Artist Noah Saterstrom’s 2018 trip back to his home state of Mississippi for a panel discussion at the Mississippi Museum of Art presented just the opportunity to dig into a mystery that had long perplexed him—the gaping hole in his family history, where information about his great-grandfather, optometrist Dr. David L. Smith, should have been.

The man had disappeared from the family record in 1925, and he died at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. Saterstrom had gotten “almost nowhere,” he said, in previous efforts to uncover more. At the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, research staff pulled out a giant ledger from the Mississippi State Insane Hospital (also known as the Old Asylum), handed it over and said, “See if he’s in there.” Saterstrom sat down and flipped through every page until he found Smith.

“There was already a pilot light in me of fascination, and seeing his name there, written … it ignited this whole preoccupation that’s been existing ever since,” Saterstrom said.

That drive fueled years of research (with the aid of Mississippi’s State Librarian Stephen Parks, whom Saterstrom met later that same day, at Fischer Galleries), more than 1,300 painted panels of studies and now the monumental, immersive narrative painting “What Became of Dr. Smith” that debuted April 20 at the Mississippi Museum of Art and remains on exhibit through Sept. 22.

The exhibition brings an opportunity, too, for the Asylum Hill Project to reach the public and to spark conversations about mental-health issues and mental illness. In addition to Saterstrom’s painting, the exhibition includes historical artifacts and letters from Dr. Smith’s life and an area dedicated to the Asylum Hill Project, a research consortium uncovering the history of the Old Asylum and overseeing exhumation and respectful memorialization of those buried in the Asylum Hill Cemetery on land that is now part of the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.

Artist Noah Saterstrom’s “What Became of Dr. Smith” spans 122 feet across a curved wall at the Mississippi Museum of Art, creating an immersive, panoramic experience. Photo by Sherry Lucas

“The work lends itself to thinking about a broader social history of mental-health treatment in Mississippi,” exhibition curator Megan Hines said.

Saterstrom’s painting is composed of 183 canvases spanning 122 feet, forming a 6-foot-tall panorama that wraps a curved wall in the museum’s Barksdale Galleries and depicts the life of his great-grandfather, from birth to his death. The remarkable story of a successful itinerant optometrist, his mental-health struggles, an accusation of a crime and his near lynching, his lunacy trial, and a 40-year hospitalization in state mental hospitals had long been erased from family history.

“When my grandmother was 7, her father Dr. Smith disappeared, and whatever happened to him was lost to silence.” Saterstrom said. “All she was told was, ‘Your father has lost his way.’ They described him as having a fugue state, like he just wandered off. So, she took that to mean he would just be coming back, as soon as he figured out how.”

He recalled the small photo on her desk when he was a kid, a fixture until she died at age 97.

“Right up until her death, I couldn’t get more than a sentence out of her. She would get as far as, ‘He was an optometrist,’ and then she would just freeze up. I always felt that was so sad—90 years later, and that’s as much as she could say.”

Shortly after they met in Jackson, Parks began sending Saterstrom what he was discovering from old newspaper clippings, letters, court cases and public archives. “It started a steady stream of information,” Saterstrom said. “It was just like pulling on a sweater: It just starts unraveling.”

They began putting together a timeline, trying to fill in gaps. “The story gets stranger and longer and more twisted. It becomes multi-generational,” Saterstrom said.

Optometrist Dr. Smith and (Saterstrom’s great-grandmother) Ethel Brandon, who comes from a prominent family with a governor in their lineage, met in Natchez. They moved to Vicksburg when Smith started a shop there.

Historical artifacts from optometrist Dr. Smith’s life including letters, photographs and glasses are on display as part of the exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Miss. Photo by Sherry Lucas

Piecing together what letters he could find, Saterstrom kept returning to one Smith wrote to his wife when she returned to Natchez to give birth.

“He was kicking himself for not being there, ‘But I’m here, and I’m working, and there’s this old blind man who’s sitting in front of my optometry shop, singing for change every day, and it’s driving me crazy,’” Saterstrom said, quoting the letter’s contents and noting Smith’s agitation. “Based on the trajectory of things at this point, I know there’s already the brewings of delusions.”

Other things, such as the emergence of eugenics in MIssissippi between 1916 and 1917, also seemed to feed into Smith’s mindset, along with his belief that he worked for the U.S. Secret Service as a “breeder,” Saterstrom said. “It’s still unclear what that means.”

Under the Watchful Eyes of Argus

Research peeled away the layers, providing both answers and more questions. Smith developed and built a sophisticated optical truck around 1919 that he envisioned using as a traveling one-stop shop for rural areas, offering free eye exams and possessing the equipment necessary to make glasses for purchase if they were needed. As head of the Mississippi Association of Optometrists, he compared “spec peddlers” with no training and suspect products to snake-oil salesmen, and he supported high-quality optometry for all—a view that didn’t sit well with some of his peers.

His truck launched but was shut down and fined repeatedly; legislation passed that was aimed at spec peddlers also prevented itinerant optometrists from operating in the state. “He wound up bankrupt, and his psychosis really started to set in at that point,” Saterstrom said.

In 1924, a 15-year-old girl accused Smith of rape after leaving the mobile office. The Claiborne County sheriff arrested him, saving him from an angry mob, and he spent time in jail until his mother helped convene a lunacy trial for him, and a judge sentenced Smith to the Mississippi State Insane Hospital. The day before his transfer, he escaped jail and turned up weeks later at the White House in Washington, D.C., where he sat down with President Calvin Coolidge to explain the plots against him, Saterstrom said, citing a Vicksburg Post report. Realization of his mental illness soon dawned, and Smith was detained. The Claiborne County sheriff drove to D.C. to retrieve him and to take him to the Old Asylum.

