DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Tucked away in quiet Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is an enclave on a bluff overlooking Biloxi Bay. It's called Shearwater, and is home to a family of artists who've been living and creating there since the 1920s. It's been described as one of the best example of a true arts-and-crafts lifestyle. The most famous member of the family is the late Walter Inglis Anderson. His vibrant watercolors of Gulf Coast landscapes have been showcased at the Smithsonian.
Hurricane Katrina cut right through Shearwater, sweeping away with her tide 15 buildings on the property; nine of them family homes, also the pottery workshop Anderson's brother started in 1928 and much of the family's private art collection. Christopher Maurer is Walter Anderson's biographer. After the storm, he wrote this essay reflecting on Anderson's peculiar relationship to hurricanes.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MAURER (Biographer): (Reading) `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 firsthand; the water rose to his chest. "Never has there been a more respectable hurricane," he wrote," provided with all the portends, predictions, omens, etc. The awful sunrise; no one could fail to take a warning from it. The hovering black spirit bird, the man o' war, just one camiel faux(ph)."
`When it was over, he recorded this 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." And when the hurricane of '47 blew down trees in Ocean Spring, he chose a fallen oak and carved one of his most beautiful works, a huge dark statue 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 decay which he embraced.'
Ms. MARY ANDERSON PICKARD (Daughter of Walter Anderson): If you can make a little bit of order in one tiny place, it makes you feel better. But look here. See, on this side, unbroken pot. Look. Those came out from under that.
ELLIOTT: Mary Anderson Pickard is one of Walter Anderson's four children. She lost her home at Shearwater.
Some of Walter Anderson's work is housed at a museum in Ocean Springs that survived the storm. But the family's treasured collection of writings, paintings and linoleum blocks was kept at Shearwater in a special vault.
Ms. PICKARD: When my brother got there, he found the outer door ripped off. It had been double-locked with a dead bolt, and the door is so heavy that it takes, like, four men to pick it up. But it had been ripped off. And then the inner door, which was made of thick metal, had been hammered at incessantly by a piece of a building or a tree or something, you know, so that it was dented in. And Johnny had to use a crowbar, and they were able to crowbar the door open and the water had been six feet up in the vault.
ELLIOTT: What was in the vault?
Ms. PICKARD: All of my father's work; the watercolors, the drawings, the paintings were all stored in the vault. They began opening the boxes and they would open the boxes, take out the folders, peel the rag paper off of the watercolor and it would still be there. There'd be a ghost of it on the rag paper, but the watercolor itself would be glowing wet as though it had almost just been painted. So it was a very extraordinary thing. An amazing amount of it was saved.
ELLIOTT: What do you think you lost?
Ms. PICKARD: Well, there are watercolors that will never be the same, a good many of them. He's best known for his watercolors, little watercolors that he did on typing paper; very beautiful, they looked like jewels.
ELLIOTT: But these pieces that you-all had, I imagine these were special because you were keeping them in the family.
Ms. PICKARD: Still--unfortunately, it was the majority of the collection. My father was a very prolific artist, and all of the illustrative drawings--Have you heard of those? But he would read "Don Quixote" at night and turn the pages with this hand and draw with this hand, so that for "Don Quixote," there's 2,500 drawings in ink and they're delightful and beautiful. Those were housed here. Well, beside "Don Quixote," he did "Paradise Lost" and Dante. He did "The Voyage of the Beagle" and "Alice in Wonderland" and "Hamlet" and the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He did all of those.
So there's so many drawings you can't believe. And then there are drawings of just Gulf Coast subjects; many, many, many drawings. Then watercolors of animals, of birds. All of those, most of them were here.
A young man has been here. He's a volunteer; his name is Cameron Sweet. He's an artist from Biloxi who lost his home. And he went to take a neighbor who had a place to stay somewhere in his truck, and when he came back, the people who came to search and clear up had swept his house away with all of his linoleum blocks and all of his art and everything. You know, they push it with a bulldozer--that's what we're afraid of here. That's why we've been working so hard to try to pull things out. Cameron Sweet works right there, digging out in the showroom. And he volunteers, and he has nothing that I know of.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
ELLIOTT: There are a lot of people who find themselves with nothing after this storm.
Ms. PICKARD: Yes.
ELLIOTT: Now what was here?
Ms. PICKARD: A lot of this is my house. No, my house was not here; it was there.
ELLIOTT: There's a hot water heater standing over near the edge of the property.
Ms. PICKARD: Last night, my son came home and he was just elated. He'd gone across the harbor, way at the back of the harbor, beyond the back of the harbor, and he found stools, he found chairs.
ELLIOTT: On the other side of the harbor?
Ms. PICKARD: Way over, yes.
ELLIOTT: The tide had carried it somewhere else.
Ms. PICKARD: I haven't given up finding anything yet, but there's a part of me that wants to say, `Let it go. Let it go. You just don't have anything now.' Just all that stuff in a house, a house full of things, and they're gone. Why are we just hunting them and hunting them? I don't know.
ELLIOTT: What do you think your father would think about that?
Ms. PICKARD: I think he would think--he believed in the ephemeral nature of things, that things last so long. I think he would be absolutely--I won't say `delighted,' but awed and in wonder at the majesty of it, the incredible power.
ELLIOTT: What was your father's philosophy about hurricanes? He had a special relationship to them, did he not?
Ms. PICKARD: He enjoyed them, really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PICKARD: He was--Do you remember as a child you thought they were wonderfully exciting? And I did, too. I did. Camille ruined that for me because my children were all tiny babies when Camille came. But I think my father maintained that childlike sense of--which, if I'm in the right mood and I'm finished crying for the day and I just look around and see what happened here, it's just an extraordinary thing. And God knows it restores your sense of balance, you know, of who you are, of where you fit in things. And you know, Debbie, sometimes I think that a lot of this--we've been so locked into the past and under such a burden of the past that sometimes--I mean, for me personally, I feel that it may be a time to cast that off, maybe.
But see, there's not much left of my house except the walls that it stood on.
ELLIOTT: The concrete foundation walls, basically, but above it, nothing.
Ms. PICKARD: It really was a beautiful house. It was two floors and then a tower that went up another with a circular stairway going up.
ELLIOTT: And what's this inscription in your foundation?
Ms. PICKARD: Ed and I put that there when we built the walls. We built these walls ourselves. We built the forms and we poured the concrete. `Be sustained by the love which set you close to the waves, open to the sun, the wind, the islands and the great Gulf beyond.'
How we handle ourselves next--because it certainly has been back to basics, back to nothing, really. What is that Janis Joplin song? What is it? `Freedom's just another word for nothing to left to lose.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PICKARD: So we should be pretty free at this point, but we got to clean up first.
ELLIOTT: Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
Ms. PICKARD: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Mary Anderson Pickard, daughter of Walter Anderson, at Shearwater in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
To learn more about the family and their art, go to our Web site, npr.org.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.