By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005
OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. -- Hurricanes exhilarated Walter Anderson.
As the story goes, the quirky-genius painter/sculptor/craftsman refused to evacuate the little Gulf island where he was working when Hurricane Betsy roared through here in 1965. He curled up under a little boat on a sand dune and weathered the brutal winds and waters.
Forty years later, much of Anderson's astonishingly original artwork has been maimed or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Enthralled by a sense of oneness with his environment, Anderson drew creative strength and spirit from nature, even in its most violent displays. He was a mystic whose passions for art and the natural world went hand in hand with madness.
In a region that takes pride in its eccentrics and artists of all kinds, Anderson and his family came to epitomize the glories -- and now the costs -- of living the artistic life.
On a recent afternoon, Anderson's son John is sorting through the salvaged pieces. It is, he says, "a soggy mess."
He has spread scores of water-soaked original drawings on the back-room floor of Realizations, a gift shop that features reproductions of Anderson's art -- fanciful, colorful paintings and drawings of Gulf Coast birds, trees, alligators, sea life and just about everything else imaginable, all brought to life in a looping, swirling, childlike-yet-sophisticated way. The shop is part of a refurbished train depot.
A few tree-strewn blocks away: The Walter Anderson Museum of Art and community center, which housed exhibits of Anderson's work, stands pretty much unscathed by the wind and water. The art in the museum was safe; many of Anderson's damaged pieces from other places have been taken there for evaluation. But the 28-acre family compound, where several generations of Andersons live, has been pretty much wiped out. Fifteen buildings, including nine family homes, were destroyed, John Anderson reports, and a concrete vault holding most of Walter's art filled with water.
John's home was severely damaged by Katrina, but he is not thinking about that now. He is focused on saving the work of his father, who died of lung cancer several months after the 1965 hurricane. "Words are not appropriate," he says. "There was so much destruction."
Oils are streaked and splattered with mud and salt water. Watercolors are washed out. John Anderson says that more than 80 percent of his father's work -- paintings, drawings, wood and clay sculpture, decorated pottery, block prints, weavings -- was under water at one time or another during the storm.
In a khaki shirt, shorts and duck boots, Anderson, 58, moves among the damaged works -- kneeling on one knee, reaching for art. He has thick blond hair and a bird's eyes -- alarmed, in motion. He is tired and operating on adrenaline. "All of my energy," he wrote to family and friends, "has been spent trying to save a little of Walter Anderson's art."
He added, "The essential cannot be destroyed."
Conservators and Walter Anderson devotees from around the country, concerned about the damage, have called and e-mailed him. "Those works of art are in extreme jeopardy," says Linda Crocker Simmons, curator emeritus at the Corcoran Gallery. She was a guest curator for Anderson's 2003 show in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. One featured piece: a grand sculpture called "The Swimmer," fashioned from a tree felled by a 1947 hurricane.
Simmons lives in Arlington and has not seen the devastation firsthand but has spoken to a conservator who did. "The damage they have sustained may be irreversible by conservation techniques," Simmons says by phone, though no one will really know until the art is examined in a laboratory.
She, and the Anderson family, are concerned about who will pay for the conservation. Since the art is privately owned, Simmons says, it does not qualify for the public money earmarked to rebuild the Gulf Coast arts world. "How to raise the funds and find the people to assist is a conundrum," she says.
Museums, studios, galleries, theaters, historical homes and other cultural totems all along the coast were beset by storm winds and seawater.
When John Anderson first saw the wreckage on the evening after the surging water passed through, "it looked like Ground Zero," he says.
The first house was built on the family property in the 1830s. "There's no sign of it anywhere," he says.
He crawled and waded his way toward the vault. The going became more problematic, he wrote in an e-mail to others, "because all of the timbers from the other houses had collected in a massive fiddlestick mountain."
