A few weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, my wife and I visited the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs for the first time.
During his lifetime locals referred to Anderson as “crazy”. One gentlemen, James, a retired cranky plumber, near 90, said he knew Anderson as “crazy”. And that after repairing his frozen pipes one brutal winter Anderson offered him several of his paintings in gratitude to which James politely refused saying to himself “What the hell was I gonna do with them pichers.”
Walter Anderson’s art of course is original, unique, and internationally recognized. The museum does a good job of its exhibition, including a nice video of his life, philosophy and worldview, which piqued my interest further in who Anderson was. So I read his official, well-documented biography by Christopher Mauer, Fortune’s Favorite Child, The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson.
As a physician I found Anderson’s medical issues fascinating, mainly his overall health and physical fitness but chiefly his difficult mental illness, difficult for him, his wife, his family, and his doctors. In his late 30s he was hospitalized at three different psychiatric hospitals.
The precipitating event that caused his first admission was when while in a rage during an argument with his wife who was holding their baby, he slung a butcher knife, Jim Bowie style, at his wife, missing, grazing her neck, with the knife twanging in the wooden wall behind her, so deep that she was unable to pull it out herself. He was remorseful for the deed and agreed to psychiatric evaluation.
At Phipps Psychiatric Hospital at Johns Hopkins he was there one year, and was finally given a reluctant and tentative diagnosis of “schizophrenia” by then nationally known psychiatrist Adolph Meyer. But a definitive diagnosis was always elusive. At Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, shortly after admission, he escaped and walked, hiked, or maybe hopped a freight train back home, arriving back in Ocean Springs two months later surprising his wife Sissy who walked in on him lying in bed, exhausted.
Later he was admitted to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield from where he deftly escaped and on the way out drew an elaborate mural on the outside wall using Ivory soap. The hospital staff the next morning reportedly stood outside in awe at the art. Two weeks later he showed up in Ocean Springs having walked the 180 miles home.
Summarily, his psychiatrists advised his wife and family to allow him his space, to not pressure him in to the conventional obligations required of a family or business man as he seemed to function much better in solitude. It was a pragmatic treatment. And so it came to be that he and his wife remained separated, not legally, but living apart by necessity, even therapeutically, for the most part with him at times coming to her for brief encounters. She took summer classes, became a teacher and supported herself and their four children (a real hero). She, in her memoirs, and his daughter Leif, in her online blogs, both obviously still with much love, admit that he was a deficient husband and essentially a non-existent father, these deficiencies beginning in earnest in his very early 40s and continuing for the remainder of his life.
It was at that time that Anderson had been reading the work of Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard and that of Jay Hambidge, from whom he learned respectively the seven motifs of primitive art and the concept of dynamic symmetry in art, which helped him to crystalize his particular understanding of art, and the expression of it with respect to “realizing” the fusion of man’s experience with nature itself and art. He saw art not as a product but as part of a process by which it should be experienced and lived. This view approaches the “ecstasy” spoken of by various mystics in which observant reality fuses with the Transcendent and there becomes no “other”. In his writings in The Horn Island Logs Anderson, with this strange disability, described moments when he was basically entranced while painting or drawing unaware of eyes, beast, or man only three feet from him.
Anyway, it was at this juncture of his life that the eccentric Anderson became essentially a recluse, living a life of solitude, more or less. He began taking regular trips in a 10 foot wooden skiff out to Horn Island, sometimes by sail, staying for two to three weeks, where he became an “actor” with nature engaging in “dramatic” art, participating in and living amongst the “actors” on the island, crawling, walking, wading, climbing, feeding, and drawing and painting by watercolor anything and every animal that caught his eye, often rowing, pushing, pulling against headwinds and oncoming tides, even across mud flats, and doing this through his 50s and early 60s. 50s and 60s!
In testimony to his physical fitness, he rode his bike distances that can only be described as “crazy”, riding to Pennsylvania to view a particular art work at a museum, to South Florida to visit an old friend from art school, to west Texas, and to Costa Rica to see orchids, not to mention many times from Ocean Springs to New Orleans. His bike is on display at the museum. My jaw dropped when I looked up and saw that it was an old “granny-style bike”. His physical strength can only be described as freakish. During his hospitalizations, during moments of severe and violent agitation, sometimes eight big men were required to constrain him.
A couple of months after his 62nd birthday he, a smoker, told his wife that he had been coughing up blood for two years and that he needed to see a doctor. His physician, suspecting advanced lung cancer, referred him to New Orleans where he underwent surgery. He died a few days later from a blood clot.
Some people have difficulty living with or amongst others. Walter Anderson is the extreme case. I’ve read that a minority of religious, some with mental illness, seek the solace and environment of a cloister the environment of which is conducive to a normal functioning and comfortable existence. Anderson seems to fit this type, with a mental pathology that defied definitive treatment, but in solitude allowed him to be extremely productive in his voluminous output of paintings, drawings, murals, pottery design, and sculpture, not to mention his voluminous writings of which only an estimated 25% have been analyzed to date.
I have a better appreciation and understanding of his art, and his life. Visit the museum. And you may also want to read his biography. Either way you’ll learn more about art as well as a fascinating man and family.