Hope for Oldfields

May 1, 2011

Oldfields, from The Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Nola Nance Oliver (1941)

Thanks to hard work by Martha Duvall and others, Oldfields has been included on the 2011 list of Mississippi’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places. This will help immeasurably in rescuing it from ruin. See the press coverage and join forces at the Lewis House (Oldfields) Facebook page


One day in July, in the mid 1940s, Walter Anderson set aside his work as a decorator at Shearwater Pottery, rowed his ten-foot skiff from Gulfport to the Chandeleur Islands, and took up residence in a colony of pelicans. The crossing was not an easy one, not even for him—“my light little skiff was a cargo barge, and the moonlit water was like glue at times”—but he was heading toward his own bright paradise, far from “the sordid thing most people call reality.” In a logbook he described his slow approach, down a muddy island bayou, toward the boisterous birds he wanted to paint, draw, and understand.

“… The water got deeper and the bottom softer, so I got down and crawled with my head out of the water and my sketch book on top of my head. I crawled down a long straight stretch with a gradual curve at the end of it and both banks flanked with tiers of pelicans hissing and squawking. I felt a little like Satan returned to his mates from his adventures on earth.”

When he awoke one morning, his skiff had drifted away, had returned to nature, but he hailed a fisherman, gave him “postcards” to his family (doing fine; no need to worry!), gathered paints, pencil, pen and paper, and set out on his rounds. Over the next three weeks, he observed the pelicans in the mangrove swamps they shared with terrapins and fiddler crabs, herons and man o’war birds—a world no painter had ever studied so intimately. Alternating between “dramatic painting” and “careful drawing,” he looked at every aspect of the pelicans’ lives, from their excitement with the wind to their “orgiastic” pursuit of food (one day he was “attacked several times by a pugnacious young pelican who tried to swallow my bare foot.”) He went home to Ocean Springs with a new sense of the concentrated ‘wholeness’ of life in the Chandeleurs, notes for a “Pelican dictionary of common terms,” a sheaf of watercolors, and hundreds of sketches, done in iron-gall ink on ordinary typing paper. One of them found its way into an exhibition of master drawings at the Whitney Museum of Art, but most disappeared into the tiny cottage he inhabited in Ocean Springs. During the final fifteen years of his life, from 1950 to 1965, he returned often to the barrier islands, camping by himself, courting the “conditional” and inviting nature to “realize” itself through his drawings and watercolors. “Everything seems conditional on the islands,” he wrote. “Out there, if I eat I live, if something stronger than I doesn’t destroy me.”

Pelicans too, lived on the cusp of the conditional. A few years before Anderson’s death, in the ‘silent spring’ of the early 1960s, they had all but disappeared from the Gulf Coast, wasted by DDT. And when the pelicans returned, the drawings perished: storm waters from Katrina burst into the little building where they were kept. I have no idea how many are left.

Inhuman stupidity – greed; indifference to nature; a lack of the imagination that allowed Anderson to enter the lives of animals and plants while recognizing his own limits (he loved the lines of his island, and lived on the line that separated US from THEM)… All this has threatened his pelicans and ours, the mangroves we need to survive, the coastline and its creatures. On the news, there is grave chatter about the “economic impact,” and no talk at all about the spiritual damage we have done.

Tender Miracles

April 8, 2010

An e-mail from University Press of Mississippi a couple of days ago: the paperback edition of Dreaming in Clay: Love and Art at Shearwater is “due in the warehouse.”  Not sure when I’ll have copies, or what the book looks like. The first edition was published at Doubleday a distant decade ago, but I still feel affection for the book, the adventure of writing it, and the family whose creative life we tried to portray. María Estrella wrote a  warm, funny, lively introduction to the Andersons of Ocean Springs… Ah, the trips we made back and forth to the Coast, at first from Nashville, and later from Chicago. Longing to get away.

Yesterday after lunch I drove down Commonwealth Avenue to WBUR, our NPR station at Boston University and did an long-distance interview  with Larry Morrisey, of the Mississippi Arts Commission, the attentive host of “Mississippi Arts Hour.”  The interview will be broadcast soon, along with a segment of music by Jason Stebly who, together with his cousin Patrick Ashley, helped rebuild Shearwater Pottery after Katrina.

