Little Bitty Pretty One: Deer on Tree Fungus

IMG_6680These deer remind me, a little, of photographs I’ve seen of ancient cave paintings, made by humans more primitive than we, who were driven by their need or desire to make a mark.

If you are creative, do you see every blank surface as a canvas, on which to make your mark? Does a plain piece of paper call to you, for the scratching of your pen or the wash of color from your brush? If you see a piece of fabric, do your fingers itch to embellish it, to add color and designs? If you have string, do you need to weave it or braid it or knit it?

I love when makers make with the materials at hand, simply because they are compelled to create, to make their mark. Men who spent time in the woods picked up knives and pieces of wood and whittled, pulling expressive shapes out of nothingness. Sailors passed the time at sea scratching intricate designs into whalebone, turning the blank surface into memories of a voyage and things of beauty.

Blank canvases are everywhere, to those who seek them.

It comes as no surprise that at least a few people who live in the Adirondacks have been unable to resist the impulse to decorate the blank surface of the huge tree fungi, Ganoderma applanatum, that grow on dead and dying trees in the forests. I’ve written about fungus art before but recently added a new example to my tiny collection.


H. Newlove ’81–it’s there!

I got my pretty fungus at, yes, a garage sale. The people who sold it to me told me it was done by a man named Herb Newlove, who was an art teacher and assistant principal at a local school. With that information, when I looked at the piece, I could just make out his tiny, faint signature and the date 1981.

Mr. Newlove has since died but he lives on in this little treasure. This seems to me to be one of the best things about making, the tangible work that outlasts the maker and allows the maker to achieve a sort of immortality. When I think of Mr. Newlove or Harriett, for that matter, I realize that I feel I know them, that they are real to me because I know their work.

This piece works so well for what it is. This is a woodland scene, with two deer taking a close look at the viewer. We wouldn’t expect to see Disney characters or Pop Art in this medium!

The design is very faint and subtle, giving the impression that the deer are peering at us through a misty morning. The artist would’ve used pointed tools to scratch and stipple his design into the soft surface of the fungus, a surface that has hardened over time to preserve the work done.

The work is nuanced and expert, much more so than the work in my other deer fungus.

My own sweet fawn

My first sweet fawn


The newer example

The very light touch used by the artist and the difficulty of making out the design invite us to look harder and longer, and the time spent is rewarded.

The compulsion that those who came before us felt—the cave dwellers in Altimira and Lascaux, Harriett, Mr. Newlove—is no different than what you and I feel, and it seems to be part of what makes us human. We use the materials at hand to make a mark, we make our mark, a mark no one else could ever make, and a part of us never dies.

44 thoughts on “Little Bitty Pretty One: Deer on Tree Fungus

  1. I’d never heard of using tree fungus for a canvas. It’s really neat. And like you mentioned, the light touch does make you look closer. It’s lovely how you put words to the compulsion we have to create (some of us more than others and in more spectacular ways). We all need to use our creative muscles and once more I’m amazed at a way of using them.

    • When I walk in the woods and see one of these big fungi on the side of a tree, I can imagine how a person would see it as a blank slate, just waiting to be decorated. That having been said, a person would have to be very good at basic drawing, first, before they could translate that skill to this particular surface.

  2. I have seen someone dyeing wool using these and SHOULD have harvested them (old ones) before the loggers went thru:( Those pictures are delightful, thank you.

    • I know fungi is used for dyeing–I wonder what color these particular ones would give. I like to see the fungi on the trees so I rarely break them off but if I knew loggers were coming through, I’d dash around and save as many as I could!

  3. I too had never heard of this particular art before – and Mr Newlove’s work is quite beautiful. I wonder if he deliberately made this drawing look old and faded or if it is an inevitable result of working on such a canvas. It is always part of the challenge to work on different materials, having to adapt the touch of pen or paint…….. Seeing this and musing so has made me want to pick up my brushes again. 🙂

    • Go pick up your brushes–listen to that inner voice! I think Mr. Newlove deliberately used the medium to get the faded look. I’ve seen other examples of fungus art where the lines made are much more crisp and distinct. On this one, he seemed to use a stippling technique rather than all straight drawn lines–it’s very effective!

  4. well the first time I heard about this was actually on your blog;0) What a lovely post, Kerry. You can write so well about crafts, folk art and history. Of course I recognize the feeling, the tingle in my fingers when I see beautiful yarn, my studio with everything in its neat place and also the restlessness and even moodiness when I was not able ‘to do anything’ for a few days!
    What I also admire, are very old tools, machinery, boxes..not only were they made and kept in good order with expertise and tlc but often beautiful embellished. I am alsways fascinated by that, it show so much love for the workmanship that was done for and by it. xo Johanna

    • I agree wholeheartedly about old and/or embellished tools! I’ve seen some handmade and gorgeous wooden shuttles for weaving. They don’t do the actual job any better than a plain shuttle but, oh my, the joy of using one would be amazing!

    • The basic drawing skill here is pretty darn good but, yes, the idea that it was done on the fungus surface, with its idiosyncrasies, makes it even more impressive. I think it’s cool that it is still in such great condition 30-plus years later!

  5. I have never come across tree fungus art before. How amazing your examples are! Something else I have to keep my eyes open for.

    • Now that you’ve become aware of this, I bet you’ll see some at yard sales, etc. A lot of them are painted but I don’t like those as well as the ones where the drawing is simply scratched into the surface.

  6. I’d never seen this before, but I love the scene with the deer. The way you described those people who see a plain canvas and want to make something, or see fabric and want to sew something, or a plain piece of paper calls out to them to draw/sketch/doodle/paint… –that’s me!

    • Sometimes people paint on the fungi–I don’t like that as well because it’s often too bright and seems out of keeping with the medium. I love the tone-on-tone look of simply scratching the surface.

  7. I read an article some time ago about settlers who carved words and images on trees as they moved West. A group of archeolgoists were documenting these before the trees died and rotted to look for patterns of movement a century plus ago. Of course, one person’s territorial marks is another person’s artistic expression is another man’s graffiti.

  8. I am amazed at the things you find at your garage sales, my husband made a piece of fungus art for me, it is a drawing of trees 🙂

    • I’m glad to hear you have your own fungus! That’s a nice, romantic gift. The garage sale I got this from had NOTHING else of worth. I had about given up when I spied the fungus!

  9. I’ve never come across this in Europe. But it looks a wonderful medium, and tree fungus is available: usually 10 feet or higher up a tree 😉 ….. it would repay the effort of somehow getting at it, I think. I feel a project coming on!

    • Since you spend lots of time rambling outdoors, I’m sure you’ll find some fungus! I do see it lower on trees sometimes so you may not have to scale the heights. I’d love to see your finished product!

  10. I’ll join the chorus: I’ve not heard of this either, though do admire the many canvases I’ve seen painted and etched over time. It’s what makes a child with crayons draw on the wall, or squeeze shapes out of playdough or clay. I enjoyed making things from nature as a child: mud pies, daisy chains, dandelion art. My dad was an artist, landscaper, painter and photographer and my mom a good sketch artist as well. We were all encouraged to create.

    I love the detail of the deer and the expressiveness of each face. A talent indeed, and a great garage sale find.

    Beautiful piece, Kerry.

    • I was encouraged as a child, too, and can remember drawing constantly and always making silly little things. Wouldn’t a small piece of fungus art, made by you, be the perfect addition to a sheltered spot in your fairy garden?!

      • That is really nice to hear. Kids need to make messes and learn through play and process. I’m afraid we are losing site of that sometimes.

        Oh yes, fungus art in the fairy garden is a must. I must round some up, post haste.

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