- Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson
Agnes Grinstead Anderson, wife of the artist Walter Anderson, was born in Gautier, Mississippi, formerly know as West Pascagoula, in 1909. She spent much of her childhood in the house where she was born, known as Oldfields Plantation. Her father was an attorney. Her sister Paticia married Peter Anderson, and Agnes herself married Walter Anderson in 1933. The sisters moved to Ocean Springs, the home of the Anderson brothers, after their marriages, but Agnes and Walter returned to Oldfields from 1941 to 1946. Those years proved difficult for the Andersons. In her memoir and in a book by Christopher Maurer called Dreaming in Clay on the Coast of Mississippi, those years are described. Agnes published her memoir Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson in 1989. She also wrote a memoir of her childhood at Oldfields which has not yet been published. In addition, she was a poet, nature writer, and journal keeper. Walter Anderson died in 1965, and Agnes died in 1991. The letters she wrote to Walter Anderson before their marriage are currently being edited for publication.
Walter Anderson’s Mural
Walter Anderson’s most famous and most controversial work is, without a doubt, his little room in the cabin. Many people have many different opinions as to what it represents and why it was painted. There is even more speculation over what the woman figure on the chimney is, or whether or not he finished it. Walter Anderson’s family believes that the woman is the Mississippi river, and the mural a tribute to God. Others think that the entire mural is a depiction of Psalms 104, and the female figure is an angel. Still others think he painted the mural for nature, and all the wonders it had provided him. He could also have painted the mural to create a world that he could live in, a place where he could be accepted and allowed to simply be. Although we’ll never know why he painted it, his mural will always be his greatest work.
Walter Anderson: A Biography, using Approaching the Magic Hour and other sources
by Jeff Durst (SHS)
Walter Anderson was a brilliant man. He was also a little crazy, which seems to be a trend among great artists. He was a man that lived in agony caused by his genius and a burning desire to create the world around him. Walter Anderson changed the face of water color in the twentieth century, but he was an enigma, neither appreciated nor understood in his time. He led a rather rocky and interesting life.
Walter Inglis Anderson was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans (The Life of Walter Anderson). From the beginning, he showed an interest in art and nature. His earliest interests were in birds. His mother, Annette McConnell Anderson, encouraged Walter by giving him sketch books. She was also an artist, and she felt that she had wasted her skills. To compensate, she stressed good habits such as writing and drawing every day to her children. Annette once gave Walter a book with “200 words a day” written on the cover. He scratched out “words” and wrote “birds” in its place. He had two brothers, Peter and Mac, whom he often hunted with along with their father (Birds x).
When he was twelve, Walter Anderson was sent to Manlius Military School in New York State, where he was miserable. There he would send home brief letters showing an increasing propensity for art and an increasing closeness to nature. One such letter read: “I go for a walk in the woods nearly every day and I have special places where I can go and read and draw.” Years later he told his mother that Manlius had almost destroyed him (Birds xi). In 1922, with his mother’s blessing and his father’s scorn, Walter went to Parson’s School of Design in New York. Rural life had not prepared him for the big city, and there were many distractions (A Symphony of Animals ix). In 1923 he transferred to Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he excelled and made money by selling wood carvings. While enrolled at Pennsylvania, he spent a great deal of time at the zoo, drawing the animals there. These pictures won him the Packard Prize for Animal Drawing in 1925 (A Symphony of Animals vii). He also won the Cresson Prize for traveling and used the money to travel to Paris in 1927 to study the cave paintings and Gothic cathedrals (A Symphony of Animals x-xi).
It was in 1927 that Walter Anderson met his future wife, Agnes Grinstead, and he began his strange courtship of her (Approaching the Magic Hour 1). Walter was working summers at Shearwater Pottery, which had been started by his brother Peter in 1928 (A Symphony of Animals xi). Agnes had decided to spend her summer at her parents’ summer home, Oldfields, which was near Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She spent some time with Walter that summer, and the very next year he asked her to marry him (Approaching the Magic Hour 3). Her father disapproved of Walter, but they were soon married in April, 1933 (Approaching 9).
Walter Anderson did not have much of a family life. Agnes once said, “He[Walter] was a painter always, a lover at times, a husband and father never (A Painter’s Psalm 9).” Walter never wanted to have children and would only accept their third child, Lief, as being his. During the first years of their marriage, he made Agnes use birth control because he didn’t want to bring a child into a world “so filled with pain and terror.” So he and Agnes lived together without children of their own in the cabin which had been given to them as a wedding present (Approaching the Magic Hour 13-14).
