Madness comes in a variety of shapes and forms.
Sometimes it dresses up in Brooks Brothers suits replete with power ties.
Sometimes it appears in the form of a pelican.
Some go mad in the most destructive of ways. Their madness is intent on destroying everything within their path. Be it God, country or family.
It’s like they can’t help themselves.
But that’s why it is madness, right?
They seriously can’t help themselves.
They have to destroy.
But when Walter Anderson of Ocean Springs, Mississippi went mad, he didn’t destroy. He created.
Anderson didn’t know what to do with his madness, other than to create amazing works of art.
Watercolors. Sculptures. Pottery. Oils.
Anderson is sometimes called America’s least known greatest artist.
It is easy to see why he may have earned the latter part of that title. It is clear from his works that Anderson’s mind was always in a frenzy of creating.
Beware by whom you are called sane, Anderson once warned.
Wise words even for today. Perhaps especially for today.
Anderson, it seems, was more comfortable with his madness than were those who surrounded him.
Of course, that is often true for the mentally unstable, isn’t it?
I learned about Anderson from my artist friend Stacey Howell. Stacey has several Walter Anderson prints in her home. They had not been in her home during my last visit South.
She mentioned that he was from the area so while writing RAIN, I took some time to research Anderson. Kade, one of the characters in the new novel, has a collection of Anderson’s work.
Because, well, that’s how fiction really works. Novelists are primarily jig-saw puzzle artists, putting pieces together as they seem to fit, re-configuring until we get it just so. Until we create our own works of art.
I read up on Walter Anderson prior to making a trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.
I learned that his parents determined that he would become an artist long before he had a will in the matter. They had three sons and they determined that all three would be artists, that they would give them a skill, something by which they could earn a living, make their way in the world.
It’s difficult to know sometimes, especially when you are raising a family, if a child has a gift because they were born with it, or because it was cultivated within them.
Perhaps for Anderson it was both. Perhaps he was both born with the gift and it was nurtured along by parents intent turning their boys into productive artists.
It is documented that Anderson loathed making the pottery that kept the family financially afloat. Shearwater Pottery is still in operation today.
Madness drives some to own as much as possible. Their identity is defined by what they possess. The more they possess, the better they regard themselves.
But Anderson didn’t want to be owned.
His madness manifest itself in his ability to lose himself in creation and creating.
There in Ocean Springs at the city’s community center are the murals, the work of his madness, some maintain. The entire community center, a story painted, the way Anderson saw it, in his head.
“I hope if I ever go mad, I go mad like this,” I said to a woman I did not know.
She looked around the room and agreed. “Yes. That’s an interesting way of looking at it.”
What I meant is that I want my life to reflect Anderson’s.
Time spent creating.
Losing myself in Creation.
Not finding my identity in possessions.
Those seem to be the only choices before any of us, artists or not.
We can spend our lives creating.
Or we can spend our lives destroying.
What we choose to do will be the result of how we think.
Do we envision the world as a place of great light and color and beauty?
Do we pay attention to the smallest of creatures among us?
Do we notice Creation and recognize the Creator behind it?
Or is the world a place that induces fear?
A place void of color?
A place where creation and its Creator are not revered?
Where they are not even noticed?
They say when Anderson painted the murals that there was a city member who wanted to paint over them. To take a paintbrush and make the walls all white again.
The murals made him uncomfortable.
They were a sign of a madness he could not understand.
A madness he couldn’t control.
He wanted white walls, a white world, an environment of function and purpose.
Stories didn’t interest him.
Making money, seeking power, that’s what interested him.
Thankfully, the others saw the beauty of Anderson’s work.
He came to prefer the pelicans to the people, Anderson did.
They say he took a boat and rowed 12 miles off the Mississippi coast to an island, sometimes taking as many of three days of rowing to reach the other shore. And even though he had a wife and a pack of kids, Anderson felt no compulsion to do anything other than create art.
Madness can be a romantic idea until you have to live with it, sleep with it, grow up around it, grow old with it.
There is a reason, you know, why they call it madness.
Who can say why exactly Anderson went mad? He was well-loved, well-fed, well-cared for.
Still the island drew him, away from his wife, his children, and the possessions he never wanted to possess.
He was most comfortable there, among the reeds and birds, painting stealth cats and soaring butterflies.
This was his sanctuary, this room at the small cottage, the ones his kids never went into. The room that they opened only after his death.
Sometimes the most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves, said the man who kept a padlock on the door of the sanctuary he inhabited.
Perhaps when it is all said and done, the best that could be said of any of us is that we created.
But, it would seem, in a world driven by technology, lacking an awareness of a Creator, destruction is all we know.
Maybe we’ve forgotten the lessons of art and artists, to be able to see the world from a whole new perspective.
To get outside ourselves.
To find beauty in everything.
Or to create it.