From the scattered remains of a pottery workshop that looks like every other debris pile in coastal Mississippi, a cheerful but muted voice pipes up: “We found something.”
It is a shard of pottery, once part of a pot or a bowl, damaged and dirtied by Hurricane Katrina. It is added to a tiny pile of salvageable material, all in pastel shades, remnants of work painted by 20th-century artist Walter Anderson.
“Maybe we’ll make a mosaic out of the pieces,” says John Anderson, the late artist’s 58-year-old son.
Anderson shrugs and looks around at what’s left of his family’s 28-acre compound, a hodgepodge of homes and workshops for several generations set back off a dirt road. There isn’t much.
The houses can be rebuilt. Of pressing concern is the thousands of pieces of artwork that had been secured in a makeshift vault of wood, concrete and steel. Katrina was undeterred: A massive storm surge flooded the vault and the hurricane’s winds hurled artwork into trees.
Anderson estimates that as much as 90 percent of his father’s work has been damaged — a portrait of his mother smeared with grime, a mural caked with leaves and dirt, smudged watercolors, tiny sketchbooks left unrecognizable.
“A lot of this can be dealt with, with proper conservation,” he says. “Some things can be done. Some things cannot be done.”
An artist familiar with hurricanesBorn in New Orleans in 1903 and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Walter Anderson created pottery, murals and other paintings, was a writer and naturalist. He built furniture, made rugs and turned walls and doors into surfaces for his art. He joined the family business of Shearwater Pottery in the late 1920s. By the 1930s, pieces by him and his two brothers had been displayed in major department stores and in museums throughout the country.
He later suffered from mental illness and would seclude himself for weeks on Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico, where he painted wildlife and scenery of coastal Mississippi. Anderson worked and lived out of doors, weathering hurricanes and other storms.
After a hurricane in 1947, he carved a statue, “The Swimmer,” out of a fallen oak. He rode out Hurricane Betsy, shortly before his death in 1965, on the island.
Patricia Pinson, curator of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, said that while Anderson’s work has always existed at the crossroads of folk and mainstream art, many critics consider him as talented a painter as peers such as Thomas Hart Benton and Arthur Dove.
“You don’t have any trouble finding their work at all,” Pinson said. “(Anderson) was not trying to move his work. The whole intent was different. It was for discovery, for his own means rather than trying to make a living.”
Anderson’s work was featured in 2003 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but his family never allowed it on the gallery or auction circuits. Instead, the largest public repository is at the Walter Anderson Museum, not far from the family compound in Ocean Springs. Anderson did sell a few items, Pinson said. Prints made from his linoleum blocks sold for $1 a foot in the 1940s and 1950s and hand-painted pottery was also sold.
“The decision to keep everything in a small town in Mississippi was not a practical decision,” John Anderson says. “Daddy’s fame would have grown much more quickly in New York. Our wealth would have grown much more quickly in New York or Paris. It wasn’t practical. It was philosophical.”
Here, Anderson says, people can appreciate his father’s art surrounded by his inspiration and passion.
Remnants of a once-great collectionIt was also a costly decision. The Anderson family lives a modest life at Shearwater. But much of the rammed-earth and tin-roof buildings — and all the art — was uninsured, Anderson says, leaving the family wondering how the artwork will be restored.
Pieces that had been donated to the museum were spared. Today, the museum is a triage unit for the family’s soiled art. Employees and volunteers are trying to piece together a lifetime of art, the catalogs of which had been kept by hand and were lost in the hurricane.
Pinson estimates it will take years to restore the family’s collection, if it is even possible. Because it is a private collection, public money cannot be used to save it.
Anderson says the family is considering selling some of his father’s art to pay for restoration of the damaged works. But he’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
A few experts have volunteered to help save the art. But for now, Anderson is planning a new exhibit of his father’s work. This one will feature watercolor paintings of shore birds.
They are simple and graceful and they now bear the unmistakable marks of Katrina. A duck is stained with crimson, which soaked through from another painting.
One painting looks untouched except for the fact that the water left a faint copy on an adjoining piece of paper. Anderson calls these paintings — the original and the storm-induced copy — “The Shadow of the Storm.”
“In a sense, Daddy’s art has achieved new dignity by survival,” he says.