The Art of Walter Inglis Anderson

Centennial Exhibit at Smithsonian Honors Gulf Coast Genius

Walter Inglis Anderson: A Self-Portrait

Walter Inglis Anderson: a self-portrait. Courtesy Walter Anderson Museum, Ocean Springs, Miss. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Walter Anderson Museum, Ocean Springs, Miss.
Walter Anderson's daughters, Mary and Leif.

Walter Anderson's daughters, Mary and Leif, visit the Smithsonian exhibit. Anna Christopher, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Anna Christopher, NPR News
A sculpture of an animal at the entrance to the Smithsonian's Walter Anderson exhibit.

The rich variety of plant and animal life fascinated the artist. Anna Christopher, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Anna Christopher, NPR News

When Walter Anderson traveled the world, the occupation listed on his passport read "decorator." It's a title that embraces the many facets of a colorful American artist who is being honored on the centennial of his birth by a major exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts & Industries building in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Liane Hansen took a preview tour of "Everything I See Is New and Strange," as the 160-piece exhibition is called. She also drew on perspective from Anderson's family, from experts on his work, and from the author of a soon-to-be-released biography.

Anderson, who died in 1965, was born in New Orleans on Sept. 29, 1903. His mother was an artist and groomed her four sons to follow in her footsteps.

An older brother, Peter, became a master potter and Anderson helped with decorations and designs for Shearwater Pottery, a family business that is still in operation.

The younger Walter Anderson would often steal away on his bicycle into the wilderness, gripped by depression, a condition he fought for most of his life. Eventually the urge to roam took him to places much farther afield: Texas, Florida, China, South America. He was trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at New York's Parsons Institute of Design, and he also studied art in France.

In 1940, after a period in the hospital following a nervous breakdown, Anderson moved with his wife and family to Gautier, Miss. In later years, he spent much of his time exploring the barrier islands off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the last 15 years of his life, he spent much of his time alone in his cottage, or out on his fabled trips to Horn Island. Wife Sissy — Agnes Grinstead Anderson — stayed at home and took a teaching job to support the family.

"His family, near when he needed them, understood and respected his privacy," wrote Mary Anderson Pickard, his eldest daughter. And much of what Anderson saw in his solitude, he converted to art: vivid watercolors, children's books, poems, and epic murals.

That art is on display through Jan. 11 in Washington. The exhibit moves to Memphis afterward, and will return to Ocean Springs — and the Walter Anderson Museum there — in April.

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