Patients transferred to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield when it opened in 1935. Dr. Smith died there 30 years later.

“Never, in a million years,” Saterstrom said, could he have imagined the events that filled the blanks in his family record. “I know why they wouldn’t talk about it: shame. But it’s a great story. We all could have benefited from this story.”

Artist Noah Saterstrom points out an area in his narrative painting that envisions a cutaway view of the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield while at a pre-installation of the artwork in 2023. The mythological Greek guardian figure Argus (sometimes spelled Argos) hovers above. Photo by Sherry Lucas

Saterstrom’s early concept of his painting as a vertical diptych is still visible, with Dr. David L. Smith’s life along the bottom and his wife Ethel Brandon’s along the top. Their lives come together when they meet and split after Smith’s hospitalization, with asylum scenes along the bottom and family life in his absence along the top.

Eye imagery recurs often—as a framing device, in optometry signs and in the mythological Greek guardian figure Argus, whose body is covered in eyes. “For me, he seems more like a kind of witness figure, just watching,” Saterstrom said of Argus, and all those eyes strike him as a source of paranoia, with a constant watch that could be comforting but also unsettling.

Smith’s first 10 years in state custody coincided with the last decade of the Old Asylum, and Saterstrom’s search for answers from the past paralleled the ongoing work of the Asylum Hill Project. Alongside imagery of grave digging at Asylum HIll Cemetery is an inset of archeologists at the burial site nearly a century later. When Saterstrom’s painting hung at Millsaps College in a March 2023 pre-installation—the first time the artist had seen the panels put together as a whole—a young girl’s remains had just been exhumed. Saterstrom added the figure of a young girl to his painting as it hung.

To date, 405 individuals have been excavated in the Asylum Hill Project, in addition to the 66 originally removed in 2012 and 2013, Lead Bio-archaeologist Jennifer Mack said. A construction crew on campus discovered the graves in 2012 during, and recent archaeological studies revealed as many as 7,000 graves on the old cemetery site.

In this detail of Saterstrom’s narrative painting “What Became of Dr. Smith,” scenes of the Old Asylum where his great-grandfather was hospitalized are at the bottom, and family scenes of life in his absence proceed along the top. Photo by Sherry Lucas

Collaboration with the museum and Saterstrom brings a key opportunity for conversations about mental health and its care, UMMC Director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities and Asylum Hill Project consortium founder Dr. Ralph Didlake said.

“In the asylum era, there was a tremendous stigmatization of individuals who required this kind of care,” he said. “… Today, we still have trouble talking about mental-health care, especially as a policy issue, to get more resources in place for our fellow community members who need mental health care, so I think this is a wonderful opportunity to enrich those conversations.

“My other hope is that art will do what art does: It challenges us to think, to reflect and to understand any human activity more deeply,” Didlake added.

Saterstrom, too, envisions conversations his painting may prompt. “It happens that I’m a painter, and this story is way more colorful than I expected it to be, and so it’s given me a lot to paint about. But, when people start talking about their own family stories, it’s just as riveting to me,” he said. “I hope that people enjoy it and think about their own family questions and let some cats out of the bag, if they can.”

His research continues. Smith’s records from the Old Asylum surfaced only recently as hundreds of thousands of patient files are cataloged as part of the Old Asylum Project. “It’s emerging now, in real time,” Saterstrom, who is now able to access files from 1925 to 1935, said.

This detail of the monumental painting “What Became of Dr. Smith” pictures grave digging at the Old Asylum and, lower right, an Asylum Hill Project archaeologist excavating a burial a century later. Photo by Sherry Lucas

“It is remarkable,” Saterstrom continued. “The man wanted his story told, so thoroughly. He’s answering questions I’ve been asking for years, in his own voice, in these interviews. It’s just an absolute miracle.”

The massive amount of information that fed into “What Became of Dr. Smith” trickled to an end once he was hospitalized. “It’s like a genie is all of a sudden coming out of the bottle. It’s a whole other body of work that’s starting to emerge,” Saterstom said. He continues to seek information from his great-grandfather’s years at the State Hospital at Whitfield.

His great-grandfather went from the least-documented to the most-documented person in his family, the artist said. Following a trail of curiosity, the collaborative effort with Parks, the museum and Asylum Hill Project to find, gather, present, publish and show his story has undone a century of silence and shame about mental illness.

“It’s never really felt like my work,” Saterstrom said. “It’s felt like work that I needed to do for him, for his story.”

Mississippi Museum of Art (380 S. Lamar St., Jackson) exhibition admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors 65-plus, $10 for youth ages 5 through 17 and for college students with school IDs, and entry is free for museum members and children 5 and younger. Visit msmuseumart.org for more details.

Know a Mississippian you believe deserves a little public recognition? Nominate them for a potential Person of the Day article at mfp.ms/pod.

Sherry Lucas, a lifelong Mississippian, has been chronicling her home state’s creative folk and cultural landscape for decades. She grew up in Yazoo City, studied journalism at the University of Mississippi and was a longtime feature writer for daily newspapers in Jackson. Now a freelance writer, she continues to dig into the fertile fields of Mississippi arts and culture for stories to share.