After his father’s death in February 1936, Walter Anderson had a mental breakdown and spent most of the years 1937-1940 in mental hospitals (Birds xii). After trying to kill himself by jumping in front of a greyhound bus, Walter was sent to Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, where he would spend the next year (Approaching the Magic Hour 58). While a patient at Phipps, he relegated himself into a total state of apathy. He wouldn’t even speak. When a new doctor, Dr. Mead, took over his case, Walter began to speak. Dr. Mead thought that Walter felt he had become impotent. When Agnes told him that she was pregnant with their first child, Walter tried to kill her (Approaching 60). Their daughter Mary was born on December 8, 1937 while Walter was still a patient at Phipps (Approaching 63).
Walter was released in July of 1938 and sent back to his cabin. He was frightened by his books and art, and when Agnes presented him with a clip board, paper, and pencils, he tore the paper to shreds and hit her over the head with the clip board (Approaching 67). Soon after he was sent to Shepard Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland. He was there for six weeks before pushing a bookcase over on his attendant and walking home (Approaching 68).
Their second child, Billy, was born in October of 1939. Walter Anderson would accept neither child as his and made another attempt on Agnes’s and the children’s lives (Approaching 71-72). He was soon in Whitfield, where he began to draw again, mainly birds. After a short stay, he jumped out of his window, leaving behind soap pictures of birds on his wall. He then lived in Jackson, Mississippi, as an outpatient before returning to his family in 1940 (Birds xii).
Upon Walter’s return, the Andersons moved into Oldfields to watch over Agnes’ sick father. Although he remained kind to his children, Walter became less and less tolerant of family relations and responsibilities(A Painter’s Psalm 8). In May the Anderson’s third child was born, Lief, a girl. Lief was the only child Walter would ever admit to fathering (Approaching 114). Although the years spent at Oldfields were happy for Walter and his family, he became increasingly disturbed (A Painter’s Psalm 8). One Sunday at church he told Agnes: “Normalcy. All that you give yourself for is to see that I remain normal, to see that I live in the world and not in a hospital. I am grateful for these beautiful years, but you have to understand something, too. I am normal…I must paint. I am going to try to order my life so that this becomes possible” (Approaching 116).
One night in December, 1946, Mary was suffering from a nagging cough, and Agnes was pregnant with a fourth child. The girl’s cold kept Walter up, and finally he stormed into the room and declared, “I came to tell you I’m leaving. I’m not coming back, ever! I can’t take it. I’m an artist; I have to be” (A Painter’s Psalm 9).
The Anderson family saw very little of Walter from that night until his death in November, 1965. He had to “escape the dominant mode on shore,” as he put it ( Psalm 8). He lived in the cabin and began spending more and more time on the offshore islands, particularly Horn Island. When onshore, Walter smoked and drank to excess, which he did neither of on his islands ( Psalm 9). After his death, Agnes and her sister Pat opened his cabin for the first time and discovered a veritable treasure: literally thousands of Walter Anderson’s works. Even more amazing was the mural they discovered in his little room. Upon entering the room, Pat exclaimed, “It’s the creation at sunrise!” The name stuck (Psalm 12).
Walter Anderson was a man that lived in a world that could neither understand nor appreciate him. His was a unique genius: an absolute understanding of nature and the need to bond with it through painting. Today, he is considered one of the greatest American artists, and his works and books are displayed with pride across the nation.
A Review of Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson
by Jeff Durst (SHS)
Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson by Agnes Grinstead Anderson is not so much a biography of Walter Anderson as it is a look at what life with him was like. It is an interesting book which provides insight into the atypical life and times of Walter Anderson. From their days of courtship to the time he spent institutionalized, Approaching the Magic Hour allows us to look into the mind of one of the most complicated men in the twentieth century.
Approaching the Magic Hour begins in the summer of 1929 when Agnes first met Walter Anderson. Agnes knew that Bob, which is what everyone called Walter, was unique. A year later Walter’s brother Peter and Agnes’s sister Pat were married. Walter and Agnes followed suit in 1933. The book then follows their wonderful and often rocky relationship until his death in 1965. The reader is allowed to see what life with Walter Anderson was like, what kind of father he was, and how he dealt with the world around him. It helps explain why he had to paint and why he felt it necessary to leave his family.
Approaching the Magic Hour is an excellent book, and I enjoyed it a great deal. It can only begin to explain Walter Anderson, but it certainly does a good job trying.
- MSWM’s page about her husband Walter Anderson.
- MSWM’s page about daughter Leif Anderson.
- Walter Anderson Museum of Art: Biography
- Walter Anderson Museum of Art.
- Another page for WAMA, the Anderson Museum
- Home page for the Andersons’ Shop and Shearwater pottery
- Amazon customers’ reviews of Approaching the Magic Hour.
- Anderson, Agnes Grinstead. Approaching the Magic Hour. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1989
- Anderson, Walter. Birds. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 199
- Anderson, Walter. A Symphony of Animals. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1996
- Sugg, Redding S. A Painter’s Psalm. Singapore: Palace Press, 1992
- “The Life of Walter Anderson”. http://www.motif.org/