Deep in the Woods

Sarah Emerson explores the darker ground in her engaging landscapes

["The Overlook," 48 x 60, acrylic and rhinestones on canvas]

[“The Overlook,” 48 x 60, acrylic and rhinestones on canvas.]

Before his death in 1889 at the age of 44, the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had devoted his short life to traversing what he called the “outscape” and “inscape” of being, celebrating the natural world around him while traveling deep into the shifting lands of his own interior terrain and recording the experience of those collective journeys.

In his poem “Nondum” (Latin for “not yet”), Hopkins ruminates on a world that is eternally in creation while seemingly frozen in its own lifelessness, a landscape both mystifying as it is morbid:

“We see the glories of the earth

But not the hand that wrought them all:

Night to a myriad worlds give birth,

Yet like a lighted empty hall

Where stands no host at door or hearth

Vacant creation’s lamps appal.”

Over the course of nine verses, Hopkins describes a place of seasons with changeful moods, “chaotic floods,” where voices moan among the reeds and “prayer seems lost in desert ways.” It is a world of shadow taunting light, where faith and direction are swallowed up like sunlight hitting the moon. Throughout the poem, Hopkins calls out to a creator who has long since ignored his creation, while drawing us a map of a boundary-less land, a ghost town now vacant of even its phantoms.

The landscape paintings of Sarah Emerson seem born of a similar seed. Inspired by natural and man-made disasters, now-barren battlefields and places like the alleged haunted forest of Aokigahara in Japan, Emerson has created an emptied world which she calls “Underland” a kind of fallen Eden that exists between the cracks of our own world. Emerson delivers a kind of environmental eschatology, an end of the world scenario played out in a fierce display of acrylic paint that features foreboding, static landscapes inhabited by withered trees, rock-like skulls, slithering black streams and horizons that seem to collapse into the earth. Contrasting dark colors and motifs with lighter tones and oddly playful signifiers like rainbows, Emerson’s limbo world invites the psychological mindset of the audience to step close to the edge; it is up to the individual viewer as to whether or not they will accept this offer to stroll through this alluringly macabre place.

The 38 year old Emerson has been featured in over 85 group and solo exhibits in the U.S. and abroad, including such notable venues as New York’s White Columns, Cosmic Galerie in Paris, Belgium’s Tache-Levy gallery and an invitation to appear at the 2010 Quebec City Biennial. Emerson graduated with a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1998; two years later she garnered her MFA from Goldsmiths College in London, England. She currently teaches Painting and Drawing at Emory University in Atlanta.

Emerson is currently the featured artist at Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Project Atrium Series.” Her mural “Black Sea of Trees” is on display through July 7 at 333 N. Laura St. in downtown Jacksonville, 366-6911.

St. Augustine’s space:eight gallery presents the opening reception for Emerson’s exhibit “Dog Days” on June 7 from 5-11 p.m. at 224 W. King St., 829-2838. Emerson will be appearing at the reception and the show will be on display through July 26.

Sarah Emerson agreed to speak with me on the afternoon of Thursday, May 2nd. What follows is a transcription of our talk.

Starehouse: Hey now, Sarah. Can you talk?

Sarah Emerson: Yes I can and I’m sorry I had to reschedule.

S: It’s all good.

S.E.: It’s crazy right now this week. It’s just mental. I have little kids and they’re finishing up school so it’s just all over my calendar (laughs)! Anyway, hello!

S: How old are they?

S.E.: I have a nine year old and a four year old.

S: Wow. That’s like the eye of the hurricane.

S.E.: Yeah (laughs). I was trying to talk to you on an afternoon that they were at school and that just wasn’t working out so they may interrupt but hopefully not.

S: It’s all good. I have nineteen feasible questions written out but that’s just me trying to sound smart. I’ll be mindful of your time. Where are you originally from?

S.E.: I was born in Port Huron, Michigan. It’s like a small harbor town outside of Detroit.

S: Your press statement from MOCA says that you had kind of a “nomadic childhood”; why was that?

