In 1945, two bombs unlike anything the world had ever seen before were dropped on two cities in Japan, effectively ending World War II.
The resulting devastation stunned people everywhere, and the implications of what having such a weapon in existence raised fears of what the future held.
On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, artist Walter Anderson, his wife, Sissy, and their family were living at Oldfields, Sissy’s family home in Gautier. Anderson had long sought refuge from the complications of daily life in nature, often taking his rowboat to Horn Island, or retreating to a cottage at Shearwater.
Here at Oldfields, the house’s spacious attic became a workshop and retreat, where Anderson translated drawings of the woodland nature he found close to the house into linoleum block carvings which then were used to make block prints. Anderson saw the prints as a way to share the comfort and beauty he found in nature with others. Much like the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, he wanted his art to be accessible to Everyman.
“Atomic Alternatives: The Block Prints of Walter Anderson,” the current exhibition at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, showcases several of these prints. The title is a reference to his description of them as an “alternative to the atomic bomb.” The exhibition will on display through Jan. 29.
“There should be simple, good decorations, to be sold at prices to rival the five-and-ten,” Anderson once said. To that end, the thrifty artist acquired rolls of discontinued wallpaper and, using battleship linoleum, he made literally yards of prints and sold them at the Shearwater Pottery showroom for $1 a foot. The battleship linoleum, backed with burlap, was easily accessible through nearby Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula and through hardware stores.
“Wherever the measurement ended, that’s where it was cut,” said Mattie Codling, WAMA curator. Customers also had the option of coloring their own prints — not unlike today’s popular coloring books for adults. It was another way to connect the public more directly to art, to make it more their own.
The block prints on the back of wallpaper still bear the stamped markings of the manufacturer while displaying Anderson’s style. A rabbit sniffs inquisitively as she sits on her haunches. Fairytales are brought to life. Bluejays sit among lilies and morning glories, all working within the width of the wallpaper. In fact, the blocks were made to fit within the constraints of the wallpaper.
The block prints weren’t limited to paper. Anderson also transferred them to fabric, in wall hangings, or, on a sweetly personal level, dresses for young daughter Mary. Some of the actual linoleum blocks used for that purpose, with ink still obvious on some, are on display.
The blocks themselves are works of art, showing Anderson’s carving skills. Over the years in storage in the cottage at Shearwater, temperature fluctuations and regular use made the blocks fragile. In the 1980s, the designs used for prints were transferred to plywood, and the family switched to screen printing.
The original blocks, which had been donated to WAMA, faced another challenge in 2005, when their off-site storage facility sustained major damage and flooding.
“The National Guard helped the staff get them out,” Codling said. After undergoing a “massive restoration,” the blocks were “stored in Memphis until quite recently,” she said; the blocks are once again stored locally.
“A past curator described them this way: ‘The magic is in the linoleum,’” Codling said.
If you go
What: ‘Atomic Alternatives: The Block Prints of Walter Anderson’ exhibition
Where: Walter Anderson Museum of Art, 510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $10 adults; $8 AAA, military, seniors, students; $5 children ages 5-15. During the Peter Anderson Festival, there will be two docent-led tours of the museum per day. For those wearing their Peter Anderson Festival stickers, half-price annual memberships are offered.