When he finally reached the vault, which had been battering-rammed by waterborne wood, he couldn't believe the ruin. He cried. "We had built the vault three feet above the level of Hurricane Camille," Anderson says, referring to the 1969 hurricane. "Everyone thought that was the storm of the century."
He estimated the water line at 28 feet.
Other art, stored farther inland in a climate-controlled building, was also flooded. "It was a major operation just to get the crates out," he wrote.
Now, he says, it's a scramble against time.
Back in the gift shop, he pauses to look at a whimsical drawing of two bulls: "It triggers something in me."
Pulling out soaked illustrations of Don Quixote, he says his father, who produced a great universe of art -- painting on everything from cabin walls to COD labels and brown paper sacks -- used to draw while reading. He would toss the drawings on the floor and his wife, Agnes Grinstead Anderson, would come around and scoop them up by the handful.
Born in New Orleans during the 1903 hurricane season, Walter Anderson showed an early lust for art and nature and the entanglement of the two. He married Agnes in 1933. In her memoir, she wrote that Anderson was hesitant about having children. Those children now are trying to ensure his artistic immortality.
John Anderson says his mother realized that the family had a rare opportunity to keep most of Anderson's oeuvre in one place, though "it's not a practical or economical thing."
Scooping up another handful of drawings, he says, "We can't lose this. We're going to need the inspiration this art provides now more than ever."
The future of Walter Anderson's art, John Anderson says, is in peril. He is trying to establish a nonprofit foundation to raise money for conservation of the art damaged by Katrina. He holds up a strange-looking "ghost" print, made when a watercolor pressed against another sheet of paper. He is even thinking of selling the ghosts.
Occasionally, the shell-shocked son says hopeful things: "What's happening here is a resurrection." Watercolors that were under water, "are being brought back to life so they can inspire future generations."
He estimates that 50 percent of his father's lifework can be saved with conservation.
He has stumbled on curiosities. "When I was drying this art," he says, "I discovered an incredibly beautiful crab, and I turned it over and on the back I discovered an equally absolutely incredible painting of a pelican."
That's the kind of haphazard virtuoso Walter Anderson was: two masterpieces on one sheet of paper. The process, the need to paint, John Anderson says, was much more important than the painting itself.
His son believes that this is not the first time many of the paintings and drawings have been covered in salt water. Nor would Walter Anderson have been terribly upset by the destruction. "He was such a dynamic person," John Anderson says. "To him, stasis was the enemy."
Walter Anderson famously stayed for weeks at a time -- away from friends and family -- on nearby Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico, using a boat to go back and forth. He battled mental illness and was hospitalized several times between 1937 and 1940 for profound depression and "fugue states." He had violent episodes, even hurting members of his family. He was sui generis.
And to artistic southerners, he was a giant like William Faulkner or Richard Wright. "I couldn't emulate him," says Mississippi-born artist William Dunlap, who now lives in Northern Virginia.
Great art alters the way we see the world. "I never look at a crab the same way,'" Dunlap says, after seeing Anderson's rich, original renderings of the creatures. "The gulf air smells different."
To Dunlap, "this guy's a national treasure by any measure."
And the work "was fragile to start with."
Dunlap remembers his first Anderson exhibit, in the mid-'60s. He'd never seen anything like it.
Anderson, Dunlap says, was very much a product of the Gulf Coast. But he took regional art to a higher plane. "He was as at one with nature as anybody. He lived his art."
His family lives with art, too. An artist's colony was created by Walter Anderson's mother, her three sons, and their wives. Shearwater Pottery and Realizations, two businesses based on the family's creativity, have supported the family members that work in them for many years. Today the Andersons are a family of painters, potters, sculptors, dancers and musicians.
Hurricane Katrina, John Anderson says, destroyed most of the family's resources and sources of income. Artists and conservators have offered to help in ways large and small. One friend has set up a bank account; another is holding a yard sale.
The day after the storm, Anderson says, he evaluated the family's precarious situation: "I decided all we had left was our friends."