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A painting by Walter Anderson of a person rowing a boat.

The watercolor Rowing at Night is one of more than 50 pieces by artist Walter Anderson currently on display at the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Art of the wild

The works of Walter Anderson bring the natural world to life

By Deane Morrison

January 3, 2006

An owl scowls and seems to struggle against an unseen opponent. Two blue crabs shimmer as they square off in what looks like a mating dance. A "contented coon" lolls on its haunches. An oyster fish looks ready to wriggle away in a burst of speed. Even the plant life explodes in glorious color. "Still life" is not a phrase that comes to mind when contemplating Walter Anderson's art, more than 50 pieces of which are now on display at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. The Mississippi-based artist, who died in 1965, produced images of the living world with a vibrancy that belies his economy of strokes. The Bell exhibit, "Visions of Nature: The World of Walter Anderson," features more than 50 of his paintings, sketches, sculptures, and pottery pieces, along with taxidermic specimens of a loon, a rabbit, an owl, and a pelican for comparison. In addition, there are well-placed quotations from Anderson's voluminous observations on life, photos of landscapes he cherished, and one live crab. Until recently, Anderson was a virtual unknown. But an exhibit at the Smithsonian rekindled interest in the artist, who found in nature a peace that his troubled mind could rarely achieve in the workaday world. Variously diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, and dementia, Anderson was anchored-more or less-by Shearwater, his home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and a loving family. In addition to his solo output, he helped his older brother, Peter, produce stunning works at Shearwater Pottery, which Peter founded. A third brother, Mac, also worked in the shop, and together the three achieved international acclaim for their art pottery, some of which is part of the Bell exhibit.

"He became a spokesman for the natural world, compelling the viewer to stop, to see it, and become one with it," says Penson.

The exhibit pieces come from the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, a location that sat, unfortunately, in the path of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane left the museum itself intact but soaked many paintings stored in a nearby vault and smashed pottery to smithereens. Some of the sketches at the Bell show water marks, mementos of Katrina's wrath. It's hard to guess what Walter Anderson might have thought of Katrina. The damage aside, he sought escape from the notion that humans were apart from nature and above it. Anderson knew the falsity of that sentiment and preferred nature even to art. "On the shore, he felt alienated from a world that seemed arrogant and insensitive to nature, the 'dominant mode of the shore' where man became like a draft animal, working day in and day out," reads one quote in the exhibit. From 1948 until his death, Anderson focused his attention on Horn Island, a 12-mile stretch of sand, freshwater lagoons, and pine stands about 12 miles off the Mississippi coast. He would row or sail to the island and set up shop for weeks at a time, sleeping under his overturned boat. There he captured the wildlife and foliage in exquisite detail. Besides art, Anderson was fascinated with epic tales of all kinds. Not surprisingly, he took a keen interest in the exploits of Charles Darwin. As he read of Darwin's famous round-the-world voyage on the Beagle, Anderson sketched Darwin in almost minimalist fashion, picturing him on horseback with South American gauchos and with toucans, among other poses. "Through his artistic legacy, Walter Anderson has become recognized as one of the great cultural treasures of Mississippi along with William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and many others," writes Patricia Penson, curator at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. "He became a spokesman for the natural world, compelling the viewer to stop, to see it, and become one with it." The exhibit continues through February 5. Bell Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit Bell. The museum, located at Church Street and University Avenue in Minneapolis, is a unit of the College of Natural Resources, which will become part of a future college combining programs in food systems, environmental sciences, and renewable resources.