An exhibit from Mississippi tackles a provocative topic

This article is part of our special Museums section on how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more things to see, do and feel.

If museum exhibits are meant to inspire and disturb, the Mississippi Museum of Art has embraced its mission wholeheartedly, shining a light on a topic that is still largely taboo: mental illness and the states’ response.

His exhibition What Became of Dr. Thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and deeply personal, Smith focuses on contemporary Nashville artists who have a mental disorder; the struggles of his great-grandfather, who was institutionalized for the last 40 years of his life; and the history of the Mississippi State Insane Hospital, the states former public mental health hospital on whose grounds the remains of 7,000 unidentified people institutionalized there were recently found.

On display through Sept. 22, the exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson will have three parts: a 122-foot-long painting that includes 183 canvases by Noah Saterstrom depicting episodes from his great-grandfather’s life, the Dr. David Smith, a traveling optometrist, and his descendants, including Saterstrom; historical artifacts that illustrate the life of Dr. Smith; and a third section on the Asylum Hill Project, which explores the history of the Mississippi State Insane Hospital.

In an essay for the exhibition catalog, Saterstrom said that in the mid-2010s he began work on a painting, Road To Shubuta, which he described as the visual history of my ancestors’ flight from the time of the Civil War from Natchez. Slave-owning members of the ruling class, they escaped eastward in an attempt to evade Union occupation. The painting was acquired by the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2018, which featured it in an exhibition from late 2017 to July 2018.

Saterstrom wrote that when he traveled to Jackson for the opening of the 2017 exhibits, he visited the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to explore his great-grandfather’s life, a mystery to him little discussed by his maternal grandmother. , the daughter of a traveling optometrist.

With the help of the states librarian, Saterstrom wrote, he assembled a detailed picture of Dr. Smith before his institutionalization. The story that unfolded had a cinematic scope. But while I didn’t expect to like everything I learned (a speculation that has proven true), what I didn’t anticipate was that the story of Dr. Smith would be as much a lens through which to view my own experience of mental illness as it is a generations-removed snapshot of a man locked up for life.

Saterstrom, 49, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Mississippi in 1998 and, newly married, moved to Glasgow in the summer of 1999 to continue his art studies. After two years, he wrote, I returned to the US, divorced, and in the midst of an episode of depersonalization so intense that I convinced myself that not only did he not exist, but that he had never existed.

He continued: I stopped painting, went to therapy and breathed rhythmically. I tried everything to hear anything but a ghost.

What finally pulled him out of the existential abyss, he said in the essay, was painting scenes from old family photo albums. He said he painted as many photographs as he could, not only because he thought they would make good paintings, but because when I studied them, my memories became mine again.

He added: That’s how my memories came back to me and how I loved painting again.

After years of research with Mississippi’s state librarian and on his own, Saterstrom said he became obsessed with his great-grandfather’s life, noting that the closer he got to unraveling the mystery of his life, the more I identified with him. It was impossible to work on anything else until I painted her life and did my best to capture as much of her story as I could. Painting everything I could find about Dr. Smith became a way for me to try to understand why I got it, but he was lost.

The canvases, created from early 2022 to early 2024, are on display in an ongoing work at the museums Barksdale Galleries.

Also on display in the galleries are photographs of Saterstrom’s great-grandfather and other members of his family; letters from Dr. Smith and his wife; newspaper clippings about episodes in the life of Dr. Smith; and even the case of their traveling optometrist great-grandfather, whom the Saterstroms discovered in 2006 in a secret passageway of their grandmother’s house in Natchez.

The exhibit also provides information about the Asylum Hill Project, created in response to a construction worker’s discovery in 2012 of multiple burials in the last undeveloped area of ​​the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus in Jackson. Archaeological excavations began in late 2022 and are expected to continue until at least 2028.

UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities is administering the Asylum Hill Project and is collaborating with the museum to use the Saterstroms exhibit as a platform to discuss mental health issues and the history of the asylum. Jennifer E. Mack, lead bioarchaeologist for the Asylum Hill Project, will discuss her work at the museum on Tuesday. The museum will offer programming related to the exhibit to UMMC medical, ophthalmology and psychiatry students in the fall.

Megan G. Hines, the exhibit’s curator, said in a telephone interview that she hoped it would bring more open feelings about mental health issues and the treatment of mental health issues. These topics have been taboo, difficult to talk about in the past.

Dr. Ralph Didlake, a retired surgeon and director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, said in a telephone interview that the unknown asylum patients whose remains were being studied represent all of us, all demographics, all the ages

The Saterstroms exhibition, Dr Didlake said, will provide a great opportunity to talk about the stigma surrounding mental health challenges.

Art, he added, makes us think and reflect.

The timing of the Mississippi exhibit is fortunate: The theme of the American Alliance of Museums’ annual meeting in Baltimore in May will be Thriving Museums, Healthy Communities. The association also said the meeting will explore the nexus between culture and health.

Speakers during the conference program will include Susan Magsamen, founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and opera singer and Kennedy Center 2023 honoree Rene Fleming, advocate long-standing research that explores the intersection of the arts, health, and neuroscience.

What art can do, Saterstrom wrote, is remind us that every moment is precious, even the unbearable ones, and every moment is worthy of note, even the mundane ones. It is the accumulation of these extraordinary instances and ordinary days that make us human and shape our lives.

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