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<v CPB Speaker>Funding for this program is provided by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and this public television station. <v Mary Anderson Stebly>Walter Anderson was a painter, a scholar, a writer, a sculptor, sometimes a father. More and more, I realize I'm amazed at how extraordinary he really was. He didn't know about all the paintings, and we never realized what was in the little room. Not until after our father died.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>Walter Anderson is starting to become famous. We knew our father is a special person, person not limited by daily contacts or routines. We hardly ever saw him, our mother made it seem a natural thing. <v Girl>Mama, daddy's leaving. <v Mary Anderson Stebly>He was an artist. We accepted that. He would row out to Horn Island, 16 miles off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, rowing sometimes for three days in a little skiff. He'd stay out there alone for weeks. <v Walter Anderson>The first poetry is always written by sailors and farmers who sing with the wind in their teeth. The second poetry is written by scholars and the students and wine drinkers, who have learned to know a good thing. The third poetry is sometimes never written. But when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art into one thing.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>Horn Island is the place where Walter Anderson was able to live his third poetry. There it seems more than anywhere else, he found what he needed. The images he would turn into art. <v Walter Anderson>The wind strengthened, and so did the seas. It was not ill tempered. It may have simply misunderstood my need. I was heading nearly into the reflection of the sun, the water was like molten metal. The island up very idyllic. Five miles straight upwind seemed a long way. Every ?wake?, defying the ?rower? And also swells coming from the West. Made uncomfortable rowing, but I was reasonably hopeful of reaching the island. <v Walter Anderson>Everything was there provided I retained my consciousness. Yet, I was driven ever there. By the unborn or the most recently born, believe all the world hell. Except the identity with the countless thousands clamoring for existence. The clouds in the direction of the island formed a sort of illuminated ladder. Which was most appropriate. Only celestial beings able to reach it. Providence made an exception in my case. The angle of the waves changes as I approach the island. I, a Roman conquerer with my triumph. A following of hundreds of captive waves. I got a short quite near my camera.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>People wondered why he went out there. He saw things on Horn Island, things no one else would take the time to see. <v Walter Anderson>It is that perfect time of day when the wet banks on each side of the buoy are purple and blue and the grass is orange and yellow, and green with blue sky about it. It was a very spectacular day. The stage is animated. The wave like wool show their teeth and break on the beach. There's an air of expectancy. More is to come. [Flute sounds] [Animal sounds]The whole island seems a concentration of life, it was swarming, hidden among the palmettos. It is left on the beach among the decaying wood pulp that apparently comes in a perpetual spiral motive from the sun itself. [Flute sounds]
<v Walter Anderson>I heard a little green heron complaining and looked up into a dead pine beyond and saw the young heron climb up using feet, wings, and the point of its bill. It seemed that with very little it would climb the cloud and take the kingdom of heaven by force. I drew it in ecstasy. Man begins by saying, of course, the love of bird, our shell, which might have restored his life, flies away. Carried by the same wind which has destroyed him, the bird flies and in that fraction of a second, man and the bird are real, he is not only king. He is man. He is not ?holy? Man. He is the only man and that is the only bird and every feather, every mark, every part of the pattern of its feathers is real and he, man exists and he is almost as wonderful as the thing he sees. I opened the can and found spinach soup. I put that to one side and opened another can and found that that was spinach soup too. I ate spinach soup and peach jam and found that eating was largely a matter of taste. [Ambient sounds]
<v Walter Anderson>To the intellectual, life is an incidental thing, generating from form. To the Islander, form itself is a miracle. The realization comes from the form. If the Islander insists and stomps his foot hard enough, the strange form develops fins and even wings start. But man becomes impatient and has developed a propeller, which is supposed to take the place of both wings and fins. I went exploring in a small bull rush lagoon. Then I got out and walked and found a raccoon. When I put my hat over it, it was a little coon just getting its teeth. I took it home and fed it minnows, no trouble persuading it to eat. It was ravenous and pounced.
