Hope Amid the Ruins

Through a colorful rendition of a dark reality, Sarah Emerson became an expert on a place she’s never been.

Emerson’s mural installation, based on her imaginary interpretation of Japan’s suicide forest Aokigahara, is on display at the Haskell Atrium Gallery in the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. Her “Underland” is a continuation of a series of paintings she’s created based on her imaginings of the forest.

“I have never been to Aokigahara, and I have never been to Japan,” said Sarah Emerson, painter and instructor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Emerson said seeing the reality of Aokigahara — that people go there to die — would dissolve the imaginary “Underland” for her.

“I feel despondent with the world around me, as I’m sure everyone does,” Emerson said.

Horrible things are happening all the time, but the world is still beautiful; the forest, the unknown, is still beautiful, Emerson said.

The last time MOCA presented such a dark subject was when the first in the atrium series debuted. Photographer Melanie Pullen recreated grizzly murder scenes from the 20th century and staged them photographically, MOCA Curator Ben Thompson said.

“I think death is a part of life, and I think it brings all of this into conversation, which is important,” Thompson said. “Not to mention, Emerson’s work is visually striking, amazing and full of energy, so it’s dark but energetic, gestural and beautiful at the same time.”

MOCA launched the Project Atrium series about two years ago in a previously underutilized space, the first gallery viewers encounter upon entering the museum, Thompson said.

The 30-foot-by-30-foot-by-40-foot space challenges artists to work with its scale, Thompson said.

Project Atrium is the only program in Northeast Florida funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation, Thompson said. MOCA was awarded a multiyear commitment to fund the series, designed to further the advancement of emerging and mid-career artists and their work.

Emerson’s work has been recognized, but she is still on her ascent, Thompson said. She represents something MOCA hasn’t seen in a while: a muralist working directly on the surface of all three walls. The scale is huge for her, and she has never worked on a piece this big, he said.

Installations allow artists to use an entire environment, so when viewers enter the space, they’re not simply viewing a wall — they’re immersed in a concept, Emerson said. However, installations are ephemeral pieces that exist for a short time to be experienced before they disappear, Thompson said.

Emerson said she builds her paintings through color and composition, and the only way to do that is to make a lot of mistakes.

“If you’re thinking too hard about something — you’re not letting yourself come up with a better idea, you’re not allowing that creative process to happen,” she said.

Emerson tries not to think while she works, and she allows her painting to tell her what will happen next. “I know the color rules, and I try to challenge that.”

The proposal Emerson submitted came with colors titled “Pooh Bear’s Coat” and “Eeyore’s Grey Cloud,” Thompson said.

Emerson renders a macabre Technicolor darkness in a fairytale palette, he said.

“It’s kind of like my own dark dream,” Emerson said. “The more you know, the more terrifying the world is and the more beautiful the world is.”

The mural embodies a gaping forest scene filled with trees, black holes and animals.

“If anything, I kind of want the viewer to feel a little [innocent] and corrupted at the same time,” Emerson said.

The sporadic images of deer in her work symbolize something majestic and wild, she said. When she was younger, Emerson came across a deer carcass that indelibly taught her life does not last.

She said the bubbles in her work represent what the Dutch masters would call the fragility of life.

Viewers of the mural become participants in this imaginary space that exists in the real world, she said. The painted faces are they lost spirits or reflections? — become witnesses to the viewers.

Emerson said the many different landscapes of her childhood inspired her — the woods in Louisiana, the suburbs of New Orleans and urban Miami.

“It’s really the big idea of how we as humans exist in this civilized world around us, how we populate it, how we corrupt it and how we love it,” Emerson said.

“Underland” resembles a toxic, post-civilization landscape where nature has started to take over. Visitors could be lost in the dense vegetation and magnetized rock that blocks compasses, Emerson said.

When people enter into Aokigahara, they may change their minds once they’re in, but they might not be able to get out, she said.

People place colorful markers in Aokigahara while they search for those to rescue, Emerson said. The searches create a sense of hope in an otherwise hapless environment.