Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
In this lesson inspired by Anderson’s artworks, author Ralph Eubanks helps illuminate how history, place, and literature create meaning about the Mississippi landscape, and how this meaning is connected to the life of the nation and the world. As a vehicle for meaning-making, Eubanks engages the work of writers and thinkers like Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward, both of whom are Mississippi Gulf Coast natives.
RALPH EUBANKS is a Visiting Professor of Southern Studies, English, and Honors at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South and Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past, which Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley named as one of the best nonfiction books of the year. He has contributed articles to the Washington Post Outlook and Style sections, the Wall Street Journal, WIRED, the New Yorker, and National Public Radio. He is a recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia and served as director of publishing at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., from 1995 to 2013. His book, A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape, is now available.
Setting the stage for the discussion, Ralph Eubanks speaks about Mississippi's role in American consciousness.
TRANSCRIPT: Whenever I’m taking to people, particularly in publishing, about something about Mississippi, I’ve often gotten the response, “That’s a regional idea.” And then I remind them that Malcolm X famously said that everything south of the Canadian border is Mississippi. We like to think that these ideas of racial hatred and this tortured history all exist within the borders of Mississippi. But the borders of Mississippi are much broader. Mississippi is a way of understanding America. It is not just the South writ large. It’s also this country writ large.
beginning on the coast
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Horn Island Oil, c. 1960. Oil on Canvas. Collection of The Family of Walter Anderson.
“Such a sky – such water, and Horn Island between with me walking it – the back of Moby Dick, the white whale, the magic carpet, surrounded by inhabited space – strange – inhabited? space.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Walter Anderson, born in New Orleans in 1903, called the Mississippi Gulf Coast home for nearly all of his life. An artist, writer, and philosopher, Anderson believed in nature's capacity to illuminate truths about humanity. His found a terrestrial Eden on the wilderness barrier island of Horn Island, roughly a dozen miles offshore from the Mississippi coast in the Gulf of Mexico. There, he communed with all the forces and beings of the water, sky, and sand, creating his own imagined paradise. While Anderson had opportunities to leave Mississippi for art capitals such as New York, he chose to live and work on the coast, believing that his native soil held answers to his myriad questions about his own existence.
In the work featured above, one of Anderson's relatively rare oil paintings, the artist creates a heightened sense of reality through his use of color. This is indicative of his belief in artistic technique to help organize what he saw as a disjointed and lost modern world.
Ralph Eubanks introduces the work of Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward as examples of how writers use their craft to investigate the salience of the Southern landscape.
TRANSCRIPT: Mississippi writers use this landscape almost like their canvas. They take real places and place their characters within those. They take the history of a place and use that as part of the history of their characters. We usually think about Mississippi’s literary landscape as beginning in the Delta. And instead of beginning in the Delta, I begin on the Gulf Coast, because I feel that the two contemporary writers who are writing about the Gulf Coast – Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward – represent this new way of thinking about the landscape of Mississippi.
Jesmyn Ward, "My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home." TIME Magazine.
THE CELTIC AND FOLK TRADITION
WAMA Curator Mattie Codling take us "into the vault" to discuss how nature and storytelling influenced the arte of Walter Anderson.
“There is a Magic between Man and his habitat, this Planet Earth. To forget this or to ignore it plunges us into deep trouble. Through the ages the artist has been our guide back to this Land of Faerie.”
– AGNES GRINSTEAD "SISSY" ANDERSON, WIFE OF WALTER ANDERSON
From an early age, Walter Anderson was fascinated with myth, legend, and folktale, and was connected to his family's Celtic origins. Anderson depicted folktales from across the world and illustrated several seminal works of literature, believing that these archetypal storytelling traditions had the power to unite societies across time. He viewed himself as a participant in the eons-old project of revisiting, and retelling, timeless narratives of place.
For Anderson, these stories were inseparable from nature. As a master of using negative space in his art, Walter Anderson also philosophized that artistic inspiration took root in relation to these gaps and absences. “True art," he writes, "consists of spreading wide the intervals so that imagination may fill the space between the trees.”
Ralph Eubanks cites the connections between Mississippi landscapes and literary traditions and those of Ireland.
TRANSCRIPT: I didn’t make that connection until I visited Ireland early in my twenties, and was in County Sligo. And looked out at these green hills, and realized that these people who left there and came south, they were living in a very similar landscape. Ireland has a tortured history just as Mississippi does, and it’s also a place that has produced a lot of writers, who also take these imagined ideas about place – some of the mythology – and create story around it. So Mississippi and Ireland – the residents of both place who end up writing about it – find themselves very much immersed in it. For me as a nonfiction writer rather than a fiction writer, I’m very often dealing with history, and in doing that and thinking about the stories that come out of Mississippi, I always say, explore the silences. And sometimes that silence comes out of the landscape.
“In his memorial to William Butler Yeats, D. H. Auden wrote ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.’ Likewise, my native land, my South, my Mississippi . . . hurt me into poetry, inflicting my first wound.”
