If any man’s life ever refuted the notion that no man is an island, it was the life of the Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. His islands, both literal and metaphorical, were on the one hand a deep well of artistic inspiration, and on the other a geographical locus of refuge. To him, islands were pieces of the land that had slipped loose, set free from the land’s madding crowds, but which were not the land itself. Surrounded by the obstacle of water, islands required an effort of will and muscle to get to, a mastery of the compass, and a steady hand on the oar. Once reached, they were Arcadian paradises teeming with natural life, havens of solitude where the sounds of few if any other humans ever broke through the perpetual melodies of birdsong that filled the air.
The one island that Anderson returned to again and again was Horn Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, a two hours’ hard row from Ocean Springs, itself an isolated hamlet on the Mississippi coast, next to Biloxi. On Horn Island Anderson escaped the demands of a society grown too loud for him and for a time became a mystical Robinson Crusoe, a Southern William Blake.
His full name was Walter Inglis Anderson, born at New Orleans in 1903, the descendant of a distinguished line of Scottish ancestors, his great-great-grandfather having been a mayor of Glasgow and the author of an unreadable epic poem. His father was a successful New Orleans grain merchant, and his mother came from prominent local bloodlines. He was given a gold-plated education in New York prep schools and in art schools in New Orleans, New York, and Pennsylvania. He made the obligatory Continental tour as a young man, immersing himself in the work of the great European masters of drawing—Dürer, Ingres, Degas. On his return to America, he settled in Ocean Springs, where his parents had retired. They had bought a parcel of wooded land there, surrounded by the Mississippi Sound to the west and the estuary of a small stream to the north. They moved into an 1830’s-era cottage on the property which ultimately became the home of Shearwater Pottery, still operated by Anderson’s family today.
About this time, Anderson came under the spell of two schools of thought that were to deeply influence both his artistry and his spiritual beliefs. The first was Adolpho Best-Maugard’s book, A Method for Creative Design, which became Anderson’s artist’s manual, a guide for mediating his personal vision of nature with the help of a compatible drawing technique. Best-Maugard’s principle idea was that all natural objects were formed by variations and combinations of seven motifs—the spiral, the circle, the half-circle, two half-circles joined, the wavy line, the zig-zag line, and the straight line. To quote Best-Maugard, the use of those symbols gave a student “the conception of the archetype and . . . the emotion of what it suggests; that is, motion, action, life, evolution.”
Anderson’s drawings and paintings above all are a realization of movement brought about by those archetypes, drawings that imbedded rich imagery—birds, ocean waves, swarms of scuttling crabs—into a foregrounded medley of Best-Maugard’s half-circles and wavy lines. The subject matter seems to emerge organically from the symbols themselves, as if they were being given birth to in front of our eyes. On Horn Island, Anderson produced thousands of such drawings, often in almost ecstatic transports, the work embodying his mind’s quick absorption of the world around him with a trained, confident, and swift-moving hand.
Best-Maugard’s language of symbolic forms led Anderson inevitably to the philosophy of Gurdjieff, which he discovered while living and studying in Paris. Gurdjieff had founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, a school that promoted a form of mysticism much like Anderson’s, who desired to experience mystical union with nature through an art that grew from incarnate sources. Gurdjieff believed that the usual limits of the human mind could be elevated by disciplining it into higher states that would permit them increased personal power, altering their circumstances and destinies. Although Anderson had little interest in Gurdjieff’s ambitions to teach ways of achieving greater personal power, he did desire a means to enter nature as forcefully as possible, to make his artistic creations a form of rejoicing, and in Gurdjieff’s ideas he found inspiration and support for that effort.
There was an unfortunate third influence in Anderson’s world, and that was mental illness. In what was almost a cliché of the artistic temperament, he suffered occasional bouts of what were characterized by his doctors as schizophrenia. He was in and out of mental institutions during this time, more than once escaping them when his confinements became intolerable. At those times his family was often unaware of his whereabouts for months at the time. His schizoid episodes were thought to be brought on by the pressures of being the breadwinner and authority of the family that was the consequence of his marriage in 1933 to Agnes Grinstead.
Grinstead was the daughter of a lawyer and plantation owner in Gautier, a wealthy and ambitious man who inevitably found his daughter’s suitor lacking in prospects. The marriage that finally came to pass produced predictable tensions, their occurrence often bringing on Walter’s moodiness and erratic behavior. It was only when he was ultimately assured that he could return to Ocean Springs and be freed from the responsibilities of male dominance, made possible by the support of his extended family, that he returned to health and matrimonial happiness. Thereafter he was publicly prominent in Ocean Springs as its most bohemian character, most often seen around town in shabby dress and a signature slouch hat.
By the late 1940’s Anderson increasingly required a solace beyond the kind provided by his family and the menial contributions he occasionally made to the family business, Shearwater Pottery. This he found in what became regular expeditions across the unpredictable waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the refuge of Horn Island. His skill at seamanship, like much else about him, depended on a hybrid of improvisation and strong inner determination. But the two served him well enough that he made his journeys in one piece, including one in which he survived the furies of a full-blown hurricane by clinging to a tree at the height of the storm.
One of the crafts Anderson used, a skiff he found in pieces on the beach and reassembled, is still on display at the museum in Ocean Springs that is dedicated to him. He’d typically load such a boat with garbage cans full of provisions and the makings of a rude camp, as well as the supplies necessary for his artwork, which, along with general exploration of his surroundings, were his principle preoccupations during his sabbaticals on Horn Island, which were usually one to three weeks at the time. These trips alternated with stays in his personal hermitage in the Anderson family compound, providing him with the solitude for reflection and painting, and presumably undertaken with his wife’s permission and support.
Closely integrated with Anderson’s artwork were the journals, or logs, he kept while sequestered on Horn Island. He obsessively jotted his thoughts in school composition books at odd hours and often on the fly. They were sometimes commonplace observations of nature and the weather, like this: “After lunch I drew Minnows and grass until about four and then took a walk on the beach.” Sometimes they were strained efforts at poetry, “the chariot of the sun is once again in motion.” But sometimes they were extended meditations on the human condition that showed the influence of teachers like Gurdjieff. “It is not enough to call man a fool or lunatic, and yet it is hard to argue that he is dead. He can smell and touch and hear and taste and even see; but his relation to life, to being, to existence is so incredibly vague that, to his intelligence, he can barely seem alive.”
He continued to fill notebooks with such writing for twenty years, producing hundreds of pages of glimpses into his inner and his outer life during the time of his greatest creativity. His notebooks have often been compared to Thoreau’s journals, though Anderson’s passion for nature went far beyond Thoreau’s, while Thoreau’s polished prose style, profuse with aphoristic jewels, is far superior to Anderson’s, though it’s doubtful that Anderson ever wrote for anyone but himself. Few readers will plow through all of Anderson’s logs without experiencing tedium. They’re best read as he wrote them, in fugitive moments when everyday life is made more bearable by the immersion into a sympathetic mind.
On an autumn day in 1965 Walter Anderson ran up from his painting studio at Ocean Springs to tell Agnes that he’d been spitting up blood. It turned out that he had inoperable lung cancer. The end came within days in a New Orleans hospital. He was sixty-two years old. If one can imagine Anderson fifty years later, he’d almost certainly be encamped permanently on Horn Island, having been driven there to escape the new commerce of gambling casinos on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, where the noise of roulette wheels and slot machines now threaten to silence the songs of his beloved red wing blackbirds.