The Secret World of Walter Anderson

“There once was a man whose love of nature was as wide as the world. There once was an artist who needed to paint as much as he needed to breathe. There once was an islander who lived in a cottage at the edge of the Mississippi, where the sea meets the earth and the sky. His name was Walter Anderson. He may be the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of.”

So begins The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass, a youth biography of the Mississippi artist. Known as the “homegrown Van Gogh”, he sketched and painted the natural world of the Gulf coast from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. He also carved sculptures, made furniture, created murals, decorated pottery and wrote poetry. He was driven by an intense desire to produce his art and express the beauty and transcendence of nature. “The heart is the thing that counts, the mingling of my heart with the heart of the wild bird; to become one with the thing I see…”

He was brilliant, reclusive and eccentric, living on the edge of sanity in a small cabin and making frequent excursions by rowboat to Horn Island in the Gulf, where he camped in primitive conditions for weeks at a time, sketching the turtles, birds and waves. In his cabin, he kept one room locked and completely off-limits to his family. When he died, and they opened “The Little Room”, they found every square inch had been painted with glowing, vibrant colors, depicting a Gulf coast day from dawn to night. It was his secret and it is magical.

This book is a beautiful introduction for young people to his art and life. The first part is useful for lower elementary students for doing biography reports, but could be read to younger children as well; the second part (the author’s note) expands the information to be appropriate for middle school or even the curious adult. In trying to learn more about this artist I found several books in MeL which were wonderful.

Walter Anderson’s art is worth spending time with. See some images of his artwork here. If you happen to find yourself in New Orleans, the Walter Anderson Museum is a day-trip away.