A Voice in the Wilderness

In an excerpt from his new book, Fortune's Favorite Child, Christopher Maurer sheds new light on the strange life and brilliant art of Walter Anderson.


New Orleans-born artist Walter Anderson painted the world as he saw it -- and he saw it like none other. "Anderson was so individual and mystic," says David Houston, chief curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which devotes a fourth-floor gallery to the artist. "His understanding of nature was almost pantheistic."

The son of Newcomb graduate Annette McConnell and grain exporter George Walter Anderson, young Walter (also called "Bob") grew up with his two brothers, Peter and James "Mac" McConnell, in a Garden District home. The family often vacationed on the Gulf Coast and would eventually relocate to a 24-acre property outside Ocean Springs, Miss. It was there that Anderson would embark on a career and a life so strange as to be called mad.

"Anderson is clearly one of the unrecognized Southern artists," Houston says. "He struggled with mental illness and really kept himself out of the network of institutions that were career makers at that time. He lived fairly obscurely -- you had to want to really find Walter Anderson to track him down."

Whatever the realities of his surreal existence, Anderson's artistic clarity and vision are gaining new prominence. This year, the Smithsonian Institution marks the centennial of his birth with its current exhibit -- Walter Inglis Anderson: Everything I See Is New and Strange -- featuring a selection of his paintings, block prints, pottery, woodcarvings, arts and crafts, and photomurals. This month, the University Press of Mississippi releases Christopher Maurer's Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson, a biography attempting to position Anderson in his appropriate place at the forefront of American art and to illumine his elusive legacy.

"There is now a very different impression of who Anderson was," Houston says. "He's become a much fuller figure, and, in all our reevaluations of his work, his accomplishments are seen as much greater than they were during his lifetime."

The following are excerpts from Fortune's Favorite Child.

The triumph of Walter Inglis Anderson -- painter, writer, muralist -- was the momentary defeat of custom. He believed that custom destroys love, and although with love "man can see through a stone wall," without it we can only say of course. "Man begins by saying of course, before any of his senses have a chance to come to his aid with wonder and surprise. The result is that he dies, and his neighbors and friends murmur with the wind, of course! The love of bird or shell which might have restored his life flies away, carried by the same wind which has destroyed him."

There was nothing customary about his own restless life or about his best work. No American painter has ever drawn so close to the world of nature or returned with such abundant rewards. And few can have lived as dramatic and passionate a life as he did, on the edge of society, a voluntary exile from "the sordid thing most people call reality." Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) is only now gaining wide recognition among historians of American art, partly because he spent almost his entire life in the isolation of a small coastal town, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, more intent upon understanding "natural forms" -- the texture of pine bark, the curve of cloud or wave, the language of pelicans -- than upon establishing his own place in the annals of painting. Afflicted with mental illness that baffled some of America's leading psychiatrists, alienated for long periods from his wife, children, and other family members, Anderson was a proud, fiercely independent soul, aware of the artist's debt to society but indifferent to fame and skeptical of ever receiving help from others. "The artist lives between assistance and opposition and is first overwhelmed by one and then both together -- then is reduced to the ranks and is told that the gods help those who help themselves. So that he usually ends up living almost entirely on stolen fruit." Between "assistance and opposition," he left an astonishing abundance of work -- murals and oil paintings, watercolors and drawings, block prints, essays, poems, and journals. Unsure whether others truly needed his images, he kept much of his work to himself. He seldom bothered to sign or date his paintings, took little interest in exhibitions and publicity, painted most of his watercolors on simple typewriter paper, and considered art, as one critic has written, "not a product, but a process, a means of experiencing the world."

The work of Walter Anderson springs from the belief -- uncommon in the twentieth century -- that "in order to realize the beauty of man we must realize his relation to nature." Not that man is "a beast or an animal," he once wrote, "but [he] has a relation to nature as close as a dog or cat." The relation was one of mutual dependence; if humans need the natural world in order to find spiritual transcendence, nature requires the artist to fully "realize" the significance of its forms. "The man is only half himself," Emerson once wrote. "The other half is his expression." Walter Anderson would have extended that dictum to the natural world: it cannot be entirely "itself" without the intervention of the artist. Only when "realization" occurs -- when art and nature become a single thing -- do we feel a sense of wholeness and gratitude both for nature and for art. "To know that every movement you make is related to the movements of the pine trees in the wind, the movements of a man in a field plowing, the orbit of a star, or the spiral movement of the sun itself. To know that this was done through art by men, not gods, who named each gesture and posture and assumed each in its correct place and time, until they became perfectly related to the movements of the stars ... [all this] is to accept man's inheritance. To deserve it is another thing. But the first step is to acknowledge the debt to those men who have numbered and realized and lived with art."

