Walter Anderson and seeing things differently

Pine tree with tabby cat, Walter Inglis Anderson (American, 1903–1965)

There is a picture that has stayed with me for decades now. This isn’t that painting – the one I saw is in a private collection – but a very similar work by the same artist. And it’s an illustration of how enlightening a simple change of view can be. When I first saw the work up close, it looked very strange to me. It’s just a close-up water color of a pine tree. The same trees I saw hundreds of times a day. Except that it was painted in yellows and purples and greens. Sure, there was plenty of brown. But all of these other colors, what kind of artistic license was that? Except it wasn’t. It took me exactly until the next time I walked outside to realize that Anderson saw what I had not. The trees are not brown! They are an explosion of colors. The first pine tree I saw after clearly had yellows and purples and greens. And so did every other after it. It is impossible for me to see the trees otherwise now. What was just brown is now a collage of bright and interesting colors. It was an epiphany for me that just a few moments could seemingly change my very eyesight so dramatically!

Walter Anderson himself was the subject of a similar realization for me. I was familiar with a handful of his watercolors. They were mostly of the wildlife he saw around him. Lots of birds and fish, the occasional rabbit or octopus. I thought of him as a folk artist – interesting, but not too different from what I might find at a local arts fair. Then I went to the Walter Anderson Museum. Entering the lobby, I saw three huge works that I recognized immediately drew from ancient Egyptian styles. Then works drawing from the impressionists. As I progressed through the museum, I realized this was a man who had thoroughly studied his craft, who had traveled the world to do so. And knowing that, I started to see a lot more in the same paintings I had seen as just “folk art” before. Just as with the pine tree, the information allowed me, forced me even, to see things differently.

There are few things I love more than these types of realizations. Those things that change me irrevocably. Sometimes they take years to happen. I can study something for ages before I get that eureka moment. But sometimes, it just takes a glimpse.

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