “Everything seems conditional on the island,” he wrote. “Out there, if I eat, I live. If something stronger than I doesn’t destroy me.” There had always been tension within him between the artistic life and that of the dominant mode. Increasingly though, there was acceptance. “One single beautiful image is practically inexhaustible,” he wrote. “Man is a wasteful fool.”
Almost exactly forty years prior to Katrina, toward the end of his life, Walter Anderson was on Horn Island. As Hurricane Betsy began closing in on Mississippi’s coast, he wrote “a gory sunrise…the effect was disturbing.” The wind began to build up to ninety miles an hour, and he moved his makeshift camp to a high dune, to escape the rising tide––climbing beneath his skiff. Despite the chaos, he was able to sleep, with a small fire smoldering beneath the boat to keep warm. Eventually, the water rose to his chest. In his journal he noted, with some amusement, a coast guard boat bobbing in the churning waves directly in front of his camp; he watched as it eventually motored away. It had been sent to rescue him. “Never has there been a hurricane more respectable,” he wrote, “provided with all the portents, predictions, omens, etc., etc. The awful sunrise––no one could fail to take warning from it.”
Afterward, he paddled home to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, then rode his bike ninety miles to New Orleans. While there he camped on the levee, painting birds that had escaped from the Audubon Zoo during the storm.
“How strange, how incredible,” he wrote, “ is the relationship between matter and spirit.”
Today at Shearwater the trees and plants have grown back, and the showroom is open. Just up the hill, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art is open for business, and the town’s light-posts are draped with his images. For the most part, signs of Katrina are hard to find. John and his family’s long and arduous task of saving their father’s art, along with volunteers and professors from the University of Mississippi, is now mostly complete.
The community center––a remarkable building lined with Walter Anderson’s murals depicting the founding of Ocean Springs––was used, for a time, as a base from which to dry out Anderson’s paintings and drawings. Though it didn’t happen within his lifetime, his unique worldview has become very important to a growing number of people who are eager to see the natural world as he did. “He would have had a great deal of equanimity,” John said recently when asked about what his father might have thought of Katrina. “He would have seen not just the loss but the gain. He would have seen the storm as an indication that it was time to change our emphasis. Our perspective as a species.”
I've been a location scout & manager for over thirty feature films & television shows, linked here.
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
- Best Picture, Best Documentary - Fargo Film Festival (Anderson Film)
- Documentary of the Year - LEH (Percy Film)
I've recently written a six part television series called "King Carlos" - currently in development. I am now writing a novel based on this series, to be released next year.
Previous work includes two one-hour documentary films for PBS, as well as location scouting/ managing for television and film.