In taking nature for his master, Walter Anderson reminds one unmistakably of Cézanne (a painter he often invokes), though his manner of pursuing "realization" -- both of himself and of nature -- was uniquely his own. He not only roamed the pinelands, marshes, and barrier islands of the Mississippi Gulf Coast; he also pedaled his bicycle thousands of miles across the landscapes of New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida on adventures as unpredictable as those of Don Quixote. "Beware by whom you are called sane," he once wrote, in homage to Cervantes' knight, whose story he read and illustrated more than once. If his Spanish hero yearned for an idealistic, imaginary past, Walter Anderson asked for an inexhaustible present: the moment of "strange and transient unity," just beyond the reach of his hands and avid senses, when art and nature could become one. In Don Quixote, Anderson once observed, the road was everything, and so it was to him, as he biked and walked across the American landscape in pursuit of what he called "definite knowledge" of nature. Twice during his lifetime -- first as an art student and again in the early years of his marriage -- he attempted to paddle down the Mississippi River in a canoe. He trekked across war-torn China, feasting his eyes on rivers and mountains he had first encountered in old Chinese paintings. Many times a year, during the last fifteen years of his life, he rowed a tiny plywood skiff ten or twelve miles across the Mississippi Sound to a barrier island in the gulf, a wilderness where he fled "the dominant mode on shore" and drew and painted his own arduous vision of paradise. "So much depends on the dominant mode on shore," he explained, "that it was necessary for me to come to sea to find the conditional. Everything seems conditional on the islands. Out there, if I eat I live, if something stronger than I doesn't destroy me." Living under his overturned skiff, in the most primitive of conditions, he found that nature "loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time -- the true fountain of youth." In innumerable sketches and watercolors he captured life and death on Horn Island, entering a different order of time, making birds and animals his "familiars," drawing closer to pelicans and gallinules than he ever had to humans. His long stays on the island, where he became as much a part of the natural world as any snake, coon, or migratory bird, were both a refuge from the tensions of family life and a mystical search for wholeness and completion. Despite the physical torment he endured on that windswept, sun-bleached piece of sand -- walking "the back of Moby Dick, the white whale, the magic carpet, surrounded by inhabited space" -- he felt himself in a sort of Eden, a land of "infinite refreshment," supplied by Providence with all that he needed as creator. "A bleak dawn but the sun has come out. I took a walk and found a much-needed pair of shoes that fit me. Fortune's favorite child. Indeed, if a man refuses to allow himself to be distracted -- driven wild, mad, sick, raving -- he would often realize that he was Fortune's favorite child, and not simply an idle ass with an empty saddle, begging to be ridden and driven."

Both on the island and on the mainland, his life was suffused with pain and loneliness. In the midst of the depression, after long years of training at the Parsons School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he struggled to make a living and had little time to paint. After the death of his father, a discouraging setback in his work as a muralist, and a long, debilitating battle with undulant fever, he underwent an emotional crisis so severe that he was confined for over two years to mental hospitals in Maryland and Mississippi. The diagnosis was uncertain -- schizophrenia, depression, dementia praecox -- and the treatment was grueling. He was a rebellious patient, and more than once he escaped, walking home to Ocean Springs, proving unable to cope with job and family but determined to get on with his art. Regarded in the town as an oddity, he had few friends anywhere and barely any contact with fellow painters. Remarkably, in his journals he hardly ever speaks of suffering and often of joy -- "the joy of imaginative life, the joy of creative effort, the joy of being related to a loving and living body." Stubbornly, he held to his belief that "the normal or even fairly normal man has to be almost knocked down physically to be anything but sublime" and to his belief in the transcendent power of art, in all its forms.