S.E.: (laughs) I know. It’s so bizarre because I talked to Carl Holman [MOCA Media Relations] at MOCA for a really long time, over a couple of days and he was very frank and he asked me all kinds of personal questions and usually I don’t talk much about any of that stuff and he included that in the writing. But yeah my childhood was really nomadic. My parents were kind of unsettled, that’s probably the best way to describe them. My dad is an accountant but it just never really came natural for him, he wanted to be an artist and musician. So he was never really settled so he was always trying out new things. My parents met in high school and married right out of high school in the seventies. They were born and raised in Port Huron so they had me there so after seven years, we moved down to Louisiana after my dad’s job took us there. And we stayed there for a while and he did a bunch of different kinds of jobs and then we ended up in Florida and lived in different places there for other kinds of jobs (laughs). You know, it was interesting (…) it was kind of crazy when I look back on it now and I think about how (…) I haven’t moved anywhere in a few years and when I think about it, it seems a little nuts, but my parents were fun and a little wild. Port Huron is a really small town but then, my first memory actually was (…) my Grandmother’s house was kind of on the water and then my dad moved us out to a farm, he wanted to have a farm (laughs) and we had chickens and all kinds of crazy things and then we moved down to the suburbs of Louisiana .

S: Were they like quasi-hippie types or were they just kind of figuring it out as they went? They were pretty young, right?

S.E.: They were pretty young and I think “quasi-hippie types” is a pretty good way to describe them. They definitely experimented with things like that. They were just really unsettled, you know? I think just since they were one of the first generations that had been stuck with “the way things had always been” and it wasn’t okay that things were like that. The “norm” wasn’t really adequate and it wasn’t good enough. It’s funny because in the eighties, people think about economic downturn now, but in the eighties it was just like that. I remember it being really difficult and for my dad, who was actually a pretty white-collar kind of guy for a while, I don’t know (…) he just never fit in with that. I don’t know if it was his upbringing or whatever. It never really suited him. So he kept trying new things, new businesses and new places. I think they thought that each place would bring a different story. And you know it never does; the same problems come with you.

S: This proves my theory that Richard Brautigan paperbacks corrupted a generation.

S.E.: (laughs) Ha ha! Right!

S: So where was the longest place that you lived?

S.E.: I suppose, honestly, I never really thought about it. The longest place I’ve lived is probably where I am now (laughs). But growing up, probably Louisiana (…) I spent about the same amount of time in every place that I ever lived, like three or four years, a year here or there. I left home when I was really young.

S: You were tired of all those damn moving trucks.

S.E.: (laughs) Yeah, when I was about 16 I left. I was in Miami and I went and lived with a friend of mine’s family.

S: Did you got to art school right out of high school?

S.E.: Pretty much. I worked for a year and then came up to Atlanta with a friend of mine. As far as a city, Atlanta was probably one of the biggest cities I had really lived in, other than maybe Miami. It never really felt like I was connected to Miami. Being there during my junior and senior years of high school, it was very urban, very crazy (…) and it was not necessarily the best times of my life (laughs) to be down there. When I came up to Atlanta, I thought that it was such a pretty city and there were so many cool things going on. So I applied for school here. I guess I am a little nomadic myself because after a few years, I went to a program in Boston during my undergrad years. I took a semester off and then did grad school in London. And I moved around to all kinds of places since then.

["Devil's Den," 48 x 60, acrylic and rhinestones on canvas.]

[“Devil’s Den,” 48 x 60, acrylic and rhinestones on canvas.]

S: Do you feel settled there? Do you still feel restless?

S.E.: I’m very restless! This is the longest my husband and I have lived anywhere. We’ve been here since 2006 so we’re going on six or seven years, it’s a pretty big deal.

S: The terror of stability.

S.E.: Yeah (laughs). But for the right job offer I might leave. But I like the idea of my kids being in one place and it’s really nice to see them make connections with people. Even though I make friends easily, the kind of connections they have made (…) they’ve been here for as long as they can remember, so it’s nice to see that.

S: You mentioned like the memory of your Grandmother’s house and the childhood farm – and I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you by the way (laughs) – but I’m curious…

S.E.: Oh, there’s a lot there I’m sure (laughs).

S: But you do make these landscapes and I guess I’m wondering if when you were moving from town to town as a child, did you find solace or stability in being in nature?

S.E.: A little bit. I think I liked exploring. Did you move a lot when you were growing up?

S: No. We moved from Louisville to Jacksonville when I was a kid.

S.E.: How old were you?

