Interview with artist Noah Saterstrom

October 20, 2011

Christy Delehanty, poet and Poetry Center intern, interviewed visual artist Noah Saterstrom, who recently collaborated with poet Anne Waldman on Soldiering/Dreams of Wartime, a 45’ frieze of oil paintings, a narrative painted by Saterstrom in response to and in conjunction with Waldman’s text. Soldering/Dreams of Wartime is currently on exhibition in the Poetry Center gallery. Don't miss your chance to meet Noah and encounter this work on Tuesday, October 25th at from 5 to 7 p.m. at a reception at the Poetry Center.

Christy Delahanty: What brought you to Tucson?

Noah Saterstrom: I was invited here by a writer friend and moved into Casa Libre. I came with the plan to be here for a couple of months while I finished a few projects, but found such warmth among the people I met and the magnetism of Casa Libre in particular, I didn’t leave right away. There is an effervescence (I’ve never used that word before) to the writing community here, which, though I’m not a writer, lent a sparkle to my own work. So after about year or two, I decided to unpack my suitcase.

CD: Is there a medium you prefer to others? Why?

Not that there’s anything wrong with reason, but it’s not always useful.

NS: My primary mediums are oil on canvas and works on paper. I love the smell and greasiness of oil. It’s not always the right medium for the project though. Sometimes it’s got too much gravity, is too serious and unsteady, depending on what the work needs. Like if your primary instrument is a pipe organ, it’s right for a certain feeling, it’s grand and wavering and celestial, but not great for playing a little ragtime song. Sometimes you need an instrument that is lighter, more fleet-footed. So I also make a lot of works on paper, which allows ideas to go down quickly, without getting into a mud-wrestling match with the substance. Works on paper can also be closer to the dreaming mind, uncontaminated by reason and logic. Not that there’s anything wrong with reason, but it’s not always useful. I guess the Soldiering/Dreams of Wartime book is a good illustration of both: Dreams of Wartime is on paper and Soldiering is oil, the same subject expressed differently because of the characteristics of the materials. I was talking with the painter Tim Hyman recently and he said for him the relationship between painting and drawing is “awkward, problematic, and lifelong.” I can identify with that, and I suppose for me both/neither are preferable.

CD: What point in your creative process is the most fun for you? Where do you often feel challenged?

NS: I love when what I’m making is failing so irreversibly that I have no choice but to trash it, or take dramatic risks. That’s when something divine noses in (I mean divine as in ‘supremely good’, not necessarily the ‘diety-related’ definition… unless they are inseparable). This moment is also when I feel most challenged. Obviously.

CD: Do you have an ideal audience?

NS: Curious people who love to look at things and talk about what they see, without reservation and without having to be right. Is that an answer?

CD: Based on the work displayed on your website, you seem to have an affinity for collaborations. Do you find that something extra comes
from collaborating with other artists? How do you decide who to collaborate with and on what?

NS: I was thinking about how one’s own work, the painting studio let’s say, is like a swimming pool. You can jump into it from the side, make a dive, or cannonball or bellyflop and splash around, and that’s totally enough. But working on a collaboration, is like installing a diving board. It changes the dynamic and when you bounce on the board, the spring allows you to make all these new elegant shapes with your body on the way to the water. Working with Anne on Soldiering was like having a high dive.

CD: How would you describe the project with Anne Waldman and how did it come about?

NS: Anne contacted me to see if I would make six or so images for her book Soldiering. I read through the text many times in the following months, and was a little daunted by the idea of making images for it. Not because the text was confusing or overwhelming, but there is a vibrant openness to Anne’s writing, it’s expansive and uncontained. The idea of making individual images – that exist within the boundaries of a page or canvas, with the typical constraints of composition – felt feeble and ineffective. After a couple months of reading the text, I put it away for another two months or so and after a while began to be concerned that I wasn’t making the images. But I guess it was incubating, because one day I came upon a booklet of diagrams of the proper way to bow and curtsy, and something about those images triggered a kind of catapult. I actually did not revisit the text again until after the forty-five foot frieze was complete.

Once I started painting in such a way that one image led into the next and the frieze started to develop, the pictorial space felt limitless...Then the imagery began to build effortlessly and I felt as though I was running alongside the work trying to keep up.

Once I started painting in such a way that one image led into the next and the frieze started to develop, the pictorial space felt limitless – there is no constricting left and right margin, but rather an ever-expanding plain. Then the imagery began to build effortlessly and I felt as though I was running alongside the work trying to keep up. Some of the image sources were external and disconnected: War photographs, illustrations from my mother’s childhood book, nature photos from National Geographic, a Corbet painting, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, cartoon ghosts from my own sketchbooks; and some were revealed as the work unfolded, birthed out of the work itself. Some sections are purely functional, like the hand pulling back the curtain, a vaudevillian kind of transition between sections and reference to the “theatre of war”. The fort section is a janky moveable theatrical stage set, as is in the interior scene. At some point I sent Anne the sketches I made in preparation for the frieze and she wrote a wonderful new piece for those, which is entitled Dreams of Wartime. I very much enjoyed that generative back and forth.

CD: To your mind, how do Anne Waldman’s French lines function? How did you treat them in the visual components of the project?

NS: I enjoy the French insertions for the ways in which they emphasize the slipperiness of the subject. The piece is about war, but not any particular war, not even, at least in my mind, with any particular message about war, other than war is. When there is text in the painting it is sometimes legible, sometimes not, it’s in other languages, and broken. More like how voices are in dreams. And in Anne’s text, that it slips into French uncontrollably feels like there is another voice breaking through the radio signal.

CD: How long and in what capacities have you been involved with the Poetry Center?

NS: Mostly as an appreciative audience member. But I just finished teaching a class at the Poetry Center with Kristen Nelson called “Text/Image Tinies” wherein we made palm-size objects that explore the relationship between text and image. Some of what resulted from the class is on display in the library.

CD: What else do you want the people to know about you, your work, your relationship with the Poetry Center, or this project specifically?

NS: I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with some of the remarkable writers in this town (Frankie Rollins, Kristen Nelson, Laynie Browne, Timothy Dyke, Kate Bernheimer) and am humbled and inspired by the nimble-ness of these artists. Part of what attracts me to writers is their (maybe I’m generalizing now) attraction to and willingness to embrace doubt. To delight in the murky formation of things, in the process of becoming, is a wonderful quality.

A little over a year ago, I started my Work-a-day page online (below) where I endeavor to post a new painting or drawing every day. It is an extended meditation on process and a lot of ephemeral collaborations happen here. De-emphasizing the product is very helpful in that way and it keeps me from taking myself too seriously, hopefully, sometimes.

Oh, and a quick plug (to ‘re-emphasize’ product…), I do a Work-a-Day sale twice a year, selling paintings and drawings from the site, and the next sale will be in November.

A few other links:

Noah Saterstrom's main website:

“Ghosty”, collaboration with Kristen Nelson:

“Wastrels Hatch a Plan”, collaboration with Kate Bernheimer:

“How It Was With Scotland”, collaboration with Joan Fiset:





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