Five Streets

FIVE STREETS
by Julia R. Gordon & Noah Saterstrom


 

They live in a city, but the kind that has only five intersecting roads and is surrounded, otherwise, by vast plowed fields and hundred year homesteads. Downtown means one street of shops: grocer, butcher, dressmaker, baker; one street of words: bookseller, newsstand, library; one street of medicine: doctor, apothecary, hospital, asylum; one street of god: two churches, three synagogues, a large gathering hall. The fifth street is shadowed and not easily traversed, its cobbles in constant disrepair; it is littered with those who have no homes and no gods but instead have reaching arms and begging voices. Grime collects in the corners of windowless rooms furnished with only beds and basins.
 
 


 

It is on this fifth street that they find a place to meet – a basement coated in thick dust and the faint musty smell of newborn rats and cobwebs. They figure that the newly installed officers won’t come here looking for their place of planning, and they are right. All through the long winter of breaking glass and scorched shop streets, the fifth street gives them cover in its filth. They meet at different times and on different days, planning, always plotting, within the basement’s dank stone walls. The notices of their gathering times are carried from kitchen to kitchen by young girls in aprons who hold napkin-covered baskets filled with hot bread rolls layered atop slips of paper carrying coded messages of what, the girls do not know.
 
 


 

Most of these girls, given the papers by their fathers and the breads by their mothers, put kerchiefs on their heads and shawls around their shoulders and follow well-trod paths to the next kitchen over, dropping baskets on their way, having left the messages unexamined, cyphers
unbroken. She does not. She has been taught to read, and these coded missives, with their strange transpositions and substitutions, are too enticing for her to ignore. She stashes a broken slate and pencils in an old log between her house and the Brody’s farm, and for three days copies the nonsense letters in sequence. She also eavesdrops. She listens to the Brody father’s whispered murmurs to his sons when they think she is out of earshot; in her mind, she compares what she hears with her own father’s murmurs to her mother, and thinks she begins to understand.
 
 


 

On the chosen day she lies awake, waiting, fully dressed under the bedclothes. The back of her knees itch where her woolen stockings pill against the covered mattress ticking. When the moon rises past the top of the chimney she hears it: a stirring downstairs, the heavy tread of her father’s boot and the lighter, canted tread of her brother’s limp. Folding the covers back, she eases herself out of bed and moves silently through the house and into the night, keeping the men in her sight but lagging just far behind enough to avoid being seen. She follows them to the fifth street. She presses her ear to a basement-level vent carved from the stone above one particular basement annex and listens.
 
 


 

The men inside do not hear her but minutes pass and then hours, and she hears too much. Before they have finished, she learns she was right and now she understands the fullness of their plans, the whole of their murmured secrets of resistance and revolution. Heart beating, she runs back, down the fifth street, past the shop street, the medicine street, and the god street, up the street of words and back to the kitchen where her mother sits awake, watching and waiting. Though she is startled by her daughter’s appearance, the mother is not surprised by it but resigned to it, and the girl rushes in to the embrace of raised arms. Her father and brother hew close behind, but they did not see her flight and are thus shocked to find her, dressed in her shawl and kerchief, face buried in her mother’s neck, arms clutching her mother’s thin shoulders.
 
 


 

It does not take long for them to discover the extent of what she knows. It does not take long for them to determine that she is unsafe, all twelve spindly years of her, and it does not take long for them to realize that in her youth, she is the most vulnerable of them all. It does not take long for them to decide she must go. It does not take long for them to book her passage on a ship to somewhere that is, if not safe, than at least away. And then, she is gone. Dandelion plucked from the vast fields and the five streets and the Brody’s farm. The messages are carried, but without her basket to cradle them. The meetings are held, but without her bearing witness. It does not
take long until it is almost as though she was never there. She is gone.
 
