Fungi exhibit at CMU reveals fascinating details about mushrooms
A soft echo of voices bounces off the dark walnut walls and shiny teak floor of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Oakland.
You can hear the excitement in the voices of Lugene Bruno and Carrie Roy as the two curators discuss a colorful watercolor painting of a strange fungi called pilobolus. Their enthusiasm for the wild-looking art is contagious, as is their love of the subject.
“The Mysterious Nature of Fungi” is their latest exhibition, and the pair talk in dulcet tones about one of their favorite pieces on display in the show. Bruno, who is curator of art here, discovered the artwork in the institute's archives, which many consider the greatest collection of botanic art in the world.
“That was a particular painting I had come across just a couple of years ago,”she says of the pilobolus. “It has a very abstract quality to it. When I saw it, I was like, ‘What is this?'”
“It has sort of a sack at the top of a stalk that absorbs light and water,” says Roy, the assistant curator. “It swells and swells and swells until it literally shoots the spore, and it can shoot meters away; it can be a real Olympic athlete.
“This is just crazy-looking; it looks like fish eggs,” she says with a laugh.
That's what might make it so compelling and the cornerstone of the show; it's a mysterious look at one of nature's many fungal wonders.
The institute is on the Carnegie Mellon University campus on the fifth floor of the Hunt Library and is one of Pittsburgh's hidden treasures. It's a great place for gardeners to visit as the season comes to an end, and it is within walking distance of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
There's something about mushrooms and fungi that fascinate the curators, and they have chosen a broad range of work to include in the show.
“They are such a part of pop culture your whole life growing up,” Roy says of fungi. “I think there's sort of an inherent fascination: the bright colors, the different forms, some are beautiful capped mushrooms, some you can't even see.”
During the past year researching and collecting works for the show, they've learned much about fungi and geared the show to pass along what they've discovered.
“Something that really should have been obvious, but wasn't obvious to me, (was) that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of fungi,” Bruno says. “There's so many different forms, so much is going on underground.”
It's interesting, too, that fungi were kicked out of the plant kingdom in 1969, and even though fungi are not technically considered plants anymore, the pair wanted to showcase it because of “an important relationship to our existence on this planet,” Bruno says. “It's responsible for so much on our planet — how things decompose, how nutrients are exchanged, for food, for medicines, but also, we have to respect them because they can be quite dangerous and deadly.”
Botanists decided in 1969 that, because fungi contains a cellular structure called chitin, which is much more commonly found in the shells of crustaceans and exoskeletons of insects, that they shared more with animals than plants. That's one reason there's an amazingly detailed painting of a crab from the Royal Spanish Expedition to New Spain (1787-1803) next to fungi artwork.
“This piece is really special to me,” Bruno says. “The masterful painting, surface of the shell, the color, everything.”
Experienced visitors know to pick up a magnifying glass at the front desk to see the small features of each painting. The tiny details on the crab are visible to the naked eye, but under magnification, they are even more spectacular.
One interesting aspect of the show is seeing classroom wall charts and other works which were originally created as teaching aids. “It serves both science and art,” Bruno says. “We look at it a new way by putting it in the exhibit. There's the educational component to show you the structures, but there's also an amazing artist quality about it.”
Every gardener can relate to powdery mildew, the common white fungus often covering phlox, roses and zucchini leaves. We might think of only those fruiting bodies when considering fungal organisms, but as the show reveals, there's much more to the world of fungi.
Gilbert Morgan Smith's scientific drawing of the mildew is hanging next to a beautiful painting of a rose, its foliage covered in the powdery mildew.
“What I thought was really interesting is the mycelium just starts out as a little fuzzy dot and just grows to cover the whole leaf, but it's actually creating little chains which are represented in this illustration,” Bruno says.
A book from 1601 is on display with early illustrations of fungi. Roy says it's “a little intimidating” to search through such an ancient text. “You're always a little nervous (about) how delicately you touch everything and turn the page,” she says.
The show is richly illustrated, exploring everything from edibles like truffles to death cap mushrooms, and it even explores “magic shrooms.”
The exhibit is a chance to see beautiful works of art, but also is a way to learn about the natural world.
On a trip to the Carrie Furnaces site in Rankin, Bruno came across something called inky cap mushrooms, which are represented in the show. “I'd never seen them in the wild, to see them and to see that gooeyness, add that blackness and the textures, it really all came alive for me,” she says.
For Roy, the show has been even more revealing. “I see (fungi) everywhere now,” she says. “I see things now I never knew were fungi.”
Roy wants visitors who see the art to get the same thing she and Bruno received from putting the exhibition together.
“I hope they never look at mushrooms the same again, either,” Roy says. “I hope when they are walking, they don't kick up the dirt without noticing the tiny little puff balls.”