S: I was eight. It was completely jarring to my psyche. At the time, it was like moving to Mars, like 1980-era Florida.

S.E.: (laughs) It is like moving to Mars. You see, you were eight and my daughter is nine; that’s a very, very delicate age. It’s an age where you’re actually making real friends.

S: Right.

S.E.: So each time we left it was really jarring to me and it was like that – you feel like an alien. I think my parents were pretty good about trying to move during the summer and you know how summers seem really long and you can explore and hike through different places. And I remember a lot of times like that, just sort of being on the edge and not really being (…) involved in the way things were, but just kind of exploring. But yeah, I found a little solace in nature but I think that my memories growing up are associated with the places that I (…) most people have attachments to people and friends (…) it seems like it’s easy for people to figure out milestones based on the people that they knew in their life, when they were friends with so-and-so, when their relatives passed away (…) those kinds of landmarks, I never had those. I had places and people were associated with specific places so that I would remember who my friends were based on places.

S: So were you a kind of nature child? I mean, some kids never want to come in after dark; they’re still out trying to catch that last firefly.

S.E.: I never wanted to come in after dark. They definitely had to yell louder for me. I mean, how old are you?

S: I’m a broke down 41.

S.E.: (laughs) Well, I’m sure you remember before all of the sprawl, or when the eighties suburban sprawl was just beginning, the thing that I remembered about a lot of the neighborhoods we lived in was that they were always in the midst of another phase that was being developed. So you could ride your bike to the edge of a neighborhood and there would be these streets to nowhere. And they were still wooded, so there would be these crazy cul-de-sacs that went nowhere and were just really wild. We were always waiting on the rest of this massive development and I remember that is how a lot of neighborhoods seemed to look. And the place we lived, that were mostly suburban areas, they were in the midst of a massive sprawl (laughs) of development.

S: I’m from the same sprawl. Remember the movie [1979 coming-of-age and youth in revolt classic] “Over the Edge” with Matt Dillon?

S.E.: I haven’t seen that. I have to watch it! (laughs)

S: Oh yeah, it’s great. The kids are fed up and they take over. It has a heavy Cheap Trick soundtrack. The kids are fed up with suburban sprawl and their neglect from their parents so they burn down the school.

S.E.: Oh shit, I know that movie (laughs) I totally know that movie.

S: It’s like hardcore punk 101.The kids kind of loiter at the rec center and one kid famously has a bad acid trip in class.

S.E.: Yes! This is my life, actually.

S: I don’t know if it was made as a cautionary tale or a call to revolution.

S.E.: But that movie is a pretty good description of what it was like.

S: Yeah, totally.

S.E.: And each place that I lived, and I was kind of a do-gooder, and each time you moved to a different place you get more and more disconnected and it becomes harder and harder to fit in, so each place we moved to, I moved further and further to the outskirts from the good kids.

S: Stacking the Alienation of Sarah Emerson.

S.E.: Well, (laughs) you get closer and closer to drinking Peach Schnapps and hanging out in the yard at three in the morning.

S: I noticed that humans are conspicuously absent in seemingly all of your work. Is that deliberate?

S.E.: Well yes and no, to a degree. I’ve never really explored figurative painting (…) I’ve actually done a few where there are girls in there but generally they’re very fantastical and they almost seem like they have dropped there by accident or they’re not real in some way. Basically the idea that people have been absorbed by the landscape or eaten up by the landscape is a big part of my work. I always thought of a landscape as sort of being figurative anyway; I mean it’s metaphoric in many ways and the animals had always represented sort of human behavior when I used to put a lot of animals in them. But now they’re kind of barren, it’s like they have eaten the people.

S: On your site, in your earlier work, you had things like animals and your current work seems excited purely about the landscape, so it seems like you shifted (…) from the “fauna” to just the “flora.”

S.E.: Well, I wanted to make the landscape more personified and look more animated. I do occasionally have a few paintings here and there that still have the “fauna” (laughs) but I just wanted these quiet, empty spaces. And what happened was I was looking into (…) if you think of places that are barren, where there are no animals any more, there’s nothing there for them, so you think of a landscape that is not appropriate for any kind of life other than the one that it has had to adapt to. Does that make sense?

S: Absolutely.