– NATASHA TRETHEWEY
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Cabbages, c. 1942. Watercolor on Paper. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Walter Anderson was an adventurer at heart, looking to the wilderness for understanding and escape, but he also viewed nature through a domestic lens. He was a farmer, in addition to being an artist. He watered cows and sweated through many shirts while plowing fields to plant cabbage. This connection between labor and his environment was central. His wife Sissy gardened near the house, and he drew her, just as he had drawn his subjects from afar at the Philadelphia Zoo when he was an art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1920s.
Following bouts of mental illness and institutionalization in the late 1930s, Anderson returned home. While the family had looked previously to medical professionals for a cure, Anderson looked to the land. “Give me a farm and I’ll get well,” he voiced.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Sissy with Zinnias, c. 1935. Pencil on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Ralph Eubanks comments on the role of agrarian history in Southern placemaking.
TRANSCRIPT: We have a high-octane sense of place in Mississippi, and I think that it largely because of our grounding as traditionally an agrarian culture. I live in Washington, D.C. part of the year. And that is a very different landscape, physically, that Mississippi. I’m engaging with the built landscape that I don’t when I’m in Mississippi. And I think that’s probably why our writers are so engaged with this place.
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
– WENDELL BERRY
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
WADE IN THE WATER
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), from Biloxi Beach Scene, c. 1940s. Block Print. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Walter Anderson shared conservationist Rachel Carson’s belief that “the lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.”
But as Anderson philosophized about the accessibility and transformative power of the Gulf’s natural world in 1960, often from his camp on Horn Island, black activists in neighboring Biloxi were beaten as they courageously integrated the local beaches. The land, after all, not only gives life; it undergirds the region’s long history of pain and inequity.
Produced by WAMA Curatorial Fellow and filmmaker Zaire Love.
Ralph Eubanks speaks about his connections to and reflections on the Biloxi wade-ins of the 1960s.
TRANSCRIPT: The wade-ins are really fascinating to me because they were happening when I was very small. I remember Dr. Mason. Dr. Mason was my eagle scout sponsor. So when I’m a teenager and meeting with him, I wasn’t thinking about what he did on those beaches. It makes him a larger-than-life character to me now. Also, my encounter with Medgar Evers as a boy, I realize now was Evers being on the coast and coming back through Mount Olive, visiting with a family there that was his safe place to be on his way back from those wade-ins. So piecing these stories together. And also reading Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, I didn’t know until reading that book that her grandmother participated in those wade-ins. It’s hard to look at that beach for me without seeing Dr. Mason out there taking care of people who were beaten with clubs. In his book he says the sand was actually stained with blood. It’s almost as if every event here that happens, a writer has to make some meaning out of it. We are trying to make sense out of the violence that’s happened on this landscape, whether it’s to native people or whether it’s to African Americans. How do we take the past, tell the truth about it, and add meaning to it?
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Biloxi panel, Ocean Springs Community Center murals, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs
Though Walter Inglis Anderson lived and worked in the 20th century, he was distinctly aware of the legacies of place and time. His philosophies were informed by prehistoric cave paintings, myths and legends from across the centuries, and a fascination with the stars and planets that move across the heavens. Anderson saw himself as an extension of nature, rather than separate from it, and conversed through his art with belief systems and cultures that included First Nations Americans who called the Gulf Coast home long before European arrival. Anderson’s fascination with the Biloxi people can be seen in his depictions of them in the 1930s murals for the Public Works Art Project and the 3,000 square-foot Ocean Springs Community Center murals.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), PWAP Mural Sketch, c. 1934. Oil on Board. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
The work above was created in preparation for Anderson's large-scale murals as part of the federal Public Works Art Project. The forms of the hunters, deer, and yellow dog are reminiscent of ancient cave painting compositions that Anderson saw in France in the 1920s.
Ralph Eubanks on the Native Peoples who were largely forced out of the region, even though their names and echoes remain.
TRANSCRIPT: Anderson did that in his art. I think other visual artist from the South have done imagining what it was like when these lands were occupied by native peoples, not even having any idea of what that was. So often in taking that and borrowing it, it is part of our own mythmaking about place. That we use these names and we create our own mythology about them.
The Tunica-Biloxis, we have a long story. If we tell the story to you, it will be a good thing.
– Tunica-Biloxi saying
The Tunica-Biloxi people have celebrated and shared their cultural identity for over three centuries despite outside pressures to assimilate. Language, arts, sporting activities, and stories contribute to keep the traditions of the people alive. The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe is made up of several Southeastern peoples who have lived on the gulf of Louisiana and Mississippi for centuries, including the Ofo, Avoyel, and Choctaw. Many other tribes also called the region home. The names of coastal cities – such as Biloxi, Mobile, and Pascagoula (not to mention Mississippi itself) – are derived from Native American languages.
By the twentieth century, a group of several tribes coalesced and had become known as the Tunica-Biloxi. Through their connections, the qualities of these distinct peoples contribute to the unique, shared identity of the Tunica-Biloxi today. The Tunica-Biloxi have been generous partners as the Museum continues to interpret the work of Walter Anderson.
“As the story continues to unfold, much more needs to be told. We honor our elders and ancestors by telling our story. It remains our sacred duty to pass the story to our children for our ancestors who fought so long to keep it alive.”
