The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Noah Saterstrom, a painter raised in Mississippi. The paintings shown here are examples of one of his artistic projects, used as image research for a great body of work about the disappearance of his great-grandfather, Dr Smith.
You write that your art project is “image research for a giant body of work about the disappearance of Dr. Smith, [your] great grandfather.” Could you expand on this? What has this journey been like for you?
That’s right, my grandmother’s father disappeared in 1925, when she was seven. We knew that he died 42 years later at the Mississippi State Hospital. But any events or illness that resulted in him leaving his family and remaining institutionalized until his death were buried in silence and erased from family memory.
A few years ago, I was in Jackson, Mississippi (two hours from Natchez, Mississippi where I grew up) and decided to look for any evidence I could find in public records. Long story short: with the generous help of the state librarian, Stephen Parks, we have uncovered a phenomenal timeline of Dr. Smith’s life, far more complex and detailed than I ever imagined. And now I’m trying to paint my way through the story. Paint is, of course, among the least effective tools for telling a coherent, linear, multi-generational story about mental illness and silence. But, there it is.
Working on this particular project, what have been the most important discoveries or learning curves?
Oh the whole thing is a learning curve. I have no idea how to make this work, and I suspect it will end up being “unresolvable” — whatever that may mean. The discoveries have been abundant. Everything about Dr. Smith’s life, his profession as an optometrist, his inventions, his schizophrenia, his alleged crime, his delusions, lunacy trial, escape from custody, incarceration, and on and on have all been discoveries. The amount of narrative details about this family mystery that exist in public record and newspaper archives, has been eye-opening. There are also many intersections between Dr. Smith’s life and the history of mental health treatment in Mississippi, which has been a fascinating study.
Does all of your art have a sentiment or sentimental value?
This is such a good question, I’ve never really thought of it in terms of ‘sentiment’. The art world as it was when I was in graduate school in Glasgow — and at my most impressionable — was viciously anti-sentimental. Cheekiness and concept were primary; feelings were outdated, unfashionable, and irrelevant.
I’m sure I spent many years fighting the urge to paint the warm, emotional, memory- and family-based imagery that now has taken over my work. I suppose the answer is yes, increasingly there is a ‘sentimentality’ to my work, though I still cringe a little at that because the term is so often used to mean a simple sweetness. Certainly there is a darkness and uneasiness to all my imagery, whether I invite it or not.
What harsh truths do you prefer to ignore as an artist?
Eesh. The role of paintings as expensive luxury objects is a point of discomfort for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful that I can make paintings, trade them for cash, and call that an occupation. But I’m in it for the sensation of painting, the enjoyment of watching an image gather, the communication of ideas, the human interaction and relationships that collect around paintings. Marketing, promotion, even art openings, all make me squirm.
If all your memories were erased, what kind of artist would you be?
It’s funny (not at all the right word…) that you would ask that. I had a period of psychological distress decades ago, in a time of difficult life changes. Alongside constant anxiety and a loss of sense of self was the delusion that I had no memories. The feeling lasted for months. I did have memories, but I believed I didn’t, or that they weren’t real. It was a nightmarish feeling, deeply unsettling. I emerged from the episode with a fascination with memory, with evidence of lived experience (old photographs). Maybe if all my memories were erased, I would be the kind of artist I am? One who spends every day looking at family photographs for evidence of life’s details and trying to close the gap of time.
If you were to design a new artwork to depict your current experience of the world, what might it include?
Ha, that’s the question, eh? Isn’t that the daily question? I mean, I have a flurry of activity with three little kids and wife and we are a year into a pandemic, I work from home, and am preoccupied with my schizophrenic optometrist great-grandfather. I’m painting hundreds of frantic little paintings based on family photographs from the 1910s childhood of my great grandmother, to snapshots of my own children in 2021. If I had a better design for depicting my current experience, I’d happily do that instead!