Walter Inglis Anderson
Walter Inglis Anderson, born in New Orleans, expressed his unique artistic vision in murals, watercolors, oils, sketches, sculpture, rugs, wallpaper, and furniture, among other art forms.
Walter Inglis Anderson, born in New Orleans, expressed his unique artistic vision in murals, watercolors, oils, sketches, sculpture, rugs, wallpaper, ceramics, and furniture, among other art forms. Anderson sought to unite art and nature, and his work bears witness to a lifelong meditation on the relationship between human experience and the natural world. His use of line, explosive color, recurring motifs, and his exploration of significant form were the technical means to an artistically distinctive body of art. Though his work is increasingly well known today, Anderson’s secluded life on the Gulf Coast delayed full recognition of his achievement until after his death in 1965.
Early Life and Education
Anderson was born September 29, 1903, in New Orleans, the son of George Walter Anderson, a prominent grain exporter, and Annette McConnell Anderson, an artist who studied at Newcomb College. The Andersons lived in New Orleans until 1923, when they moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Anderson’s mother, a formidable personality, introduced her sons—Peter, Walter (called “Bob”), and James McConnell—to creative expression as a way of life. She was particularly interested in, and influenced by, the Arts and Crafts Movement and its emphasis on art as a means of counteracting modern alienation. For his formal education, Walter Anderson attended both St. John’s School in Manlius, New York, and what is now the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. He subsequently enrolled in The New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now known as Parsons The New School For Design) and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His drawings at the latter institution earned him a scholarship that enabled a visit Europe, where he experienced an artistic awakening in the French caves at Les Eyzies. The deep influence of primitive art, archaic forms, and mythic archetypes can be traced throughout his career.
Career Development and Disruptions
Returning home to Ocean Springs, Anderson worked at Shearwater Pottery, a family businesses operated by all three Anderson brothers. In 1933, he married Agnes “Sissy” Grinstead, a Radcliffe graduate, with whom he eventually had four children. At Shearwater, Anderson spent most of his time decorating pots and creating decorative human and animal figurines that he called “widgets.” Around this time, Anderson also began one of his first major public works, a mural for Ocean Springs High School entitled Ocean Springs: Past and Present (1934). Commissioned by Ellsworth Woodward, the mural was part of the Federal Public Works of Art Project. It consisted of six large panels of striking images that connect contemporary coastal history with the history of earlier settlements by Native Americans. An early instance of Anderson’s use of the vocabulary of archaic forms, the murals represent the artist’s enduring preoccupation with the relationship between personal experience and deeper sources of myth.
Between 1937 and 1940, Anderson’s work and personal life were repeatedly disrupted by severe mental illness. While the nature of Anderson’s breakdown remains in dispute, diagnoses at the time ranged from manic depression to schizophrenia, and he was institutionalized for extensive periods at several facilities. As if to illustrate his lifelong interest in epic quests, Anderson once left the Phipps Institute at Johns Hopkins University and walked the thousand miles from Baltimore to Ocean Springs. Anderson later characterized the pressure to submit to communal authority as the “dominant mode on shore”—a way of life he eventually rejected in favor of the “conditional mode” of the islander.
In 1941, Agnes Anderson arranged for her husband and children to relocate to her father’s home, Oldfields, in Gautier, Mississippi. She hoped that Anderson would recover away from the stress of living among his talented but temperamental family. While at Oldfields, Anderson was particularly productive, producing thousands of works in various media. Moving away from strict realism, he developed his key concept of “realization,” the idea that nature possesses an underlying order that the artist must reveal. Anderson produced linoleum block prints larger than any ever made in the United States. He also completed thousands of pen-and-ink drawings, many sketched while he was reading classic works of world literature. Forbidden by his father-in-law from painting directly on the interior plaster, Anderson created large mural sheets, including many New Orleans street scenes, and tacked them on the walls at Oldfields.
In 1947, Anderson began the final phase of life, leaving Oldfields for a solitary existence in a cottage on the grounds of Shearwater Pottery. From Shearwater, he made frequent trips to Horn Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. Often staying on the island for weeks at a time, Anderson sketched, kept a journal, and painted hundreds of brilliant watercolors, some of which constitute his best-known work. During intensely productive periods on shore in 1951, Anderson executed the monumental Ocean Springs Community Center murals, almost two thousand square feet of interconnected panels depicting coastal history and mythologized natural scenes.
Significance and Legacy
On November 30, 1965, Anderson died of lung cancer in New Orleans. Following his death, Anderson’s family discovered thousands of drawings and watercolors, many of them hidden in the cottage he inhabited at Shearwater. An extensive body of written work in the form of notes, travel journals, poetry, essays, letters, and aphoristic philosophy, still mostly unpublished, was also found. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs was established in 1991 and incorporates both the high school and community center murals. A portion of the wooden walls and ceiling from Anderson’s Shearwater cottage, known as “The Little Room,” has also been transported to the museum. The Little Room contains a complex composition with abstract, natural, and archetypal elements. The University of Mississippi houses a research collection—established by biographer Christopher Maurer and his coauthor, María Estrella Iglesias—on Anderson and on Shearwater Pottery. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina tragically destroyed much of the Anderson family compound. While the Walter Anderson Museum and community center were largely undamaged, the storm flooded a vault containing many of Anderson’s drawings and pottery. The Museum, in cooperation with the Anderson family, continues the work of restoration to preserve the legacy of this profoundly original artist.