Finding Our Place in Nature: A Conversation with John Anderson

Story and photography by Cheré Coen

A son discovers the poignant philosophy of his long-gone father in the winds of nature.

Mississippi artist Walter Inglis Anderson spent hours — sometimes days — immersed in nature, capturing its unique and vibrant beauty in his art. What he found on his many trips to Horn Island off the coast of Ocean Springs, Mississippi not only provided fodder for his art, but also established a spirituality that transformed his life.

It’s a relationship to nature that humans should discover today in order to help heal what ails the planet, says his son, John Anderson.

“He (Walter Anderson) wasn’t looking at nature,” Anderson explains. “He was looking from nature. Human beings are part of nature as opposed to being apart from nature. That thinking requires a 180-degree change in perception.”

When visitors arrive at the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, one of the eclectic artist’s quotes greets them in the foyer: “In order to realize the beauty of humanity, we must realize our relationship to nature.”

In Walter Anderson’s “Little Room,” his art studio that was moved intact to the museum from his residence, the walls are covered in artwork, including Father Mississippi looking down at those who visit.

“Father Mississippi is looking from nature and not at it,” John says. “That was his (Walter’s) prescription for realizing the beauty of nature.”

Walter Anderson and his brothers moved to the Ocean Springs area at the turn of the 20th century where his parents purchased a tract of land in the hopes of starting an artist community. Walter became a visual artist while his brothers, most notably Peter, took up pottery, creating Shearwater Pottery.
Ocean Springs is now known as an artist community, with more than 300 artists working there today.

“Walter and his three brothers were to make art every day, that was part of their education,” says Anthony DiFatta, Walter Anderson Museum director of education. “Walter Anderson and his brothers — and I give credit to his mother — made this community.”

Walter attended art school and worked in the family business, eventually marrying Agnes Grinstead and starting a family, the youngest child being John. Walter never desired fame, DiFatta says, but would leave his family behind communing with nature in pursuit of his art.

“His whole theme in art is he wanted to be out in nature,” DiFatta explained.

Anderson took off for China once, surpassing the reception to his Brooklyn art show. He canoed down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers twice. He rode his bicycle throughout the U.S. But he’s most famous for his repeated trips by boat to Horn Island, where he spent days and weeks as a hermit studying the island and creating his art.

“Adam in a hat is the best description of daddy,” John says. “He was in the garden of Eden, heaven on earth. People have been to Nirvana, but few have spent 20 years there.”

Because of Walter’s erratic lifestyle, including a stint in a mental hospital, John Anderson grew up with an absent father. John recalls family events when his father would watch his mother with love, but she would avoid meeting his gaze. When Walter died in 1965 and his mother called to tell him the news, John heard the pain in her voice.

“That telephone call, when he died, was transformative,” he says.

It was then that Agnes Grinstead Anderson told her son that Walter Anderson was a shaman “for exploring the unknown.” After their conversation, John went in search of who his father was and discovered his philosophy about nature.

“Looking through his eyes, walking in his shoes is how I found him,” he says. “My mother loved to describe him as celebrating life. This man lived every minute.”

John Anderson may be traveling the same path. The Mississippi resident has served as a naval officer, a psychologist, marine biologist, and park ranger.
He recalls his childhood fondly, growing up at Shearwater and learning life through nature.

“We kept track of the years as we saw painted buntings,” he shares with a smile. “We would set up chairs in a semicircle and watch the night-blooming cereus.”

His upbringing, although many times sans a father, resonates with another of Walter Anderson’s famous quotes: “To know that every moment you make is related to the movements of the pine trees in the wood…the orbit of the stars or the spiral movement of the sun itself.”

Like father, like son, for John Anderson truly believes that connecting with nature will set us free.

“When we become one with nature, we become more beautiful,” he says.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.