After taking a look at this year’s Mississippi Book Festival commemorative art by Noah Saterstrom, it’s hard to believe the Natchez native when he says, “I’m not really a portrait painter.”
The “2019 Official Art of Legends & Luminaries,” is displayed as a collage featuring Saterstrom’s enticingly fluid portraits of notable Mississippi authors, including Eudora Welty, Richard Ford and Jesmyn Ward.
“Each year, we have asked an artist with Mississippi roots to capture the spirit of the book festival,” Mississippi Book Festival Executive Director Holly Lange said in a statement. “For the fifth anniversary, we are delighted that Noah Saterstrom has created a body of work featuring some of Mississippi’s greatest literary treasures. We are grateful to Noah for sharing his gifts with Mississippi and our festival. As his star continues to rise, we know his work, like his subjects’ work, will endure for generations.”
After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1997, Saterstrom attended the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland to pursue a master’s degree. He traveled, eventually settling down in Nashville four years ago with his wife and children.
“At that point, I’d always painted somewhat related to Mississippi – even when I was living away for all those years,” he said. “But when we moved back to the South, it sort of picked up pace. The way that Mississippi is featured in my painting became pretty prominent.”
Saterstrom, 44, describes his usual painting style as one encompassing multiple figures and driven by improvisation and historical narratives. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when he was struggling with a painting in his usual style, that he was prompted to paint a portrait.
“Somebody of cultural importance had died,” he said. “Maybe it was Prince. I can’t remember. On the radio, they started talking a lot about that person’s biography and about their work. I did a portrait, and I was surprised it came out okay… Likeness is a really specific thing to capture.”
His interest in researching and learning people continued, and the narrative painter added portrait painting to his repertoire.
Saterstrom eventually produced a series of 40 oil portraits of people who attended and worked at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a short-lived experimental college established in 1933. Among those faces were Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Merce Cunningham — all known to be highly influential in the arts. “Faces of Black Mountain College” was on display at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in North Carolina during the fall of 2017.
“Holly got in touch and asked for something similar for the book festival last year,” Saterstrom said. “And so, I did a ton of faces of Mississippi writers. They used it on their swag and even on a beautiful little coffee mug that I use every day. They have all those paintings all over. It’s really fun to have a group like that to work on.”
The book festival purchased the rights to Saterstrom’s 2018 portraits, which is why they reappear on this year’s commemorative artwork.
For this year’s festival, which will be Saturday, Aug. 17 on the Capitol lawn, Saterstrom has painted a new series of portraits that will be showcased in the “Storytellers: A Mississippi Narrative” exhibition during Thursday’s Mississippi Book Festival Pre-fest Party at Fischer Galleries in Jackson.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said during his drive down to Jackson. “There’s been so much support in Mississippi.”
Saterstrom’s life-size portraits of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Jim Henson and Mississippi John Hurt will be on display, along with 10 smaller portraits of other noteworthy Mississippi writers, including Shelby Foote, Willie Morris and Natasha Trethewey.
Saterstrom says his life-size portraits marry the two forms of painting he has previously done separately: narrative and portrait. Made of multiple canvases and measuring 48 inches wide and 60 inches tall, the portraits provide area for other playful elements that Saterstrom says “bring other meanings to the portrait.”
Although he’s standing out during the book festival events as a celebrated painter and not as one of the celebrated writers, Saterstrom still hopes his work results in the praise of his subjects rather than for himself.
“Doing portraits like these, people are looking at the work, but they are also looking at the people they admire,” he said. “It’s this wonderful celebratory thing. People are celebrating my work, but it feels like my work is more of a service to the subjects.”