“Unraveling,” the latest exhibition by Dorchester-based artist Susan Greer Emmerson, is now on display at Kingston Gallery in the South End through March 28.
Emmerson told the Reporter that the title of the show refers to a “general sensation describing all the things we’ve had to confront over the past year –and me personally, too. Things for so many people have come apart in such a major way,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m trying to make sense of it; maybe I’m just putting it out there for contemplation.”
Much of Emmerson’s previous work has focused on natural disasters and forces of climate change that have displaced people and destroyed homes and lives in recent years. Last spring, as a deadly pandemic compounded other natural disasters and changed further the relationships people have with their homes, Emmerson recognized how the crisis exacerbated the destruction that was already occurring.
Inspired by her Welsh heritage, Emmerson named a series of works “Hiraeth,” a Welsh word that expresses “the profound homesickness and nostalgia for a home you cannot return to, or one that may never have existed.”
"Hiraeth #3" Will Howlcroft photo
In her series of six “Hiraeth” paintings, Emmerson creates waves, piles, and masses of rubble, debris, and broken housing materials. The catastrophic scenes reveal the frailty of the home structure up against greater natural forces.
“I draw an analogy between the physical breakup of home structures and everything that means psychologically and emotionally,” explained Emmerson. “You lose your safe space, you lose the place where you dream, you lose your nest where you curl up at night. It’s devastating, and people are losing it in so many ways, between death and evictions and natural disasters, wildfires, things like that. It just seemed like the natural world was going crazy, and it kind of refocused my work; I knew I had to explore this.”
The idea for the series was in part influenced by her familiarity with, and interest in, architecture, she noted: “My dad was an engineer and a contractor who put us to work, so I know a lot about how to build a house, and I know a lot about how they come apart.”
In each Hiraeth painting, the houses are more and more demolished and disintegrated. Emmerson used bright colors to evoke the dream-like qualities that people might have of the memories of their homes. She used mainly basic forms of housing stock, but included a nod to her Dorchester digs by sprinkling one or two three-deckers amid the rubble.
"Hiraeth #6" Will Howlcroft photo
For “Nobody Has It Coming,” the foreboding sculpture centerpiece of the exhibition, Emmerson used Tyvek house wrap, electrical wire and tape to craft abstracted, sinister towers that are in the process of either being destroyed or rebuilt. The title reflects how nobody expects or deserves to see their homes vanish; the trauma is naturally inflicted, yet at the same time perpetrated by the man-made threat of climate change.
“I’ve been looking into so many aspects of this, the psychology of losing your home and the psychology of natural disasters, and how treating those who have gone through the trauma of losing one’s home is, to a psychologist, different than other types of trauma because it involves the whole community; it’s not only a personal loss; it’s the loss of the entire community.”
Emmerson crafted this sculpture, "Nobody Has It Coming," with Tyvek house wrap, electrical wire, and tape. Will Howlcroft photo
A former ear, nose, and throat surgeon, Emmerson said learning about the virus and witnessing its toll was particularly gruesome for her. As the death toll steadily rose and days in isolation melded together, she worked on a pair of art pieces — ”Unwinding” and “Unraveling” — to pass and mark the time.
"Unwinding" (above) and "Unraveling" (below) Will Howlcroft photo
Her use of bleach on black paper to painstakingly etch thread and rope that goes from being tightly coiled to loosely unraveled evokes loss through the chemical process itself: ”I’m not putting anything into the paper like you would do with paint; I’m taking something away,” she said.
“I started doing this, and it’s not like a specific number of days, but it was kind of tracking Covid because I made it during that time,” explained Emmerson. “It’s the idea of the orderliness of everything and it all falling apart.”
“Unraveling” will remain on display at Kingston Gallery in the South End through March 28. Gallery hours are 12-5 p.m. Wed-Sun and by appointment. Attendees will be limited to eight at a time in the gallery space, with facemasks and social distancing required. For more information, visit kingstongallery.com.