As a Mississippi native, I have been privy to Walter Anderson’s work for some time. My parents had his “Alphabet” prints scattered throughout our home and his name was a household occurrence when discussing great American artists. I never really took this information as a base of knowledge for my future endeavors here at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA), instead I thought of Anderson and his work as a bit of Mississippi trivia. Now that I have been able to study more into his life and artwork, I am able to understand the priority that nature held in his pieces and why he was so quick to dismiss societies’ expectations.
His main goal was to be on Horn Island, and within nature itself. Like many great artists, Walter Anderson seemed to struggle with everyday societal norms like most other people would struggle to live his hermit lifestyle. He prioritized his relationship with nature over one with people, allowing Anderson to immerse himself into Horn Island’s ebb and flow for weeks at a time and he would come back to the mainlands with immaculate pieces of nature captured in his paintings.
Walter Anderson was obligated to making a living although his heart was that of a purist when it came to art. He eventually had to support his family and finance his art supplies and long trips to Horn Island. Shearwater Pottery, owned by his family, gave him a way to fund his projects by making just enough pottery to sell to keep everyone off of his case. Though Walter Anderson was strictly in art to create things, he did create many things to sell other than the pottery he was forced to make at Shearwater. He illustrated a book called “Robinson: The Pleasant History of an Unusual Cat” and made block prints to sell. Anderson said that working at Shearwater took time away from his painting.
Anderson refers to Horn Island as “Eden” in his logs and he incorporated a plethora of animals native to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in an effort to find a happy medium between himself and the occurrences around him onto a piece of paper with style. “Frogs” displayed at WAMA is a busy watercolor painting done by Anderson in 1960, the painting itself is a blurry depiction of the grass and frogs hiding along the leaves. This painting stuck out to me because of its almost coiled position in time — the frogs and grass could move at any point and almost definitely did.
Walter Anderson’s struggle between obligation and passion was that of an angsty teen. He flourished in seclusion, and he defied people’s expectations even after his death. Some would argue that one must feel the obligations of society to remain human, but Walter Anderson thought that one must be fully encompassed by nature and divergent of social obligations to truly feel alive. Anderson hid most of his work from everyone for a long time before all of his artwork was found post-mortem, including the “Little Room” completely covered from ceiling to floor in mural. Though his artwork was amazing, he had little interest in showing it to the outside world.
Zinnia above me, I begin my gaze at the door. The bright pinks billow toward the ceiling while small animated feral characters fill the gaps between grass and sky. A rooster above the window calls for the sun to rise each day in the once secret room. Walter Anderson’s lack of interest in everyday things allowed him to focus on his art. As I complete my career as a college student, I hope to follow Anderson’s example. He was able to hone in on his abilities as an artist, and though some thought he was eccentric. He was happy being with himself and his art, and did not allow the outside world to influence his process.
Sydney Passmore is currently a History Major at the University of Southern Mississippi at the Gulf Park Campus in Long Beach.
These works are a part of the new exhibit on display now at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.