 


 

Soon another unexpected listener will hear the plans, but intent means much, and it is then that the resistance, too, will be gone, ripped from the vast fields and the five streets and the Brody’s farm. The soldiers will come, thick-booted and armed, and they will all be gone: fathers, mothers, brothers, the other girls, their shawls and their kerchiefs, their bread. It will be almost as though they were never there. It does not take long.

 


 

“Five Streets” is a group of drawings which illustrate a short story written by Julia R. Gordon. The tale is a fictionalized amalgam of the stories she heard throughout her childhood detailing her family’s life in Vilnius, Lithuania, under the late-19th century rule of the Russian Empire. Part of the intellectual, Jewish resistance against increasingly anti-Semitic Russian Czars, and under threat of pogroms, loss of land, and loss of life, the majority of her family fled to the New World as part of the general exodus of European Jewry in the early 1900’s. Those who stayed were ultimately slaughtered under the German occupation. Her great-grandmother, depicted in the story as the young girl unwittingly (at first) ferrying messages for the resistance, was one of the first family members to escape to New York as part of a forced flight when her family’s political involvement was discovered by the Russians.

Milk & Winsome Creatures

42″x54″

Big Cats

24″ x 30″

Gathering

18″ x 36″

Agatha Christie

12″x12″

Janis Joplin

12″x12″

Jump

30″ x 40″

Larry Brown

12”x12”

Will Henry Stevens

12”x12”

Bob Dylan

12”x12”

David Foster Wallace

12”x12”

Frank Zappa

12”x12”

Scott Nearing

12”x12”

Dorothea Rockburne

12″x12″

Francine Du Plessix Gray

12″x12″

Ray Johnson

12″x12″

Gwendolyn Lawrence

12″x12″

Buckminster Fuller

12″x12″

Robert Creeley

12″x12″

Willem De Kooning

12″x12″

Robert Motherwell

12″x12″

Cy Twombly

12″x12″

Ruth Asawa

12″x12″

Trude Guermonprez

12″x12″

Max Dehn

12″x12″

Susan Weil

12″x12″

Jack Tworkov

12″x12″

Clement Greenberg

12″x12″

Josef Albers

12″x12″

Robert Duncan

12″x12″

Elaine De Kooning

12″x12″

Peter Voulkos

12″x12″

Denise Levertov

12″x12″

Franz Kline

12″x12″

Charles Olson

12″x12″

Walter Gropius

12″x12″

Dorothea Rockburne

12″x12″

Willem De Kooning

12″x12″


“My interest in desperation lies only in that sometimes I find myself having become desperate.” – W. De Kooning

Helen Frankenthaler

12″X12″

M.C. Richards

12″x12″

Buckminster Fuller

12″x12″

“There’s nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

Robert Rauschenberg

12″x12″

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” – R. Rauschenberg

Ben Shahn

12″x12″

Anni Albers

12″x12″

Jacob Lawrence

12″x12″

Adam West

12″x12″

Peaceable Kingdom

11″x14″

Joni Mitchell

12″x12″

Alice Neel

12″x12″

Elton John

12″x12″

Gregg Allman

12″x12″

Francis Bacon

12″x12″

Peaceable Kingdom

11″x14″

Peaceable Kingdom

11″x14″

Katharine Hepburn

12″x12″

Peaceable Kingdom

8″x10″

Peaceable Kingdom

8″x10″

Stevie Nicks

12″x12″

Sid Vicious

12″x12″

Oh Little Liza

30″x40″

Frank O’Hara

12″x12″

David Byrne

12″x12″

Gwendolyn Brooks

12″x12″

Merce Cunningham

12″x12″


“Falling is one of the ways of moving.” – Merce Cunningham

John Cage

12″x12″


“There is an interpenetration of unlimited centers.” – John Cage

Workaday Sale

The Workaday Spring Studio Sale is on right now. Over 200 works on paper and canvas are available, moving works from my studio to loving walls. Search by price. If you want to reserve anything for yourself or have any questions, please email me at noahsaterstrom@gmail.com

