Rheta Johnson: Fine art on layaway

May 25, 2013 9:33:47 PM

Rheta Grimsley Johnson -


There was this glorious routine. My Mississippi Coast visits in the 1980s were frequent, full and never varied.  


Every nice weekend, three or four of us newspaper buddies would pool our resources, fill up the Mustang with cheap gas and drive down from Jackson to catch the first ferry to Ship Island. That was the main event. 


After a hard day of sunning and swimming, we'd always eat the gargantuan seafood platter at Fisherman's Wharf. Sated by saltwater, sun and baby flounder, we'd spend the night at a little mom-and-pop motel called the Worth. 


Before heading home the next day, we'd make a stop at Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs. For Curtis. He had to make a $10 or $20 payment on his Walter Anderson watercolor. How we teased him. "Fine art on layaway," someone would say. "Let's go visit Curtis' painting." 


Curtis had the last laugh. 


It took him a long while to pay off the $250 or $300 bill for the painting on typing paper stored in a filing cabinet at the pottery showroom. I remember how happy he was when he finally got to bring the art home. 


He's probably a lot happier now, since Walter Anderson watercolors have increased dramatically in value. If only we'd followed Curtis' example. 


For me, it was the art that got away. 


I think about those halcyon days whenever I visit Shearwater or the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. We young reporters weren't the first to appreciate Anderson's art, but we probably could have qualified for something like frequent flyer points. How we loved the story. 


Van Gogh had nothing on Walter Anderson. His insularity and eccentricities and, yes, mental illness made him the small-town character who was either ridiculed or avoided. 


But there is a redemption element, as the artist's reputation and fame finally soared. This oddball who lashed himself to pine trees to study the light during a hurricane, who rode his old bicycle while the rest of the world sped by in fine automobiles -- he was the genius, the rest of us distressingly ordinary. 


That his rise to artistic prominence happened posthumously doesn't much matter. I don't see Walter Anderson attending gallery openings or enjoying fame. If anyone ever kept his own counsel, it was Walter. 


"One single beautiful image is practically inexhaustible -- man is a wasteful fool," Anderson wrote. 


This was a man who could study a crab for hours, or sketch a dead bird from six different angles. He didn't waste those natural images that surround us all. 


I don't have an original Walter Anderson, but I keep that feeling of intense, jaw-dropping appreciation whenever I see the work that is now out of filing cabinets and on museum walls. There is a primal urge to sit and stare. 


I can pretend I am Curtis, "visiting" my painting until I pay up and carry it home. It is fine art on layaway, for whenever I want to enjoy it.