S.E.: You know, if you think about places like Chernobyl, I think they have done studies where there are some animals there still (…) so I ‘ve tried to imagine these landscapes and places where the animals wouldn’t go, that’s how scary it was, or maybe that’s just how mysterious it was, maybe “scary” is the wrong word. But it’s a place just outside of that.

S: On “Black Sea of Trees” you have these predominant colors of browns and grays and these skull motifs, but then you have flecks of pink and light blue and these rainbows…

S.E.: Well, I’m a girl (laughs).

S: (laughs) There’s my answer (…) but it seems like this decay and death is forced side by side with motion and life. With that mural it’s pretty jarring, but why do you like contrasting these things, or toggling menacing and playful in the same composition?

S.E.: I always have answered this question in kind of the same way…

S: (laughs) Gee, thanks.

S.E.: (laughs) No, you know what I mean (…) but I like to have tension between the darkness and the beauty and blah blah blah (…) but as a mother now, which is something that has consumed me for the last nine years, I can say that really how I look at this work now (…) it’s really about trying to be careful with the truth. I think in many ways it’s about taking something that’s really ugly and knowing that there is a lot of ugliness and darkness and having to find a way to try and make sense of all of that; and keep going. I know it’s kind of jarring and I know that they’re kind of girly, I mean I am a girl and I’m kind of girly in some ways, they have these adolescent, girly qualities to them a lot of the time. And mostly it is about trying to make sense of all of the darkness and how to be careful with the truth and understand the truth and the real nature of the world; and what to do with that. And you know, this whole idea of being “safe and sound” [the text “safe and sound” is featured on the mural at MOCA], you’re never really “safe and sound,” something could happen at any time (…) but we still have to think about things in a more beautiful and hopeful way; this idea that there is despair and hope at the same time. They don’t exist outside of each other.

["Flood Remains," 56 x 58, acrylic on canvas.]

[“Flood Remains,” 56 x 58, acrylic on canvas.]

S: I can imagine having kids and wanting to protect them from these things in the world but you also have to explain why the danger or darkness is there.

S.E.: Oh yeah, it’s horrible (laughs) because they have a very simple and innocent way of looking at the world. They’ll ask you about something they heard on the news, like the bombing recently in Boston. The kids now talk and they hear about everything. My daughter comes home from school and asks, “Why did they do that?” And I try to explain, “Well, they were confused and kind of mean …” you just try to give them the answer that they can handle. And then you get the “why” again (…) like Louis C.K.: “Why do kids say ‘why’ every time you say something?” (laughs) and each time you want to tell them how things really are. But the truth is they do understand – it’s just that we forget sometimes to simply ask ourselves “Why do we continue to do this if it is not good?” So a lot of my work is about trying to capture that innocence, which is where I think a lot of the adolescent, fantastical things come in. This sounds really cheesy (laughs) and not to say there’s a little kid in all of us, but there’s a person in us somewhere that wants to know “why” there is all of this darkness in the world, why is something bad happening? You know?

S: Sure. I know what you’re saying. My inner child is like Walter Matthau. So it’s a problem for me. It’s been a longtime issue for me. He’s got a little cigar butt and he just cusses.

S.E.: (Speaking in a fairly decent Matthau-impersonation) “Well, fuck it!”(laughs)

S: That’s it! That’s what he says! He’s beyond the “why” stage of life. Let me ask you about some of this local work here. So the MOCA mural “Black Sea of Trees” and the accompanying pieces are part of an ongoing series called “Underland,” correct?

S.E.: Yes, and actually this kind of goes towards that whole idea of personifying a place. “Underland” has become kind of this crazy gateway (…) how would I describe that (…) I guess it would be an amusement park in purgatory.

S: Right. So it’s like a shadow world or tertiary or transitory realm between places?

S.E.: Yes. It’s sort of really (…) that’s just nonsense for me really saying it’s a place where I can make shit up about whatever world I want to make. “Underland” is my make-believe place and it’s inspired by a real place, which I am sure you read about, the Japanese forest Aokigahara [A 14 square mile forest located at the base of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara has a mythological history of being home to demons and is also a notoriously popular destination for suicides].

S: So people go there to die, basically?

S.E.: They go there not to come out. It’s a very ancient forest so the canopy of trees is really dense so you can’t see where the sun is, you can’t find your direction out (…) it’s very disorienting and very still and quiet …

S: It’s like Southeast Georgia.

