Monday, January 7, 2019


When more gloom than sun surrounds Teche country, rain falling daily and cold following, I am grateful for the art on the walls of my house, especially the prints of Walter Anderson’s work. This Mississippi artist who suffered from mental illness but who did not let this illness stay his hand from drawing and painting was a humble man who had a reverence for nature and knew that painting, drawing, creating block prints, sculptures, poetry — was not about competition: it was about Art. As he wrote, “his object in being was realization — to realize everything from the smallest object in nature to the most casual acquaintance…”

For several years, my friend Dr. Victoria Sullivan and I traveled to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to research books and articles and to explore Anderson’s habitats. We also visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art so many times, we could have become docents for this wonderful place. We were preparing for an article Vickie would write about the botany in his work, and I to compose a poem — both scheduled to appear in Interdisciplinary Humanities, a publication sponsored by the National Association for Humanities Education. The entire journal was devoted to Walter Anderson, and the editor, Lisa Graley, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, declared that “never before have we worked with a group of authors from such diverse backgrounds who were so enthusiastic about one singular subject…" She also wrote that “through the efforts of Anderson’s mother, he was brought up in an environment where the creation of art was a way — not just of life but of living…”

Vickie’s article, “Plant Life ‘Realizations’ in the Murals of Walter Anderson” covered 12 pages, while my poem, “On First Looking into Anderson’s Refuge,” was spread across two. Vickie studied, in depth, lines and forms which Anderson used to depict flora and fauna —trees; e.g., slash pines, which Anderson had captured in a linoleum block print, Chinese tallows (shaped like a woman’s head and shoulders) in another linoleum block print, and wrote extensive, elegant descriptions about the murals from Walter Anderson’s Shearwater Cottage, describing colors and forms of plants; e.g. pipeworts and Yellow Flowered Pitcher Plants, Wood Lily and pink Morning Glory flowers. She also described Sweet Gum and Red Oak trees, and flowering Dogwoods that Anderson painted in the murals for the Community Center in Ocean Springs (another place we frequented during our explorations). She included Anderson’s own writings about his activities from his journals, especially the Horn Island accounts. 

“I live and have my being in a world of Shape and Color,” the artist wrote about his work accomplished during sojourns on Horn Island where he studied plant and animal life. Vickie expressed her admiration for him in a concluding thought that “his spiritual thoughts had moved from turbulent (referring to his mental condition) to recognition of a mystical element within himself. The mystical sense from which he painted interprets nature’s manifesting light.” 

My own poem published in the Interdisciplinary Humanities contained four verses, the second and fourth of which appear here:

He stopped caring for humans,
they were abstractions, pure forms
to people his myths, fantasy props
drawn in hooks and curves,
an ancient language,
signs and symbols, pictographs,
lines trapping the emergency of moment,
claiming history, organic and watchful;
he did all of this wearing a crumpled felt hat,
managing to tip it in gentlemanly gesture
to unknown women
(for whom he had no desire),
to unknown men
(who offered no campfire camaraderie),
alone in a pure world
whose tragedy was a dead animal,
calamity, a hard storm;
he, the eye of God piercing cloud banks
over an island beckoning shipwrecks,
the hand of God poised over unblemished page,
following shorebirds…”

At the cottage, a disheveled figure,
he fell asleep in thickest night,’
left hand on the page of fantasy,
right hand clutching pen
after sketching a fairy tale,
re-designing legends,
he lived there too,
bringing whimsey to vague parchment,
using both hands,
scratching literature into visuals,
words unfolding, then folding outward,
transposed into another art.

These excerpts are only the tip of the iceberg in the story about Walter Anderson but I know that The Interdisciplinary Journal containing essays, poems, memories about him was Lisa’s hope for readers to visit the museum and see Anderson’s stunning murals. I think of those warm, eventful days we spent exploring the world of this brilliant artist, and each time I sit at the breakfast table and look up at a print of his“Walls of Light,” some of the gloom of these winter days dissipates. 

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