– JOHN D. BARBRY
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana
AFTER THE STORM
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), After the Storm, c. 1960. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“… I was in conflict with a demon… He was perfectly willing that I should reach the island but it must be with the uttermost expenditure of strength and endurance.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
on rowing to Horn Island
During his trips to the island, Walter Anderson faced off with bad weather and hurricane. He famously remained on the prone island in 1965 as Hurricane Betsy made landfall, lashing himself to a tree to feel nature's power. Afterward, he walked the beach and observed that the island does not always herald disaster overtly. “It is mainly trash,” he writes, “but tons of it—only a few dead birds—a turtle—suggest tragedy; it is more like a Louisiana house cleaning at the expense of Mississippi.” Our wilderness, Anderson knew, is not always pristine. And as long as we have been here, perhaps it never has been.
Ralph Eubanks reflects on his conversations with Jesmyn Ward about Hurricane Katrina's aftermath in her hometown of DeLisle on the Mississippi Coast.
TRANSCRIPT: I remember being with Jesmyn in DeLisle and asking her about the impact of Katrina on the landscape. She said, well what’s interesting about Katrina is the landscape looks now very much as it did when I was a child, because all the things that had changed it over time, the storm surge washed away. She said, now I feel as if I’m back in this past reality on the coast. And what she’s very often doing is to find that past in the present. I think what both Jesmyn and Natasha want us to do is to see the renewal, and to engage with it, rather than to focus on the loss and the destruction. Not really abandoning the loss, because we have to always grieve for what was once there, but also taking elements of the past, put them in the present, and think about how they connect. There’s so much of this place that you can begin to understand and engage with in a very different way.
A film produced by WAMA Curatorial Fellow and filmmaker Zaire Love, revisiting Jesmyn Ward's DeLisle.
IN THE courthouse
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Cartoon Painting for a Courthouse Mural, c. 1936. Oil on Board. Gift of The Family of Walter Anderson.
Walter Anderson created this design for a mural in the federal courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi. The three central figures are three personifications of Justice. Even in the 1930s, Walter Anderson portrayed Justice serving persons of all races and social standings. In many ways, Anderson's vision was ahead of its time, especially for the rural South. Anderson's design was rejected by the selection committee, presumably in part because its rejected the rigid norms of the 1930s, both in subject matter and style.
Ultimately, the commission was awarded to Russian artist Simka Simkhovitch, whose Pursuits of Life in Mississippi (below) returned to well-worn hierarchies segregating Southern planters and black laborers.
Ralph Eubanks comments on these two approaches to depicting justice through public art.
TRANSCRIPT: With that painting, the Simka Simkhovitch, that mural, it is the idea of not just Southern place, but people in Southern place having a place. And the Walter Anderson image, which is very abstract ... the gentleman at the center of that in the red looks almost racially ambiguous, and I’m sure that that ambiguity did not sit well with the people who were thinking about this.
THE BLANK PAGE
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Terror – The Little Devil, c. 1960. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of The Family of Walter Anderson.
Walter Anderson most visionary and personal works were those he painted while on Horn Island, made on humble typing paper during long ascetic stints camping beneath his upturned skiff, in the company of raccoons, frogs, turtles, fish, snakes, butterflies, and grackles. The story goes that if he needed kindling for the fire, he would rather burn a finished watercolor than a blank sheet of paper. The blank pages were priceless to him, containing all the possibility of another encounter with creation.
“Bring only what you must carry—
tome of memory ... its random blank pages.”
– NATASHA TRETHEWEY
from "Theories of Time and Space"
Anderson recorded his visions and adventures not only through visual form, but in writing, keeping volume after volume of what has become known as The Horn Island Logs of Walter Anderson. His writings are often poetic, and often he would also scrawl on the back side (or, "en verso") of his watercolors, as in the case of this piece.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Terror – The Little Devil (En Verso), c. 1960. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of The Family of Walter Anderson.
"Terror –The Little Devil, who touches the hearts of man with love. But all those little things with fear and trembling."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Natasha Trethewey, "Theories of Time and Space" from Native Guard: Poems by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey. https://poets.org/poem/theories-time-and-space
"Art is incredible not for itself, but in changing the artist’s relation to other things ... perspective.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Ralph Eubanks on the "danger of a single story."
TRANSCRIPT: One of the issues that we have, and this is something that I very often talk about in my Southern Studies class, is that we have, in this country – not just in Mississippi, but in this country – a segregated cultural memory. So often what we’re trying to do in Southern Studies is to bring all those cultural memories together. We tend to think of the narrative of our history as being something that goes in a straight line, always ascending, whereas our history, our stories, they’re very layered. They may go up but they go up and down. And we have to reconcile ourselves with that. public art, so often, has really tried to tell one story. Chimamanda Adichie talks about – her talk, "The Danger of a Single Story" – is that we tend to stereotype things or places. People and places. Or we have only one idea of a place. And I think that’s what we’ve done. We’ve told a single story about this place.
Ralph Eubanks, A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape (2021)
Gilbert R. Mason, Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle (2000)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story" (TED Talk)
Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard: Poems (2007)
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones, 2012