Arts & Culture

Walking in Walter Anderson's footsteps on Horn Island

I wouldn't call Horn Island "welcoming," exactly. It has a bit of a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi feel to it, out on the edge of existence.

There are definite sharp edges. Limbless dead tree trunks stick up like spikes on the horizon. Cacti with long spines dot the ground.

And even the soft parts are deceptive. Powdery white sand is a lot less appealing after the first 10 minutes of trudging through it. Soft grasses and freshwater ponds contain all manner of sharp-toothed reptiles.

Much like the rest of Mississippi, it's hard to see the appeal until you spend time there.

The island is not tropical. Not Destin-esque. (Although sometimes coconuts wash ashore.)

But it is teeming with life, sometimes evidenced only by bird songs and different-sized animal tracks crisscrossing the dunes. Life on the island has been hard-won, surviving hurricane after hurricane and all manner of other extreme weather.

Set apart

As a barrier island, it's the last stop before the great expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Several miles long and less than a mile at its widest, Horn Island juts out at an angle about 4 miles south of Ocean Springs.

It's as if long ago, the narrow strip of land decided it couldn't much stand the mainland anymore, and struck out on its own.

Fitting, then, that its claim to fame and general mystique derives from the residence and works of eccentric Coast artist Walter Anderson.

Generally shunned by society and his own family, Anderson spent the latter part of his life -- nearly 20 years -- living alone and making frequent trips to Horn Island in a rowboat with minimal supplies.

The artist struggled with mental illness, and his unique perspective and intimate relationship with the island made for stunning artwork. Some of his paintings are like looking at the stark landscape through a psychedelic kaleidoscope.

In an effort to follow in his footsteps, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs hosted an overnight excursion to the island Saturday and Sunday. Artists and non-artists alike were invited to draw inspiration from Anderson's muse the same way he did.

I tagged along with the group of about 15 people brave enough to voluntarily spend 36 hours on a desert island. We departed at dawn Saturday from the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor.

Anderson's son, John Anderson, came along as well, and provided rare insight as a former National Park Service ranger there. He said visiting the island is like visiting his father, something his mother started doing after Walter Anderson died in 1965.

Fully involved

Most people visit Horn Island by day, anchoring a boat nearby and enjoying the beach for a bit. We got more of a fully involved experience.

As with literally everything on the island, our trip was determined by forces of nature. Currents and winds and fate forced us to keep a base camp with the water supply on the north side, even though we were camping on the south side. This meant a lot of trudging back and forth over unmarked, slightly treacherous terrain.

Under the noon sun, it felt a bit like being a stray Israelite wandering in the desert.

But that was half the fun, really.

"You learn the most when you're lost," said Illona Jones of Bay St. Louis, who described the whole weekend as "lovely."

The whole point of primitive camping is getting back to basics. No distractions. Priorities are water, food, shelter. Sense of time aligns with the rising and setting sun.

"The important things on the island are very different," John Anderson said as he hid from the noon sun in a small patch of young pine trees. "The best times are when everything gets quiet and you're listening to yourself."

Self-reflection

Anderson emphasized solitude is key to understanding his father and his father's work.

Walter Anderson used the island as an escape, but neither he nor the island could completely escape mainland interference. He wrote of boaters terrorizing him and his camp in "The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson." And the island itself was commandeered by the U.S. Army for biological weapons testing from 1943 to 1945.

John Anderson said more than once his dad used solitude to find unity; that distance helped him maintain a love for his family and humanity in general.

We all know it's a lot harder to love people when you have to be around them all the time.

Most of the weekend campers were able to find that solitude at one point or another. There were no scheduled gatherings. Everyone was free to follow their own whims. And there was a sort-of show-and-tell Sunday afternoon where the artists of the group displayed their work.

Trip organizer and WAMA Director of Education Heather Rumfelt said she hopes to plan another trip in the fall.

As I sit typing this in an air-conditioned building, scratching one of many, many sand gnat bites, I can't pretend I wouldn't rather be back on the island.

To balance the scorching afternoons, there was a breezy sunset and chilly waters (something John Anderson called the "law of opposites"). The weekend had graciously low humidity, and I can't say I would recommend a high-humidity experience out there.

But if you get the same itch I do to get away from it all, or just need the time and space to create, this trip is for you.

Like John Anderson said, "In order to realize our humanity we must realize our relationship to nature, and on Horn island it's easier to realize our relationship to nature."

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