On March 23, 1937, a month after his father's death, Bob sank into a strange sort of lethargy and his paranoia became even more acute. Peter found him in the bathroom with a razor in each hand, and when he pulled them gently away, Bob mumble that he "thought that was what you wanted me to do." He told his wife, Sissy, he was the "lowest of the low"; he had a venereal disease, he said, and should never have married. When a doctor reassured him he was perfectly healthy, he brightened up and told her he would like to have a child and begin a new life in the newly renovated Cottage. That night she took him into her arms, and they made love. By the next day, however, he was convinced, once more, that he was ill, and impotent, and began thinking again about ending his life. He thrust his hand into the living room fire -- "to harden himself," he said -- and rushed out the door. When he returned, a while later, he told her that he had wanted to throw himself under a passing car, but had not been able. One night he stiffened in bed, his head hanging over the edge of the bedframe, and wept uncontrollably for the great sea turtle he had slain on Horn Island. She sensed that, besides his pain over his father's death, he was grieving for all that he had harmed, even in his imagination: butterflies, fish, the dead birds Mac had brought him to draw, the ducks he had shot on his hunting trips with his brothers. For the first time in their marriage, he told her he wished he could believe in God, and asked her to pray with him -- he felt too slow to formulate his own ideas.

Annette and Mac took Bob to see a doctor, who listened to him babble and noted that the patient was "psychopathic, manifesting religious and persecutory delusions, despondency, and suicidal impulses." That night, in a hotel room, Annette, whose faith in art and literature remained unshaken, read to him from Thoreau and noticed that he wept at certain passages. Later, he went into the bathroom by himself, and swallowed the entire bottle of medicine the doctor had given him to help him sleep. By the next morning, when Annette took him back to the doctor, he gave them the diagnosis applied, long ago, to her sister -- dementia praecox -- and told them they had no choice but to commit him.

Anderson was sent to the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore, where he remained for 18 months. He would seek treatment on and off for the rest of his life for what one of his doctors termed his "nervous difficulty." Eventually, he would live alone in a cottage on the family property in Ocean Springs, separate from his wife, Sissy, and their children. During these years, he would frequently disappear for weeks at a time to the nearby Horn Island.

He crossed the ten miles to the island by a combination of sailing, rowing, pulling and pushing through the shallow waters of the sound in a series of leaky wooden boats, ten to twelve feet long, loaded with supplies kept in gunny sacks and a garbage can for his paints and the inexpensive typewriter paper on which he did all of his drawings and watercolors. He sometimes used a blanket for a sail, and occasionally, with a following wind, he would open a big umbrella, like the one he and Sissy had used on the Mississippi River, though this time he had cut a "window" in it, and used it as a sort of jib. To his annoyance, people on fishing boats and cabin cruisers sometimes cut their engines and offered him a tow, nearly swamping him in their wake. "Where are you going in that thing," he once heard someone shout in the dark; but he had no interest whatsoever in finding a faster, less primitive way to make the trip. At least twice, when one of his little skiffs came apart, he found another, abandoned on the beach of the island, and caulked the cracks with a heated axe and the lumps of tar he gathered on his walks, though even then the boats leaked, and he had to put down the oars and stop to bail every hundred yards or so.

Because there were no buildings on the island except for the deserted barracks, he would turn the boat over and use it as a shelter against the elements, banking up the sand to keep out mosquitoes, flies, and rats that burrowed in at night, a foot from his head, to search for food or eat his soap. In bad weather there was space enough under the boat to eat, sleep, and cook, write up the log, and even paint, although he discovered that working in the shade sometimes "dirtied" his colors and he preferred painting in the open air, sitting under an umbrella or a tree to shield his sensitive eyes from the glaring light. In cold weather, he built a fire under the boat so that he could cook and keep warm, and he left the sides open so that the wind would carry away most of the smoke; when the wind blew hard at night he would reach for the thwart above his head, to hold the boat against the sand.

Dinner was rice and whatever happened to emerge from his "larder." He often brought cans of fruit and vegetables from the mainland, but the labels came off in the damp air, turning many of his meals into a surprise. His beach-combing turned up extra little treats: half-empty jars of pickles or peanut butter or pineapple; bananas that fed the entire island when a banana boat out of Gulfport was "whacked" in a storm; this or that mysterious distillation sent to him by the tides: "I found a strange dark bottle with little white shells growing to its neck, and drank from it a rich mixture of rum or some liquor." For water, he walked to an artesian well he called Rabbit Springs. He filled his gallon jugs, and returned to camp with odd things he found along the way that he wanted to paint: "I came home with a feather in my hat, two water bottles slung over my shoulder, one with yellow daisies stuck in it, and a dead trigger fish in one hand and dead muskrat in the other. My pants were holey and my rescued shirt -- red, white, and blue checks."

