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MAR 15, 2021 – AUG 30, 2022

“I live and have my being in a world of space and forms which have color and shape. Consciousness of this means being alive.”


The South’s Most Elusive Artist includes more than 85 works by Walter Inglis Anderson from WAMA’s permanent collection and that of the Family of Walter Anderson. The exhibition commemorates the Museum’s 30th anniversary, and includes rarely seen watercolors, block prints, wood carvings, ceramics, and sketches alongside some of Anderson’s most recognizable and iconic works.

While many exhibitions are organized by time-period, style, artistic influence, or a specific body of work, The South’s Most Elusive Artist approaches Walter Anderson’s life and art through the concepts of space, form, color, and shape.

For Anderson, art was a way to understand and interact with the world around him. Space, form, color, and shape were the tools used by the artist to realize a connection to nature. Walter Anderson, born in New Orleans in 1903, lived a life of discovery worthy of the fairytales and adventure stories he loved. When he died in1965, he left behind a monumental record of his life through art. By the time the Museum opened in 1991, Anderson had become a cultural patron saint of Mississippi and the Gulf South.


“True art consists of spreading wide the intervals so that imagination may fill the space between the trees.”


Walter Anderson explored space through his physical materials, such as the 8 ½ x 11-inch typing paper that he regularly used for watercolors, especially those he made in the barrier island wilderness of Horn Island. Often, Anderson would bend and shape his forms to fit his canvas. An example is the watercolor, Contented Coon, where the animal appears to be lounging within the confines of the page.

Anderson also mastered the use of positive and negative space, using the technique to draw the viewer’s attention to certain aspects of his subjects. This technique was also central to the process of linoleum block printing, where the artist carves out the negative space to reveal the positive. Anderson’s block prints were propagated widely. These works were intended to be accessible; created, said Anderson, for “people who cannot afford to pay a great deal for works of art, but still have an appetite for beauty."

20. Contented Coon, c. 1960. Watercolor

Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Contented Coon, c.1960. Watercolor on Paper. Permanent Collection, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Purchase


“The realization of form and space is through feeling. When I feel the beauty of a flower or the trunk of a tree, I am at one inducted into a world of three dimensions and have a sense of form which is opposite of artificial forms and conventions.”


Even in his two-dimensional works, Walter Anderson sought to create a sense of a fully articulated three-dimensional world. But he also created large-scale murals, carvings, puppets, textiles, and furniture that physically occupied three-dimensional space. Anderson integrated these works into daily and civic life, reinforcing the idea that art was not meant solely for visual stimulation, but also as a tool and companion for living.

17. Blue Jay Table, c. 1933. Polychromed

Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Blue Jay Table, c.1933. Polychromed Wood. Gift of the Family of Walter Anderson.


“It is approaching the magic hour before sunset, when all things are related, and are organized through color.”


Anderson deployed to great effect the science of color theory, juxtaposing and mixing primary and secondary colors. His exploration of color was influenced by his time spent in nature, and he would often enhance naturally-occurring colors to create a mood or to elevate the drama of a scene. In Road to Oldfields, included in the exhibition, Anderson uses blue and yellow in the tree limbs, giving an impression of green leaves.

19. Road to Oldfields, Walter Inglis And

Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Road to Oldfields, c.1945. Watercolor on Paper. Permanent Collection, Gift of Mary Stone Brister.


Walter Anderson famously employed “the seven motifs,” basic shapes he read about in Mexican art theorist Adolfo Best-Maugard’s 1930s book, A Method for Creative Design. These seven shapes are present in all ancient art forms, and can be used as building blocks to render complex compositions. Anderson relied heavily on the seven motifs in the 1940s after he left the mental hospital, using them to “reteach” himself how to draw.

Anderson’s mastery of line allowed him to quickly and expertly render expressive shapes that he saw in the world around him, including a variety of biomorphic shapes such as the organic curves of flora and fauna.


One of Anderson’s illustrations of the seven motifs, taken from a pen and ink drawing. 


WIA Self Portrait (web).jpg

Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Self-portrait, c. 1950, Watercolor.

Walter Anderson did not separate “fine” art from “folk,” opting instead for a more inclusive and cosmic conception of human creativity. He saw his art not as a mere product through which he might earn acclaim or fortune, but as a process for grasping, if only for a moment, the bounty of creation – whether it be the ascent of the tern, the brilliance of the aster, the silhouette of the alligator, or the magic hour at sunset. He became attuned to the ways of animals; rather than objectify them, he referred to them as his “familiars.”

“If humans need the natural world in order to find spiritual transcendence,” writes Anderson biographer Christopher Maurer, “nature requires the artist to fully ‘realize’ the significance of its forms.” This significance, believed Anderson, was that nature’s infinite wisdom and variety could restore societies to a more perfect and participatory existence.

Mississippi historian and curator Patti Carr Black writes of Anderson, “His significance in the history of art may lie in his perception of fundamental reality: the interconnectedness of the world, the dynamism of matter, the knowledge that man is a participant in nature rather than an observer.”

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