<v Walter Anderson>I have Inky shut up in a cage. I can let him out when I go for a walk, he doesn't go far. His appetite is not what it was. I'm ready for the sleep of the re-installed cave man who has survived and rejoices over his survival, not without twinges of what might have been. [Music plays] <v Walter Anderson>I did a dance on the front beach moving to the sound of music in my head. The morning was beautifully clear. [Music continues for a bit then stops] You miss things without realizing what it is that you're missing. Then you blame yourself for insensitivity. The truth is that things move fast and life is interesting and there are many things to be enjoyed and digested. The world of man is far away. So is man. How pleasant without him.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>As we grew up, my two brothers and sister and I, we learned the facts of our father's life like a mythology. This we pieced together with what he'd left us to remember of him. He was born in 1903 in New Orleans. Even his wood carvings from his school years demonstrated the native talent, the uncommon gift that his mother, an artist herself recognized in her son. As a boy, he was trained in the fundamentals of drawing. In 1924, he was 21 and in art school at the Pennsylvania Academy. But it was a very conservative school and he rebelled and spent all his time at the zoo drawing animals. When the term was over, he had no work to turn in except his animal drawings. These and later drawings gained him a scholarship to study in Europe. He was not enthusiastic about the museums there. What he was enthusiastic about, what influenced him were cave paintings etched by ancient artists who were not observing nature, they were part of it. The young Walter Anderson was deeply affected. He was already then what he was to become. The next year, he returned from Europe to Ocean Springs, where his mother had formed an art colony and his brother Peter had started the Shearwater pottery. Walter Anderson was 26. Then he met Agnes Grinstead, my mother and wanted to marry her, but her father decreed that he could not have her hand until he was making a good living. And here, perhaps for the first time, was the conflict that would almost tear him in half before it was over. The simultaneous pulling in two directions between society and nature, between duty and art. To make a living, my father and his younger brother Mac went into business. They started making widgets. They were decorative and inexpensive and a success.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>So in 1933, Walter Anderson was able to marry Agnes Grinstead, his wife, for life. Though she couldn't have known then that she was seeing more of him now than she ever would. That as the years went on, she would see him less and less. Besides the widgets he made block prints, this too, was art that everyone could afford. It was part of his payment for the next several years, he was creating two kinds of art; for others and for himself. He felt that the artist owed it to society to produce a public art. In return, he reasoned, society should grant the artists time and sustenance to create his private art. <v Walter Anderson>Today, I had a delightful time while I did paint. It was an embarrassment of riches. While I was painting pelicans first ?inaudible?, and then a king rail and then a-at last a crab came tip toeing out between the mangrove tubers. When the sun is low and casting more and more a horizontal shadows, the effect is of a ceremonial dance. And man, if he is the observer and has his back to the sun, must give the effect to them of some huge presence, beneficent and terrible between them and the golden disc of the sun.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>Walter Anderson said, I am a dramatic painter, Horn Island was his own particular stage, and when he painted he was taking part in the drama, not just observing but joining in. His art was never separated from his search and part of the drama was life and death. Sometimes he'd try to intervene in the drama and save orphaned animals or injured birds. He'd set up a hospital for them and nurse them and paint them. But very often the paintings are of dead creatures because he couldn't save them. <v Walter Anderson> A requiem for little Inky. Died partly of good intentions and partly of selfishness on my part. I thought I could fatten him up, but he was too young. I'm wretched every time I think of him. He was so independent, which made him so attractive, that much less charm in the world. So much the less magic, the magic that brings the unreal together with this sort of thing most people call reality.
<v Walter Anderson>I saw a boat, a skiff with some men in it. They came close and turned out to be fishermen. We talked. They asked, "what was I doing, didn't I get lonely?" I said I was growing birds and hadn't been lonely yet. <v Mary Anderson Stebly>In 1937, at the age of 34, Walter Anderson asked to be hospitalized. His condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia. While a patient at Whitfield, the Mississippi State Hospital for the mentally ill, he drew several representations of himself. He carefully titled one, the ?alienado?, the Alien. He was released and returned to the Gulf Coast. Sometimes when I saw him on the street, I'd hope he wouldn't see me. To the people of our community in the early 1940s, he was an eccentric pedalling everywhere on his rickety bicycle, unfailingly courteous, always wearing his battered, tattered hat, unkempt and uncaring. They saw him as outlandish, bizarre, crazy. And some of it must have been the old conflict surfacing and surfacing again. One part of him was trying to stay with society on the mainland and fulfill his duties to his family. And the other part was already an island. Walter Anderson endured much in order to meet nature on its own terms. Gnats, biting flies, extremes of heat and cold. Once he strapped himself to a tree to witness a hurricane. Once he reached for a branch and was bitten by a copperhead snake. And there were mosquitoes.
<v Walter Anderson>I could feel and hear the mosquitoes thinking their way in the bite to live, to go on living. All of the mosquitoes on the island would identify themselves with one, my blood. And I would become identified with all men in order to keep it out. I would win and I did. But not until several had bored their way in. Mountains and castles of white foam piled against the shore, looking backward with the sun. They glittered the colors, acid, alkaline, like the strange colors in the driftwood fire. There was a beautiful sunset. One felt that it had been arranged with taste. So many sunsets seemed to be simply wild explosions of color in order to stun people into a state of mute wonder. But this one had variety.
