Walter Anderson’s Pelicans, and Ours
May 27, 2010
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.