S.E.: Yes (laughs) exactly! You go and you can’t get out. So it’s a real place and it’s a morbid place because so many people go there to die. But I’m very fascinated with landscapes that carry with them the history of the events that happened there so battlefields, places like that which actually contain human history within the land.

S: I want to ask you about this, because in this video interview with Charles Fox you spoke about “reappropriating” the Civil War landscapes and you refer to this “realm of myth” and the concept of viewing a place not through direct experience but rather seeing it through the idea of the mythic or storied. So what compels you to choose Aokigahara forest or Civil War battlefields? You already have your own realm of “Underland.” What compels you to look for these stories in these landscapes?

S.E.: Well, because I think that these stories are part of our every day, kind of common place idea of how we see the world around us. Obviously something like Aokigahara forest is very far away but certainly the areas we preserve in our own landscapes in the South. And these are places, for instance where I live, I’m less than a mile away from a mill that burned down where they were making [Civil War-era] uniforms (…) basically the landscape I live on right now has a whole host of memories coming out of history. And I kind of seek out the stories because I think they’re relatable. And I’m really just trying to investigate my own place in the world that we live in and I can only hope that you will relate and I think that part is relatable. I think the part where I make them fantastical, well that’s a little harder (…) talking about what it means to make art or paintings about it; that’s a little different. But I like talking about the stories because that’s the part I feel like everyone can get involved into and feel a part of. Then the psychological aspect of the landscape can be something that can be introduced as you get into the story.

S: You use the term psychological but when you get into “storied places” and even ideas of dark and light, when you delve into the fantastical, does your interest dip into the supernatural quality of these places as well?

S.E.: Yes and no. I always thought that I would think more about (…) for instance, the little skulls that are in the work, I thought people would ask more about them being ghosts in the forest or in the landscape, about it being more spiritual (…) but it’s interesting; I’ve kept them very simplified because I guess I am not really talking about the ghosts that are there; they are more about the reflections of the viewer, like where you see yourself (…) kind of keeping them simplified. It’s about putting you in that space, it’s not about necessarily seeing something else, like something spiritual there or whatever. But yeah, I like the idea that anything could happen. Something that always amazed me about Aokigahara (…) and now they’ve kind of become part of the whole battlefield landscapes, too, those kinds of studies of the forest, they’re all kind of part of the same thing because they’re all part of “Underland” (…) but this idea that you could go into a place and a compass wouldn’t work. That is very mystical; “spiritual” is not the word but it’s very mystical and it’s horrifying to me that you could go in, change your fucking mind, and not be able to get out. And that’s the part that really drew me to it. So yeah, I guess in a way it’s more of a mystical idea that you’re not in control of your own destiny all of the time. You think you are. And certainly in the case of entering Aokigahara, you’re making a choice at that moment that you think you’re kind of in charge of your own destiny but what if you choose to get out of that? Well, there’s this other force, which I guess would be natural or spiritual in some way that is now in charge and is not going to let you out.

S: Is that true of that place, do they think that compasses don’t work there?

S.E.: Yeah, because of the ancient volcanic activity, a lot of the rock there is magnetized and interferes with the use of a compass and due to the density of the trees you can’t see the sun to figure out how to get out.

S: Jesus (…) cue Theremin music for the interview.

S.E.: Exactly. So yeah, there is an aspect of the spiritual in my work to a degree and I’m very interested in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the fall of Satan and those kinds of stories that really speak to this idea of the loss of innocence and what that means. But I really relate that back to nature and I guess I would use nature and spirituality in similar ways, because nature is (…) we kind of understand it but at any moment we can experience something like an earthquake (…) I mean, shit, in Florida the earth is swallowing people.

S: Yeah, that’s probably some heavy karma when the earth eats you.

S.E.: In the very early work that is mostly what I would talk about and this natural phenomenon – that we think we are in charge and are at the top of the food chain – but at any time a tsunami can come and just take out 300,000 people.

S: Do you think your work points to this kind of “end of the world” scenario but in a case where Mother Earth kind of buckles and caves in on us? Is that in your work?

