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Tuesday, November 11th, 2014
Beyond Beachcomberland

Fine Art Along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast

Each day, our favorite news sources remind us that stories suggesting a hopeful future rarely make headlines. Instead, we are bombarded with those that approximate the Middle Ages—an incurable epidemic, deadly kidnappings and reports of enduring war zones. You may wonder why anyone would venture past his or her own front door.

On the other hand, studies show that an adventurous spirit invigorates and nourishes the soul. It keeps us young or at least young at heart. Optimists live longer and hardier lives. So why not step it up? Make your way to two fine art museums along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and add some creative oomph to your day-to-day.

Both of these hidden gems—The Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs and The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi—are picture perfect for jumpstarting your weekend adventures.

The landmark town of Ocean Springs is known as the first fortified establishment founded in 1699 as part of the French colony of La Louisiane. Residents today delight in its quaint character, art galleries, gift shops, regional festivals and cozy restaurants. Still dominating the town are numerous direct descendants of the Andersons (at last count there were 75), a prominent family that migrated to the peaceful resort town from New Orleans in the 1920s.

Art advocate Annette McConnell Anderson and her husband George Walter Anderson, a retired grain merchant, moved with their three sons—Peter, Walter and James—to Ocean Springs. In short order, the Andersons bought 24 acres overlooking the harbor, built cottages and used the rural setting as an intimate art colony. Heavily influenced by their mother’s creative spirit, each of the sons eventually studied art.

The town treasures both the Walter Anderson Museum, which sits in the middle of town and features the work of the middle son Walter; and Shearwater Pottery, located on the family’s original property and showcasing the unique pottery designs of all three Anderson brothers.

Walter Inglis Anderson, considered the genius of the three, is known today as one of Mississippi’s most outstanding artists. His reputation is based upon an extensive and diverse body of work. Most well known are the brilliant watercolors he produced on typewriter paper while staying for weeks at a time in self-isolation on Horn Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi. During the last 18 years of his life, he painted and drew thousands of studies of the islands’ animals, birds and plants.

Anderson had an uneasy life. He was plagued with extreme bouts of depression and spent several years in and out of hospitals. Though labeled an eccentric and a recluse, he was prolific and passionate about his art. He worked in oils, watercolors, pencil, pen and ink. He sculpted in wood, carved furniture and linoleum blocks. He decorated pottery, designed ceramic figures and painted impressive wall murals. His work is a combination of his love for the natural world and his fascination with fantasy characters from beloved fairytales and folklore.

The Walter Anderson Museum offers a chronological look at the life of this unconventional artist. Divided rooms offer permanent and rotating exhibits of rare block prints and watercolors. Attached to the museum is the original Ocean Springs Community Center, highlighting wall murals that Anderson was commissioned to paint as part of a WPA project during the 1930s.

Also, but not revealed until after his death, is the original Little Room that was a locked space off of Anderson’s cottage. In it, visitors get a glimpse of the floor-to-ceiling colorful and private fantasy Eden the artist inhabited.

As you drive along the main drag towards central Biloxi, you cannot miss the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. It’s an architectural standout consisting of six pavilions connected by a paved brick walkway sitting comfortably amongst a grove of ancient oak trees.

Designed by world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, the otherworldly-looking buildings house collections and provide facilities for educational, cultural and community events. Most impressive is The John S. and James L. Knight Gallery, known as The Pods. Visitors walk towards four spaceship volumes made of stainless steel panels linked together by a central glassenclosed gallery. Here you will find space devoted to the display of pottery created by the museum ‘s namesake.

George Ohr began his career by providing everyday pottery items such as kitchenware, water jugs, planters and flowerpots for his community. But artistic creations were his true love. He experimented with innovative forms and glazes that, by acceptable standards of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, appeared rude and archaic. His ceramics did not fit the guidelines set by the so-called arts and crafts movement—in fact, Ohr rebelled against their ideals.

At the time, pottery workers divided up their processes. There were those who threw and shaped the clay, then others took on the decoration and added glazing. Ohr chose a modern approach and did it all himself. He believed “the artistry was the complete process.” Academics concerned with refinement and middle class credentials were disturbed by his radical shapes, glaze quality, added twists, ruffles and extra handles.

Critics accused Ohr of, “torturing the clay,” calling his pots “grotesque, formless and without grace or dignity.” On top of all that, Ohr had an exuberant spirit, became a pioneer performance artist and used street theater to protest societal ills. Unlike his contemporaries, he took his potter’s wheel to exhibitions and fairs to demonstrate how he pushed, pulled and pummeled his clay.

Many of his vessels took on erotic and sensual shapes. As an adjunct faculty member at Newcombe College for Girls, he was found “unsuitable company for refined young ladies” and was dismissed. Sporting a hairstyle to rival the Little Rascals’ Alfalfa and a mustache that could be tied behind his head, this breakthrough artist became known as the Mad Potter of Biloxi. After 1905, Ohr stopped glazing and left his pottery in its natural bisque form. These pieces are examples of his most abstract and sculpted ceramics. Ohr is now acknowledged as an early pioneer of the modernist movement in ceramics.

So if you’re feeling a bit under-glazed or stuck in neutral, a road trip out west may be just what you need to get some color back in your life.