I was hoping to quote from Ashleys and Andersons… that was the idea of the Shearwater book, with its hundreds of quotations–  far too many, but I came to love some of those voices, which spoke from the past in journals and letters and poems. Larry Morrisey seems to take a similar approach: he likes to let his guests talk, and to keep his own intervention to a minimum. He succeeded, and I failed! I managed to read Mary Pickard’s evocation of her grandmother, Annette McConnell Anderson, who willed Shearwater into existence, but forgot to mention, let alone quote from, Andersons whose work I admire… And, despite Larry’s thoughtfulness, there wasn’t time enough to read what I wanted to: the Anderson poems in “Dreaming in Clay.”

I wanted to read this verse by Agnes Grinstead Anderson (Sissy), on the death of her “almost sister” Ellen Mead, to whom she probably felt closer than to anyone in the world.

And you will find, my darling,
that the road
from consciousness to consciousness
is not the long dark passage
we were taught to fear
but that love lights it
like a star confined
and all our joys and hopes
may follow there
and in our memories,
if we are left behind,
there is no barrier to daily converse,
there is no absence of the one we love.

…..or the exchange of poems between Sissy and Leif, who helped her mother write a different sort of poetry (see the book!)  Or this poem by Annette (once studied by Kendall). Both have dreamed, as we did, of  the “tender miracles” that occur when we can get away, “even for a day.”

My mind is just a path
trodden hard,
from the kitchen to the gate
in the yard.
but let me get away
even for a day,
and green things sprout and grow.
The hard earth softens,
even in a day.
My mind is full of little tender shoots
and roots
of lovely things crushed
waiting in the dark
to bloom.
A room
is all I need,
a city room, Y.W.C.A.
You know the sort,
a Gideon bible and a cushioned chair,
a glimpse above the roofs
of sky
and there
my mind begins to blossom like a flower,
a poppy,
not a rose.
A sheath bursts
and, the crumpled petals
my mind begins to open
as the wings
of locusts crowded in the shell
long years
far underground
and now
at last
in tender miracles of green and gold.

Trees of Japan and China

February 28, 2010

Have been looking this morning at a  collection of pictures of Japanese and Chinese trees, taken by early explorers and archived at the Arnold Arboretum. Take the tour! The landscapes, too, and scenes of village life, are endlessly interesting and make me think of Walter Anderson in China, a few decades later. What are the chances he saw some of these trees?  How many are left today? For him they were anything but generic. While drawing trees one day, he rejoiced over their variety: “I suppose eventually I shall reach the archetype; at present, very much the ex-type”– meaning that “type” was hard to find in amid such eccentricity. Some were odd, like him.  “I like the wandering ones– not absolutely freaks but not just the ordinary healthy ones either. There are some wonderfully strange [trees] on Horn Island– years of storm and years of sudden growth, one side retarded and the other growing like a vine.”

Early Shearwater?

February 27, 2010

A Walter Anderson? No. Shearwater?  Tampoco! It’s a fragment of a Greek vase from 504 BC, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  You can visit through this portal, “Vase Search,” devoted  to Greek ceramics, arranged thematically (birds, animals, warriors…) I found the webpage through my brother Karl’s admirable Classics resources site at the University of Dallas.

Dreaming, in paperback

February 23, 2010

Peter Anderson, founder of Shearwater Pottery

Have been working away on another book– so far, all research and note-taking. Hope to begin writing soon, after one last research trip, to Puerto Rico in March.

A pleasure to see Dreaming in Clay in the catalogue of University Press of Mississippi. Nothing but good experiences there. First with Seetha Srinivasan, who challenged me to improve my biography of Walter Anderson, and who defended the book –judiciously, firmly– when someone raised objections to its publication (the story is told in the book); and now with UPM’s new director, Leila Salisbury, who welcomed the idea of reprinting  our book on Shearwater.  This is a paperback edition and e-book, with a brief introductory note and a few new photographs.  Useful, I hope, because the edition published by Doubleday over a decade ago has long been out of print.