S.E.: Well, I like to think of it more like a purgatory, you know? Not necessarily in an apocalyptic vision but more of a place in between and a possibility of things becoming. It’s like that choice that you make to enter the woods (…) what you do when you enter the woods, which would be the unknown I guess, to a degree (…) what you do, what choices you make and how you can take control of that. It’s more about that (…) yeah, that’s the best I can say that. I think if anything they become post-apocalyptic, because there are all of these tiny apocalypses that have happened all around us, we have Chernobyl, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Indonesia, Japan, which was unbelievable (…) these are small apocalypses that are happening because they’re actually, when you look up the word, it means “to reveal something that is hidden” so they’re actually revealing something about us, those big events are about humanity, they reveal something about humanity that maybe we didn’t know before it happened. So yes the work is about apocalypse, to a degree, but not necessarily in the way that mainstream thinks about apocalypses. I think about it in the true sense of what the word means. If you’re at the edge of the cul-de-sac and you’re looking at the woods, what might be beyond that? What are the woods, exactly? And it’s different for everybody, that’s why I think it’s interesting to have a lot of black spaces in the work because it’s non-specific, so everybody kind of comes with their own reflective darkness in there and people say weird things to me about what they think they see in the work – and I didn’t expect that. I thought that I was being much more direct with my new landscapes than I had been previously (laughs), little did I know.

S: Looking at your work, I’m reminded of everything from naturalism and even someone like Max Ernst, in the sense that everything seems just barely tethered to the natural order of things but then even the perspective seems malleable and these identifiable things like trees morph into these unreal colors (…) I mean, compositionally and when you are making the work, how do you achieve what seems like a precarious balance?

S.E.: I make a lot of mistakes (laughs). I know now when I am starting out the kind of effect I would like to achieve, for instance, the “Underland” paintings if I were ideally to have them one day together in a room, I’d use some repetitive colors, some very bright colors from one to another, so hopefully when you’re standing in the room, your eye will go from one to another, in a way that you can’t look at one without looking at another. And hopefully the colors would vibrate where they create this kind of motion. The idea is that it is shifting all of the time, that there is no real horizon line, the ground and the sky are constantly trading places. It doesn’t always work. I make a lot of mistakes and paint over things but really I try and create that feeling with color. Compositionally, I’m using a lot of colors next to each other that don’t quite seem like they should make sense, so hopefully that would make another one pop in another place.

S: How did you get into these mural installations?

S.E.: Well, it was sort of an accident.

S: Well, how did it come about? Was this an interest you had or was it something that you were offered?

S.E.: Well I had done murals before in conjunction with my paintings but not like super-large scale and I was asked to do something awhile back. I kind of consider myself a project based painter (…) I don’t look at them in a series necessarily but I kind of think about each show, like I think about Rob’s show[“Dog Days], I think of it as one thing. And then I try to think about which elements are going to make sense in that story. If somebody asks me to take a space and do something with it, I just try to think of it like that. Each space has different demands and I need to figure out what kind of work I want to make in that space, because I want to apply what I want to do to it. But each place has a specific personality (…) I don’t just go in and hang the paintings because sometimes that doesn’t work with the specific place. And I’m lucky that I’ve been able to work with some adventurous people in some pretty adventurous ways over the years.

S: How did you get involved with MOCA here in Jacksonville? How did that come about?

S.E.: Rob [DePiazza, space:eight gallery owner] was actually talking with Ben [Thompson, MOCA curator] and recommended that he look at my work. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to be interested but he was interested and we talked. But really, Rob hooked me up with Ben.

S: What did you think of that space [in the MOCA Atrium]? It’s a pretty big space.

S.E.: (laughs) It’s huge! But it’s great and it’s kind of isolated so it was easy to work on because it was this nice, clean wall space. It was gigantic and I just wanted to do something (…) I wanted to do the space justice. Like I said, I don’t want to go in and just hang something that doesn’t really work with the space. The space tells the story with the work.

S: Did you come down here before and kind of physically check out the space?

S.E.: Yeah. I went down, I photographed the space, and I did scale drawings of the space and kind of worked out what I really wanted to do. Of course when you get there (…) I kind of go into murals with the idea that it’s not always going to go as planned; I always sort of expect that because you just never know. It’s funny because I usually just have my husband helping, but Ben has an entire staff (laughs) and there were all of these people kind of saying “What can I do to help you?” and it’s so hard to say “I don’t fucking know what I’m going to do with that line yet! (laughs) So be cool and don’t touch anything!” Once I got everything on the wall, it was great because I had a lot of help.

