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August 31, 1999

"Walls of Light" Alive and Glowing in Ocean Springs

A Review by Pat Pinson

Walk into the Community Center in Ocean Springs and you are greeted with a birthday card for the coast -- the historic presentation of Pierre LeMoyne d'Iberville planting the French flag on the soil of the southern coast 300 years ago. Walter Anderson celebrated this event in his mural back in 1951 complete with the welcoming Native Americans and a host of French Canadian soldiers. For perspective, Anderson places himself in the boat which is being pulled onto shore.

It is a fitting occasion at this time to feature the murals of Walter Anderson, mythmaker, mystic poet and painter, local legend and inveterate voyager. The new exhibition "Walls of Light" opened at Walter Anderson Museum of Art on April 16 and will remain on view until October 24, so you still have time to get over to Ocean Springs to see it. A new book also came out the same day the show opened entitled Walls of Light: The Murals of Walter Anderson written by Georgia curator Ann King with photographs by John Lawrence and a preface by Steven Ambrose. Besides offering a stunning presentation of the murals and the studies for them, the book as well as the exhibition also includes several smaller "murals" which are little known studies for commissions not received or not completed. Some were never conceived for public places, but were watercolor series on typing paper, or "trunk paintings" which are vertical metamorphoses of figures recently found in a Shearwater trunk on rolls of wallpaper.

Perhaps the most central work is the WPA murals completed for Ocean Springs High School in the mid 1930s and later removed from the deteriorating auditorium in 1989. They were cleaned, placed in frames, and hung in the upper part of the Galleria in the Museum when it opened in 1991. What seems to be stylized presentations of the past and present at a distance become musical delights when seen straight on at eye level. They throb with the beats of the pine trees (Anderson wrote that "The arrangements of pine trees suggested music -- vertical notes strung on the horizontal lines of road and horizon"), and sing a lyrical rising and falling melody across all three pairs of panels. The references to the Egyptian and Minoan figures also resonate in the "Bounty of the Sea" vase placed next to them, and the time honored theme of nature's bounty reaches as far back in time as his figures do.

One eye-catching corner of the museum has been transformed into a pelican-papered facsimile of Anderson's bedroom at the old plantation house called "Oldfields" during the 1940s. When forbidden by his father-in-law to paint the walls, he covered them with linoleum block prints of flying pelicans. If nobody is around, lie down in the floor facing the corner and you will be caught up into this vortex of activity of wind and flight. Perhaps his exceptionally creative and intelligent mind moved so quickly that he could actually sleep in such visually noisy movement, but for us mere mortals, it would create an insomniac nightmare.

Quietly accompanying the exhibition in the transept galleries, music is played that Anderson worked to much of the time --Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. The lyricism of the paintings become much more apparent when viewed by the musical sounds. He once said, "I am convinced that there is a perfect transcription between sound and linear rhythm" and the addition of the aural to the visual truly make the walls of light speak in a new way.

This exhibition is easily worth the 50 miles to see it. Whether you are absorbing 3000 square feet of painted walls in the Community Center, a room of block prints, or individual sheets of paper, his vision is intense and encompassing. You will come away with a new appreciation of a fellow coastal denizen who is quickly rising as one of America's premier artists of the 20th century.

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