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.

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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

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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.

Art in the Strangest Places–A Humongous Fungus

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by Gary Chuszinski

The human desire to leave an imprint and to decorate a plain surface amazes me. From the cave paintings of Lescaux to the graffiti in today’s cities, we seem impelled to make a lasting mark.

Some artists choose a traditional medium and become expert in it. They purchase oil paints and quality brushes or yards of new fabric and state-of-the-art sewing machines. Other artists use what is at hand, finding a canvas in the most unlikely places.

One of the oddest of these accidental canvases may be fungus. Not just any fungus, like that stuff growing on cheese you forgot in the back of the fridge, but a particular fungus—Ganoderma applanatum, which grows mostly on dead or dying trees.

If you’re given to rambling through the woods, you’ve probably seen these fungi, also called Artist’s Bracket or Artist’s Conk, growing on the trees.

fungus5-4 fungus-1These aren’t little mushrooms but, rather, the kind of growth that will have you exclaiming, “There’s a humungous fungus among us!”* Indeed, some are very large and they aren’t gummy or gelatinous or icky like you might expect fungus to be; they’re quite hard and woody and often lovely on top, but soft and almost velvety on the bottom, the side that artists use.

This soft underbelly of the fungus is easily marked with a toothpick or point of a nail, and the marks turn brown and become permanent. As it dries the fungus becomes wood-like and can be coated with varnish but I don’t think it needs to be.

According to Larry Schneider, a fungus artist, on his website, the tradition of making art out of these fungi has been done by American pioneers and Native Americans. He also says that museums have specimens done by soldiers of the Civil War.

I couldn’t find any information to corroborate the history of the art form but it makes perfect sense to me that it’s an old form. I think of it as sort of a woodsman’s version of the sailor’s scrimshaw. The white surface becomes a tabula rasa, just inviting a transfiguring mark.

Today, artists decorate these fungi the traditional way, by scratching the surface or with a wood-burning tool, or they use oils or acrylic paints. The subject matter is usually, appropriately, rustic and primitive, with images of forest and stream, although I’ve seen examples with ballerinas and sad clowns.

Gary Chudzinski / Fungus moose / Primitive fungus / Painted Eagle

For all you DIY-ers out there, this is an easy camp craft. All you need is the artist’s conk—the ones that grow on trees, not out of the ground—and a pointy, but not really sharp, object to make the marks. So, take the kids on a hike and set them up to make forest souvenirs. According to Jean-Marc Moncalvo, senior curator of mycology at the Royal Ontario Museum, handling the fungus is  “absolutely safe.”

The only drawback is that you can’t hang them on the refrigerator!

We made this one  when we left our beloved lakefront rental, after it was sold.

We made this one when we left our beloved lakefront rental, after it was sold.

* I got this line from singer/comedian Camille West.