A Painter's Hurricanes

The swimmer, an oak sculpture by Walter Anderson at Shearwater. i i

Walter Inglis Anderson carved "The Swimmer" out of oak blown down by a 1947 hurricane. It once graced the porch of his cottage, which was heavily damaged by Katrina. Now "The Swimmer" is at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Miss. hide caption

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The swimmer, an oak sculpture by Walter Anderson at Shearwater.

Walter Inglis Anderson carved "The Swimmer" out of oak blown down by a 1947 hurricane. It once graced the porch of his cottage, which was heavily damaged by Katrina. Now "The Swimmer" is at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Christopher Maurer, professor at Boston University, is the author of Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson and Dreaming in Clay on the Coast of Mississippi: Love and Art at Shearwater. He wrote this essay after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast:

Watching the news — the images of anger, shock and desolation — I remember Walter Anderson, whose manuscripts and paintings were ravaged by Katrina, and his peculiar feeling for hurricanes. In 1965, months before his death, he rode through Hurricane Betsy on his beloved Horn Island, tethering his little skiff to his waist, climbing at night to the highest dune, wanting to feel the storm first hand. The water rose to his chest.

"Never has there been a more respectable hurricane," he wrote, "provided with all the portents, predictions, omens, etc. The awful sunrise — no one could fail to take a warning from it — the hovering black spirit bird, the man of war, just one, comme il faut." When it was over, he recorded the strange, dreadful transformation of his island.

"My camp was gone," he wrote, "The place where I had nested snugly for years was gone, simply sliced off by the waves." Gone, too, were animals he had lived with for years, those he called his "familiars."

A Coast Guard cutter, sent by his family, had drawn as close as possible to the beach, thinking he would want to be rescued. He did not. In fact, a few years earlier, a little before Carla — Category Five — hit the Gulf Coast, his brother had an Air Force plane drop a note onto Horn Island warning him — probably in vain — to come home. And when the hurricane of 1947 blew down trees in Ocean Springs he chose a fallen oak and carved one of his most beautiful works: a huge, dark sculpture called "The Swimmer." He entered each storm with nothing — a gatherer not of things but of moments when matter begs to become spirit. From the spoils of hurricanes, he made art.

From Betsy — "the Great Leveler" — came memorable prose. From trees that fell in another storm he carved "Father Mississippi," a sculpture group he left outside in the yard beside his cottage. Over the years it was eaten away by sun and rain in a cycle of creation and gentle destruction which he embraced.

He had his theories about hurricanes — he felt sure they were a "global," not a "local," phenomenon — and he hoped to discuss those theories, when he rowed home from Horn Island, with a TV weatherman from New Orleans. But his real legacy — one more enduring than his brave oak "Swimmer" — lies in his love of limits, his belief that — as with the shoreline of a barrier island or the grass of a wetland — we can be strongest when we yield. Watching the news, I think of his view of nature not as an unpredictable, alien force — something outside us that we "manage" or "control" — but as a missing part of ourselves that we listen to, speak for, and "realize" through art, to reach a transcendent unity.

"Nature does not like to be anticipated," he wrote, "but 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 these dark days after the storm, when so much has been lost, those words are worth holding on to.

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