School of Expression

24″x48″

Fred Rogers

12″x12″

Theodor Seuss Geisel

12″x12″

Virginia Woolf

12″x12″

Maurice Sendak

12″x12″

Abraham Lincoln

12″x12″

George Saunders

12″x12″

Odetta

12″ x 12″

Joust

30″ x 40″

Pledge of Allegiance

48″ x 60″

Our Lady of Lourdes

30″ x 40″

Frederick Douglass

12″ x 12″

George Orwell

12″x12″

Emmett Till

12″x12

Nashville Arts Magazine, Feb 2017


I am deeply honored and excited that curator Jochen Wierich wrote this eloquent article about my exhibition — Shubuta & Other Stories — for Nashville Arts magazine. Click the link below to read the full article (p.58-63).

Nashville Arts, February, 2017
“Two Converging Paths Into History”, by Jochen Wierich.

The exhibition is up until Feb 15 at the Julia Martin Gallery in Nashville.

Mary Tyler Moore

12″ x 12″

Barack Obama

12″ x 12″

Dr. Frank-N-Furter

12″ x 12″

Zadie Smith

12″x12″

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John Prine

12″x12″
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

12″x12″

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100 Sentences

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For my current show at the Julia Martin Gallery, I put together this little book of one hundred sentences about painting, history, slavery, memory. I don’t think that these, or any other paintings require text, but this show includes many detailed references. Thought it best to document them, for what it’s worth.

ONE HUNDRED SENTENCES
Regarding SHUBUTA & OTHER STORIES
NOAH SATERSTROM | 2017

It may be understood that paintings are always primarily about painting.

Certain themes persist.

Maurice Denis tells us to “[r]emember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”

I did not set out to paint about slavery, or bigotry

I did set out to paint about family stories and place.

The family stories are mine and the place is Mississippi.

What is unique about the South is not racism, not even its institutionalization – you can find that in the North, too.

Celebrating difference does not come easily for humans, even if recognizing difference does.

What may be unique about the South is its specificity regarding racism.

My family in Mississippi owned thousands of slaves.

There are records, signed contracts, inventory lists.

In 1828, my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father’s father was Governor of Mississippi and proposed to legislators that there be no more slaves brought to the state and the practice, “an evil at best,” should be ended within a generation.

They didn’t go for it.

In a state record of 1860, thirty-two years later, his own son was listed as owning 512 slaves.

I do not recount this to condemn my family.

Having slave-owning ancestors doesn’t make you a racist, but being a slave owner does.

Being an artist doesn’t free you from bias.

I am interested in making paintings, not in making social statements.

I’m not even interested in making artist statements.

The financial benefits of slavery were not enjoyed only in the South.

Bigotry is not a rural phenomenon.

I am interested in family, memory, history, my own and others’.

I could look at other people’s family albums all day.

Specificity pulls me in.

Questions arise from stories, both factual and apocryphal, passed from mother and father to son and daughter.

Want to pull out an old slide carousel?

We have all night.

Should art be interrogatory, not declarative?

One has a certain fascination with unresolvable questions.

Thousands of slaves were owned by my ancestors.

I don’t know how many stayed in Mississippi.

Presumably tens of thousands of current residents of the state are descended from people once owned by my family.

Painting is about capturing.

Storytelling is about preserving.

I don’t know if that’s true.

No, drawing is about preserving.

The Corinthian girl so long ago traces the flickering shadow of her lover on the wall before he left for war.

There is a case to be made for preservation.

Or is preserving always romanticizing?

You guessed it, he didn’t come back.

We know romanticizing to be hazardous.

We know a romantic past is a daydream.

When we long for a lost paradise, what we mean is our garden was taken from us.

“We didn’t surrender the good times, they were stolen.”

“There were the good times, and now there is now, and someone is to blame.”

“It was an economic decision.”

“They didn’t hate their slaves”.

“The field hands were a good investment.”

The house servants tended to their daily needs and to their children.

If you want to say something good, use your words.

No, better to use your actions.

Is there anything less significant than a history painting in the 21st century?

