FULLY IMMERSED: ‘Natura Obscura’ exhibit offers surreal, self-guided art installation

A family of owls in the ‘Natura Obscura’ installation at the Museum of Outdoor Arts. Photo by Heather Longway

AURORA | Deep in the bowels of the second floor of the Englewood municipal building is something magical: A small forest of fictitious and wise woodland creatures hidden in an immersive, self-guided art installation at the Museum of Outdoor Arts.

You’ll also need an app to find and speak to them in the alternate universe.

“My hope is that it provides people with a sense of self-discovery,” MOA Director of Programs Tim Vacca said of “Natura Obscura,” the museum’s first immersive installation in its 35-year history.

Stepping through the doors into the installation is awe-inspiring — it’s like if the “upside down” in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” met the uber-popular Meow Wolf museum, known for its extended reality installation, in Santa Fe. Oatmeal colored walls and the bland corporate carpet of the city building suddenly meet a flock of artists’ idea of what a dark forest should be, reflective and inspiring.

The entrance to “Nature’s Cathedra;” at the Museum of Outdoor Arts. Photo by Heather Longway

Twinkling lights and forest sounds surround visitors entering the main atrium, which eventually leads to a swing that triggers a faux thunderstorm when in use — one of the sensory aspects of the show.

The creators describe the experience like stepping into your favorite painting and you’re able to touch, see, feel and smell everything around you.

Visitors are given a blacklight and the option to download an app or borrow a phone already equipped to navigate the exhibit, which took six weeks to install and more than a year of planning, according to Vacca.

With each step the blacklight reveals more thoughtful lines as you move through the exhibit.

It’s easy to get lost in the exhibit, even though it’s not nearly as big as other immersive art experiences. Unlike Meow Wolf, the exhibit is only temporary, which makes it even more impressive that the nearly 30 artists were able to pull off such a feat.

Come with the “Natura Obscura” app already downloaded — it’s available for android and IOS systems — and a full phone battery. You’ll need both to meet the creatures in the forest, each one representing different spirits, like water and fire.

Use the app’s camera feature to activate the stories once you find the symbols hidden throughout the forest.

Immersive art installations have always been a thing, Vacca said. He argues that Disney World could be put in the same vein as “Natura Obscura,” but it was the instant popularity of Meow Wolf that familiarized people with the ability to make art interactive.

“We take a different spin,” Vacca said, adding that the augmented reality is another layer to the experience.

While the interactive aspects of the installation undoubtedly land points with children visiting MOA through the spring, it’s also a sense of wonder and a good exercise of imagination for adults.

MOA worked with Prismajic — a Denver-based entertainment company that describes itself part art museum, part interactive experience and part Cirque du Soleil — for the main hall of the installation. Other artist collaborations take up the remainder of the show. The artists were all given the theme of “nature.”

“I hope people will leave their baggage behind when they come here,” Vacca said of the fantasy-like experience.

This is the first time Vacca said the museum has charged entrance into one of the museum’s shows, so it was a risk. But he hopes that the decades old art gallery will gain new followers out of the installation.

The show runs now through April 28. Tickets range from $10 to $20, depending on the day. For questions, call 303-806-0444 or visit www.naturaobscura.org.