Other welcome news. Leigh Coleman, who writes for the Sun Herald, is about to publish an article on Oldfields.  Will post the link when it appears.  Oldfields is marginal to the story of Shearwater, but it was everything to Patricia Grinstead Anderson, who was the soul of the Pottery, to her sister Agnes, and, at a certain time in his life,  to Walter Anderson.

Oldfields abandoned

January 16, 2010

A few months ago, a friend from Ocean Springs—Ray L. Bellande, a prodigious researcher who helped in many ways with both of my books on Shearwater and on Walter Anderson —sent photos of Oldfields in 2009, the way it is today.

Ray is the historical memory of Ocean Springs, and I’m sure that, through his writing and his efforts at preservation, he has done more than anyone in that town to save the past for the present, and the present for the future.

Oldfields porch, 2009. Thinking of this spot, Walter Anderson wrote: "I had never seen the sea before I stepped out on the front gallery. I was this year's bird born in the mountains. I had never seen the sea."

Ray also sent photographs of Oldfields from the 50s, from the remarkable CC. “Tex” Hamill “Down South Magazine Collection” at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.   In several of those old photographs, we can see Oldfields after the hurricane of 1947: the storm had washed away part of Oldfields’s foundations, eroding the bluff overlooking the Gulf in Gautier.

Oldfields, bedroom, May 2009. Photo Ray L. Bellande

The Anderson family had little money, but, a few years later, aware that the Andersons were keepers of a treasure, Agnes (Sissy) and Patricia Grinstead Anderson scraped together the money to have the entire house moved back from the bluff and placed on new foundations.

No such sense of responsibility –-either public or private– followed the devastation of Katrina. Shamefully, the present owner of Oldfields — a house built in the 1840s,  probably the only antebellum dwelling on the Coast– seems to be doing nothing to prevent its destruction. Instead, on a lot beside Oldfields, he began raising a grotesque 16,000 square foot cariciature of a “southern mansion.”

I wonder what the neighbors, the state of Mississippi, the town of Gautier have done to save Oldfields? Isn’t it worth keeping this piece of our common past, in this age of shopping malls and wallboard (last night, on HGTV I heard a realtor rave about the plastic “crown molding” in a flimflam apartment!)

Oldfields was built ca. 1845 for Alfred E. Lewis and purchased by W.W. Grinstead in 1904. In the 1930s, the Grinstead daughters, Patricia and Agnes (Sissy), married Peter Anderson, founder of Shearwater, and his brother Walter. Photo ca. 1952, showing hurricane damage, before the house was moved back from the bluff by Pat and Sissy. Mississippi Gulf Community College, CC. "Tex" Hamill Down South Magazine Collection; courtesy of Ray L. Bellande.

Don’t  states invoke the policy of eminent domain to seize land and houses for “economic development”? Couldn’t the same practice be used, for once, to preserve the past?  In England, such a house as this would be a public monument (and in fact, in 1980, Oldfields made it into the National Register of Historic Places). A couple of months ago, I wrote to a reporter at the Sun Herald – the Biloxi newspaper— and asked her to write about the abandonment of Oldfields, but got only a perfunctory response: she would check with her editor. I wrote to the lawyer for the owner — the one responsible for the ruin and for the unfinished monstrosity next door–  asking for an explanation, but got only silence for an answer. This is a disgrace.

PS on Jan 22:   Ray sends further news, after checking with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. It seems that MDAH awarded a sizable Hurricane Relief grant for the restoration of Oldfields, but the owners would never return the legal documents necessary to initiate the project.  MDAH gave several deadline extensions and tried hard to work with them, but it turned out that the ownership is in contention (maybe litigation), so no one has the authority to accept the grant for the property.  For the moment, until the legal matter is resolved, there is nothing MDAH can do.

PS  on Jan. 19:  Here’s an another old house with strikingly similar lines, lovingly restored: the Porter House, in Raymond, MS.  Beside the story of the restoration, take a look at the amazing gallery of photographs of Mississippi places and things.

A Post Postscrpt:  The person who took those wonderful photos has just sent me news of another antebellum, Greek revival house that is in danger… Ceres Plantation. Here’s an article by Danny Barrett in the Vicksburg Post.