S: How big was the crew? I know you had Tony Rodrigues helping you and he’s a great painter so that was probably a benefit.

S.E.: I had like four or five people. Yeah, Tony’s great and I had all-in-all a great group of people.

S: Rob DePiazza and Christy Brown came down to lend their skills.

S.E.: Yeah, Rob and Christy came down for a day. It was very nice. I had a lot of help and had three or four people at any given time helping.

S: So this MOCA mural “Black Sea of Trees” is part of this “Underland”?

S.E.: Yes.

S: I’m curious, because when you speak about “Underland” it seems like it is part of one giant story in a way? Is that true?

S.E.: I guess the way that I’m looking at it now, and maybe it’s new for me to be thinking about it like this, I sort of now see that everything I have been working on has kind of existed in this fantastical place. I’m not a realistic painter. I want things to be sort of fluid. I kind of now see “Underland” as part of a bigger story. Now I’m trying to imagine what would populate a place like this other realm? This story of looking in the distance and there it is. What would be in there? So it really just gives me the freedom to sample from things that are real and imagine how I would re-imagine that. How would I re-do that? What else could be in there?

S: Is “Underland” a place that is evolving or is it a static realm?

S.E.: I would like to think that it’s evolving, like it’s just like any other place. Things will develop, things will grow there. What kind of things will grow there? I don’t know. A lot of times I quote the “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost because I sort of imagine that, for myself, it’s sort of like standing between what is civil and what is wild. So “Underland” sort of represents the wild of the things that we know. It’s our innocent nature but at the same time it’s a dangerous place to be.

S: So this upcoming show at space:eight, “Dog Days,” is another chapter in the “Underland” mythos? Do you mind if I use the word “mythos”? (laughs)

S.E.: Yeah (laughs) and it’s basically that I’m bringing some drawings, I’m bringing some of the Civil War paintings; I haven’t hung those anywhere yet. I have some of the forest paintings and a bunch of drawings that connect all of those things together. I’m sure you know the song about how “dog days are over” well I don’t think that the dog days are over. We are kind of in the midst of dog days and really “Underland” is sort of about that. What kinds of things would be happening, bubbling up to the surface and beyond? I’m kind of curious as to how Rob’s space is set up; I know it’s broken up into a couple of spaces, so I’m not sure how I’m going to do it yet.

S: It’s a cool space. There are areas where you could highlight certain things. Do you have an estimate of how many pieces you’ll bring?

S.E.: Six or seven big things (…) you know, I don’t really know yet (laughs) I might keep the forest scenes separate from the battlefields. I’m not really sure yet of how I might do that. I’m trying to think how I could keep them separate like chapters in a graphic novel.

S: In the mural at MOCA it seems like the BP Oil Spill is referenced in the imagery and it seems like you are definitely protective of nature in the sense that it is your main focus and inspiration (…) are you personally involved with any environmental groups or do you feel like you live your life according to these principles of awareness and conservation?

S.E.: Actually, I think that my work is more about the shortcomings of that. I don’t really think that I live in the way like you would need to (…) to be protecting these things.

S: What do you mean by “shortcomings”?

S.E.: I would like to; in my life, my own shortcomings. It’s always been a big part of what I made work about. I was interested first in what areas we preserve and how we handled those areas that we preserved. A lot of times we would preserve hunting grounds and take good care of that landscape and not develop on that. Then there’s this whole weird narrative with that where we sort of raise things for years and years and then we kill them to make a trophy. So there’s this weird narrative with the way we are civilized but still want to be a part of nature.

[Sarah Emerson stands in front of her mural "Black Sea of Trees," which is on display at MOCA Jacksonville through July 7.]

[Sarah Emerson stands in front of her mural “Black Sea of Trees,” which is on display at MOCA Jacksonville through July 7.]

Daniel A. Brown


4 thoughts on “Deep in the Woods

  1. Pingback: Dog Days at Space:Eight June 7th- July 29th 2013 | Sarah Emerson

  2. Pingback: Stare-Worthy Art | Bill Ectric's Place

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