Paint can do very little beyond itself.

If you want to do some good in the world, have an apple.

Walls are for collectors.

It is good to look at paintings quietly, daily, over a period of years, decades, generations if possible.

There is a dimension beyond what can be experienced at this moment, and it’s called make-believe.

Images are resolved formally not conceptually.

Imagery propagates itself.

We were taught that my mother’s family were intellectuals, philosophers, scholars, doctors and planters.

My great great grandfather, a child during the Civil War, remembered how the black Union soldier stationed at their home to protect them from jayhawkers and bandits during the chaotic time of the federal occupation of Natchez would whittle toy bayonets out of cane for the little boy to play with.

They played soldiers; well, one of them was playing.

He grew into a respected man, one people thought of as good.

While a law student at the University of Mississippi in the 1880’s, he and his friends on a lark held a mock trial of a young black man they met on a bridge.

For fun they held him, made up his crime, and convicted him right there on the bridge.

After the fun, they sent him on his way into the night.

In the 1930’s he referred to the Klan as a “necessary evil.”

“Servants” ” nurses” “maids” and “drivers” feature marginally

in family letters, always with nurturing and friendly feelings.

Black people were often the last to see my ancestors alive.

Sam Brown, my great great grandfather’s great grandfather’s “trusted body servant”, was with him when he died beside his horse in 1823.

This continues right up to Wilfred, the yard man, my grandfather’s last hospital visitor.

And again to Sandra, the caretaker of my aunt and grandmother, both recently passed.

There may be little to glean here but interconnectedness.
In the minds of many white Southerners was not hatred of black people, but restoring the “previous social order.”

And fear, of course.

The previous order was seen as balanced, prosperous, natural.

As it happened, that previous order relied on white supremacy.

Memory is the same as History, just shorter and confined to one person.

History is the same as Memory, just longer and more crowded.

Both have unreliable narrators.

To intervene is to come between.

To interfere is to strike between.

Some are highly controlled and intentional, while others are improvisational, gestural: paintings, I mean.

I grew up mostly in a small river town whose system of race and class distinctions were strictly enforced by the ruling class.

Of course neither this town nor its system are special for that.

Is there any value in painting about something that even words — arguably a much more efficient medium — struggle to describe?

My work is finding a way to make paintings that are analogous to the way my mind works.

Not because the world needs to see how my mind works but if my painting is like my thinking, it will come without obstruction.

What artist doesn’t want that?

I recall Philip Guston’s long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence, and then I name my son Guston.

Trying to speak plainly about an uncomfortable subject is at least an alternative to catastrophic politeness.

On Sept 16th 1841, one of my ancestors gave $34.25 to his wife’s father to rent his servant William for three months.

After that they agreed he would be on loan as needed until April for $10 per month – about $263 today.

Painting can kick off involuntary thoughts and dreamlike associations in the brain.

For some, this is enjoyable.

The world needs good deeds to be done.

Painting does not do that kind of good in the world.

If I were raised on the ocean, I might paint what I observed about the waves.

If I were raised in the trees, I might paint what I knew of the canopy, of birds and bugs.

In real stories, everyone is human.

***
I would like to thank Julia Martin Wimmer, Sam Dunson, Jochen Wierich, Jessica Eichman, Anna Saterstrom, and Jules, Vivi, and Gus Saterstrom for encouraging me to make and show this work.

Shubuta & Other Stories is dedicated to my family.

In Times of War

48″ x 60″
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Road to Shubuta

48″ x 96″

road_to_shubuta
Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art

Renting William

11″ x 14″

renting_william

Sunken Trace

24″ x 36″
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Sam Brown

24″ x 36″

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Cutting Bayonets

18″ x 24″

cutting_bayonets

Bed Barges

30″ x 40″

bed_barges

Bridge

24″ x 30″
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Brown’s Velvet

30″ x 40″
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Carrie Fisher

12″x12″
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John Glenn

12″x12″

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The Quiet Game

11″x14″
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