<v Mary Anderson Stebly>After he got out of the hospital, he would occasionally visit Horn Island, but he was still a visitor. He did most of his painting on the mainland and we saw him more. He'd always had a feeling that he should keep a record of the special things that happened. He began making calendars, commemorating and preserving each day. In them can be seen as interest in the exotic and the primitive in Persian, Mayan, Incan, Egyptian, and Babylonian art. And for the public, he was doing more murals like the community house in Ocean Springs. <v Walter Anderson>I renewed my youth and went swimming. <v Mary Anderson Stebly>Everything to Walter Anderson was an adventure, a journey. He'd never lost that childhood feeling. He was drawn to voyages even before his Horn Island blues. He drew thousands of illustrations for the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland. He was always the voyager riding alone. He rode an old bicycle around the United States. In 1949, he went to China and wandered all over until one night, his money and papers were stolen before he could reach his ultimate goal: Tibet and the temple drawings there. So he had to return home. He now had four children. And this was when Walter Anderson began to make more and more frequent visits to his island, to Horn Island. Father would stay there for weeks at a time. We saw less and less of him. Even when he came back, he'd live alone in his little house. We rarely saw him, not even mother unless he came to us. And then he'd be gone again. His doctor had said the father could function as long as he felt free. On Horn Island, he was free. The alienado had found a home. He was painting nothing but watercolors now. Every one of them on plain, 8 and a 1/2 x 11 typewriter paper, painting three and four and five a day, like a distillation of all the things he had learned that he had seen that he had lived with for years. Toward the end, he must have been getting very close to what he was looking for. It's in his paintings, his writing. He may have lost a lot of what we call sanity along the way, but he was moving toward some sort of oneness with himself and with nature. Each face was his face. If he saw a tree, he was the tree. When he saw a bird, he was the bird.
<v Walter Anderson>That third poetry sometimes never written, but when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art into one thing. <v Mary Anderson Stebly>The last time Walter Anderson ever visited Horn Island was in 1965. He'd been coughing blood, and when he returned to the mainland, he went to my mother and asked to be taken to the doctor. It was lung cancer. In two months, he was gone. In his house, my mother found eggs and rice. Walter Andersen had been preparing for another trip. She also found thousands of his watercolors in trunks, in boxes all over the floor. We had never guessed that there was so many. One room was padlocked. Perhaps the little room was his own private world, his celebration of life. The walls were a journey through night and day, populated by the plants and creatures of the coast. To those he left behind, the room is a joyous reminder of the beauty and infinite variety of life around us. Seen clearly through the eyes of the Islander.
<v Walter Anderson>The water was alive with phosphorus, and I was accompanied by porpoises. I saw Venus rise and when I was almost home. Daylight of the sun. I feel like saying fate still has much more in store for me. [music]
The Islander
Producing Organization
Mississippi Educational Television
Contributing Organization
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
Mississippi Public Broadcasting (Jackson, Mississippi)
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Program Description
"THE ISLANDER is a biographical sketch of Walter Anderson, a Mississippi artist who frequently left his family to paint and write in solitude on Horn Island, a small island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The program uses a counterpoint between Anderson's life on the mainland (a time of stress and mental illness) and the harmony he found on the island as he experienced a growing union among his work, himself and nature. An original score augments the mood and intent of the film. The artist's work is used to frame this portrait of him. The voice-over narration was written from the point of view of one of Anderson's children, and for the film, Anderson's daughter Mary recorded it. The narration is based on extensive interviews with Anderson's wife and children. The words spoken by the actor who portrays Anderson are taken directly from the logs Anderson wrote while on Horn Island. All filming was done on location: on Horn Island, at Anderson's home in Ocean Springs and at other places on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."--1978 Peabody Awards entry form. This documentary is about the artist Walter Anderson, who is from Mississippi. He often went to Horn Island in Mississippi to blend in nature and art into his art work. It details his life, and his art work.
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Actor: Best, James
Director: Harris, Ron
Producer: Harris, Ron
Producing Organization: Mississippi Educational Television
Speaker: Anderson, Walter
Writer: Cohen, Edward
AAPB Contributor Holdings
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia
Identifier: cpb-aacip-9f54404f531 (Filename)
Format: U-matic
Duration: 00:30:00
Mississippi Public Broadcasting
Identifier: cpb-aacip-e4868c45e16 (Filename)
Format: Digital Betacam
Generation: Master
Duration: 0:28:44
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Chicago: “The Islander,” 1978-02-21, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 26, 2022,
MLA: “The Islander.” 1978-02-21. The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 26, 2022. <>.
APA: The Islander. Boston, MA: The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from