He knew he was a strange apparition to anyone who happened to see him: the flounderers who came over at night, rabbit hunters, or the families who came from Ocean Springs or Biloxi on the weekends to spend the day on the island. Once, as he was bathing naked in a pool of bulrushes, he heard shots, and spotted a falling grackle and then some human faces. "I got out and met four hunters with shotguns and pistols strapped on. They passed. A natural man suddenly emerging from a pool on a desert island must have been quite a shock, but they didn't smile."

At Oldfields, Walter Anderson had tried to discover universals and, through them, to create an idealized nature. On Horn Island, for the most part, he wanted to let it speak through him: "to regard nature not as something striving to improve or to become but as something which has become and needs only to be observed and appreciated." The "symbolic" art of Oldfields -- the search for the archetype -- was swept away on Horn Island by an aesthetics of "surprise."

Eternity -- the seamless continuity of nature -- can be found not only in a grain of sand (he loved Blake's poem), but on the legs of a hermit crab. The important thing was to look hard, allow the "facts" to register, and acquire what he liked to call "definite knowledge," without which neither art nor the appreciation of nature would be possible. A number of drawings and watercolors could arise from one particular observation:

"I looked up into a dead pine [and] saw a young heron climb up, using feet, wings, and the point of its bill. Then it reached a branch and stood, and stretched and stretched, silhouetted against an enormous white cloud. It seemed that with very little effort it would climb the cloud and take the kingdom of heaven by force. God knows it needs taking. I drew it in ecstasy. It was a concentrated image that nothing could take from me. If it was not poetry it was the image asked for by Yeats from which poetry is made. I am a painter, so this morning I did two watercolors of it before I got out of bed. This does not mean that I am going to be content with that one image for the rest of my life. It will generate power in me for a while, then I need another. One image succeeds another with surprising regularity on Horn Island. Whether they could be shared is another matter. People need different things."

One image succeeded another, and each was infinite. "One single beautiful image is practically inexhaustible," he wrote. "Man is a wasteful fool."

When he returned from his trips to the island, tanned and strong, with a two- or three-week growth of beard, he looked happy and eager to share his stories and return to his work. But the transition from the solitude of the island to a town even as small as Ocean Springs was always a hard one, and he must have felt -- as he did sometimes on the island -- like a hermit crab, "without the protecting shell." Within a couple of days after his return the sociability and the healthy glow were gone, and he retreated back into the Cottage. In Ocean Springs more than a few parents warned their children to keep away from "that crazy Bob Anderson," who pedaled wobbily down East Beach Drive or Washington Avenue, on his way to buy supplies or "borrow" a game hen, turkey, or some numinous vegetables to take home and paint.

To Sissy it seemed that, at some point, as he grew older, his desire for self-destruction had been transmuted into a cheerful, unshakable belief that he was protected by Providence. In a note found among his papers, he writes: "Suppose you felt that you were in the grip of fate; that, like Sinbad, you were destined to be shipwrecked; 'that it is written.' Suppose you turned it into a pattern, made a dance of it and were shipwrecked six times to music in your own dance. You would have used fate for your own purpose and turned it into art."

Walter Rowing His Boat, c. 1955 - Watercolor on paper - From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: - The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
  • Walter Rowing His Boat, c. 1955
    Watercolor on paper

    From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
Don Quixote, c. 1936 - Oil on plywood panel - From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: - The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
  • Don Quixote, c. 1936
    Oil on plywood panel

    From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
Mardi Gras, New Orleans, c. 1962 -  - Watercolor on paper  - From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: - The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
  • Mardi Gras, New Orleans, c. 1962
    Watercolor on paper

    From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
Sea, Earth and Sky Vase, c. 1934 -  - Ceramic  - Thrown by Peter Anderson, decorated by Walter - Anderson - From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: - The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
  • Sea, Earth and Sky Vase, c. 1934
    Thrown by Peter Anderson, decorated by Walter Anderson

    From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
Horizontal Pelican, 1945  - Linocut on paper - From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: - The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson
  • Horizontal Pelican, 1945
    Linocut on paper

    From the book, Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson

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