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Approaching Anderson

Christopher Maurer on the art, family, and "uneasy life" of "fortune's favorite child."

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Christopher Maurer had never heard of Walter Inglis Anderson when he and his wife, Maria Estrella Iglesias, stepped inside an antiques shop and spotted a beautiful blue vase with the inscription "Shearwater." They looked up the word, and "Ocean Springs, Mississippi" is what they found and where they headed: first, to Shearwater Pottery's showroom, founded by Walter Anderson's brother Peter; then, to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art; then, to the family of Walter Anderson. Maurer was struck by Anderson's art, but he was more than struck by the wealth of surviving documentary material about his life. Maurer's immediate thought? "Book."

Six years later, Maurer's book became Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson (University Press of Mississippi), the first comprehensive biography of the artist and the winner last October of the Eudora Welty Prize, given for an outstanding work of scholarship about the South.

But Fortune's Favorite Child isn't Maurer's first book on Anderson (in 2000, he and his wife co-authored Dreaming in Clay on the Coast of Mississippi: Love and Art at Shearwater), and it isn't his last. He's provided a chronology of the artist's life for The Art of Walter Anderson (the catalog for the new show at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens; also published by the University Press of Mississippi). Plus, he's written an afterword and the notes for Pelicans, a series of ink drawings executed by Anderson in 1948, published by Cadmus Editions and available in March.

Anticipating the exhibit "Walter Inglis Anderson: Everything I See Is New and Strange," the Flyer spoke by phone to Maurer, head of the department of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Illinois (Chicago), on the subject of Anderson's art, family, and "uneasy life."

The Memphis Flyer: Walter Anderson died in 1965. Why haven't others done what you've done in Fortune's Favorite Child: a full-scale biography?

Christopher Maurer: I think they've tried. But one thing that put people off is the wonderfully written book Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson [1989] by Anderson's widow, Sissy. It's like a poem. It's perfect. And it's very discouraging if you're writing a biography. Somehow that book is always there.

But that story is told from a particular point of view. I began to work up my biographer's indignation. For example, the quotes are all remembered, reconstructed. The biographer has a role to play, and that is to quote correctly.

You also got the cooperation of Anderson's family.

Well, it took me months. At first, my wife and I were referred to as "the book people" -- as in, "The 'book people' [groan] are here." I think it has to do with whether or not they trust you and in what way they trust you.

It would be very difficult for someone to come into your house and say, "I want to see diaries, letters, notes, basically everything." Most families wouldn't be very eager to ... they might comply but not fully. In my case, I had certain rules: I tried to imagine someone writing about my own family -- what would make me sensitive. At times, it was very difficult for the family. It's difficult to look at the hospital records. It's difficult to look at lots of Anderson's life.

Those hospitalizations are a harrowing record that will be news to most admirers of Anderson's work.

There's a little about it in Dreaming in Clay, and I can't say nothing was known. We have the account of Sissy in Approaching the Magic Hour. But no one had looked at the hospital records. In the past, Anderson's mental illness has been presented as a passing episode. But it's clear to me it was recurring. People don't suddenly cure themselves of severe mental illness.

And yet your book opens with "An Alternative Perspective" written by Anderson's son John. He grants that his father suffered a three-year period of transitory delusions and hallucinations, but he argues against "incurable schizophrenia." He concludes, "[L]ook at [Anderson's] paintings, read his own words in context ... . Do not believe that I or anyone else can tell you who he was."

We had to publish John's statement. Either that or not publish the book. For him, this is an emotional issue. For me, it was a historical problem, which I'm not entirely qualified to address. What I tried to do was lay out the facts. I believe someone could write an entire book on Anderson's mental health, its effects on the art. But I decided to draw back.

The University Press of Mississippi negotiated with John. The rest of the family was entirely supportive.

You had the great help of Anderson's daughter, Mary.

Mary reconciled herself to this strange and wonderful person, her father, who'd made her suffer. She began in the mid-'70s to study his work thoroughly, as a scholar would do. She became a real authority, and she taught me lots about his art. I feel very grateful about that. Plus, in a biography like this one, it's hard to balance the life and the work. I tried to steer an even course between the two.

The problem is to make Anderson's work known outside the South. If people would begin to think of him as an American watercolorist or muralist or writer or naturalist, he might find his way into textbooks. I'm afraid that now he isn't.

Maybe the Dixon show and your biography can help to correct that.

I hope. I would love for that to happen.

Christopher Maurer will be at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens on Sunday, February 22nd, at 2 p.m. to discuss and sign Fortune's Favorite Child. For further information on Maurer's appearance, call 761-5250 or visit the Dixon's Web site at Dixon.org.

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