Who would you like to meet at a dinner party and why?
If I could turn back time to early 1965, I’d love to meet Louisiana-born artist Walter Anderson. From an outsider’s perspective, Walter’s life was full of challenges, heartbreak, and rejection. But his works of art prove that he was also resilient and able to create art that transcends his earthly problems and at the same time offers an astonishingly beautiful insight into the nature he experienced.
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021. The museum testifies to Walter’s keen eye for the natural beauty he wanted to share. Walter’s son John, a psychologist, and Anthony DiFatta, an artist and educator at the museum, share their insights into the unconventional life of the artist on my tour.
“If you mistake abnormality for madness, then a healthy person looks crazy in a mad world,” says John. “With [my dad], there are so many misunderstandings. ”
A Hitchcock cameo
Maybe Walter was just born at the wrong time. Today you can admire him for his eco-friendly lifestyle and love for nature. Walter preferred the solitude of Horn Island, Mississippi, where he painted and painted for weeks and took refuge under his skiff, to his more conventional life on the mainland. He was a mystery to his wife Sissy and their four children. On land, Walter often lived separately from his family.
As a child, John says, he and his siblings were embarrassed by their father who preferred to ride a bike rather than drive a car – even when he was traveling across the country. Walter was not worried about wearing a crumpled felt hat or mismatched shoes. He felt lucky to find a suitable couple. After Walter died, John found his father’s painting as a boy petting the family cat, O’Malley.
“I had no idea he painted it,” says John. “I was a grumpy, serious little boy, nobody’s favorite playmate, but I loved this cat and she loved me. I thought I had kept it a secret, but when I found this painting I realized that my father had seen it, knew it, understood it. He decided not to portray me as a grumpy, cynical curmudgeon, but as a loving little boy. ”
John continues, “He knew me a lot better than I thought, and he loved me very much. That’s what [the painting] triggers in me when I look at it, so it will always be my favorite. “
Walter was a prolific artist. His museum of the same name displays everything from the works of art he made to relearn drawing after undergoing aggressive psychiatric treatment, to pottery he designed and decorated for the family business Shearwater Pottery. He painted on scrap wood and tons of writing paper. He stamped and painted block prints on the back of rolls of wallpaper and sold them for a dollar a foot. According to his own statements, his need to create art was like a physical desire, a compulsion. Once completed, Walter often used his crumpled writing paper drawings as a fire starter.
But he had no grudges against the people of Ocean Springs who did not understand his way of life. When no one accepted his invitation, Walter worked alone for 16 months on a 3,000 square meter mural in the town’s community center, which is now adjacent to the museum. The painting shows the history of the area – and the artist himself rowing a boat.
“His self-portrait is like a Hitchcock cameo,” says John.
It took Walter and his loaded skiff a day or two to reach his campsite on Horn Island, 12 miles off the Mississippi coast. The skiff is now in the museum, and a photo shows a barefoot Walter in his boat, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, with a sheet for a sail.
“He’s been pretty much an outsider all his life,” says John. “I think my father went to Horn Island because it was easier to love people with a little separation, no conflict, no friction. It gave him a place from which he could love without reservation. “
He often stayed on the island for a few weeks. He sketched and drew what he saw, what he ate and what he experienced. Walter “looked more from nature than from nature,” says John. “It was impossible for him to spend time without nature.”
Walter began to think even more about his love for the outdoors after he was hospitalized with a mental illness. He found solace in the company of Split Ear, a rabbit and a sow, who visited his campsite. Wildlife was a common topic in his art and magazines.
When a cotton ball bit him, he wrote: “I noticed a nest. It was too high for me to look inside and I did something I never do, I reached out my hand to feel inside and thought about eggs or baby birds. I was immediately pierced as if with a sharp knife point. It was a terrible shock. A frightened moccasin came out of the nest. We looked at each other as if to say, ‘How could you do this to me?’ He let me go, I let him go. It was as if there were no reproaches, just an acknowledgment of mutual guilt. “
A secret masterpiece
Back on land, Walter continued to work on a masterpiece in his small studio without the knowledge of his family. John and Anthony wonder if he painted scenes from Horn Island to keep nature close when he was away from his beloved island.
When Walter died in 1965, Sissy and her sister opened the studio. “When my mother and Aunt Pat opened the room, Pat said, ‘Creation at sunrise!'” John says, “It was … Eden. ”Walter left a handwritten copy of Psalm 104, a hymn of creation, on a box full of paintings – a surprise for his wife, who thought her husband was more of a beach collector than an artist. Eden, now housed in the museum, has a different effect on everyone. John says that people in the room often laugh or are moved to tears. Anthony says he visits the painting to recharge whenever he can.
As I look at every wall and see an alligator, a squirrel and butterflies, I am spellbound by the glow of the room. How did Walter reproduce the so-called magic hour, the time in which nature is bathed in golden light shortly before sunset, so perfectly? It would be the first question I would ask him at my dinner party.
When you go
The Walter Walter Art Museum is open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.