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Art and Mushrooms

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I’ve got mushrooms on the brain lately. Fall is a good season for them; they seem to spring up everywhere after a good rain moistens the dead leaves. I spend a lot of time in the fall walking around in the woods scanning for choice edibles and medicinals. I’m not the first artist to do so; there have been a lot of artists who have been interested in mycology. John Cage was probably being chief among them. "Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation" he would say.

Personally, I think there may be a little bit more to it than that. Last week I was doing studio visits and one of my students asked me how she could think "more like an artist". (What a question!) Without thinking I responded, "The trick is to think systematically. Don’t think about the parts; think about how each little bit affects all the other bits. If you do that you’ll be fine."

Thinking in a systematic way is exactly what foraging in the woods teaches you to do. When you hunt for mushrooms, you never look for the mushrooms. They are too subtle and delicate; you’ll never spot them in the beautiful, loud chaos of the New England woods. No, what you do is you look for trees. Each species of mushroom forms a symbiotic relationship with specific kinds of root systems. Find a stand of Birch and Beech and you will find Hedgehog Mushrooms. Looking for Oyster mushrooms? Look for poplar and aspen.

You need to know your terrain too. Mushrooms like it wet. See a low-lying area that looks moist? Check it out. You learn to recognize the subtle signs of washes, dry slopes that become streams when it rains. You start out an amateur mycologist and you end up an amateur ecologist who is sensitive to the connections between everything. I know where to find salamanders because I know where to find mushrooms, and I know where to find birds because I know how to identify trees.

What I realize now, after turning it over in my head, is that my advice to my student was incomplete. Think systematically, by all means. That’s what good artists do. But what I didn’t tell her (and I should have) is that I don’t think you can learn to do that in the studio. You only learn to do that in the world. It’s not a theoretical exercise; it’s a matter of letting your curiosity and sense of discovery seize you and carry you out of your white cube and into the woods. That’s the place where the scope of your investigation and understanding just expands and expands. As a younger man I used to lock myself in my studio and try to force something to happen; now I just take a lot of walks and see what I find. Nothing like mushroom identification to develop the powers of perception, and right now is the perfect time of year for it.

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About Author

Michael Zachary earned a B.A. from Bowdoin College in 2002 and M.F.A. in painting from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2008. Highlights from his past year have included participation in group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Ireland; a solo show in Charlottesville, VA; a residency in Ballyvaughn, Ireland; and visiting artist lectures in Virginia, Boston, and Ireland. He teaches drawing and painting at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Michael lives and makes work in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood in a house full of light and plants.

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