Emily Nachison’s Mushroom Sculptures: Melting Ink Caps and the Magic of the Forest

Emily Nachison creates sculptures and installations that echo the natural world in a haunting and haunted way. She and her partner Michael Endo had a collaborative show at Bullseye Gallery in Northwest Portland in March and April, which included several of Emily’s astonishing cast glass mushroom sculptures set amid Michael’s derelict urban landscapes made from oil paint and kiln-formed glass.

I asked Emily a few questions to learn more about her process and why mushrooms have become one of her materials and icons. – Lola Milholland

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Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your recent mushroom artworks? How did you make them, and did you have specific mushroom species in mind?

A. My most recent show, Of Other Spaces, featured several sculptural pieces based on the life cycle of the Coprinopsis atramentaria or “Ink Cap” mushroom. Coprinopsis atramentaria, like other coprinoid mushrooms, have gills that liquefy as its spores mature. This causes the mushroom to turn black and decay.

In Portal, I combined the image of mushrooms melting and decaying with the symbol of a fairy ring. [See Portal and the full cycle of decay here.] When mushrooms grow in a circle, it is called a fairy ring. There are at least 60 different mushroom species that grow in these patterns, although to the best of my knowledge Ink Caps are not one of them. In folklore, fairy rings were interpreted as the result of fairies dancing or as gateways to elfin kingdoms. They have also been thought to represent the activity of witches and the devil. In this way Portal was an exploration of both mycology and mythological symbols.

Both Portal and Deliquesce were made with kiln formed cast glass in the Bullseye Glass studio. Each mushroom piece had to be individually cast – first in wax and then in glass. I began by making a basic mold for all the mushrooms by casting the head of a shitake mushroom and then building the stem by hand. Each of the 20 mushrooms in the Portal piece were cast in wax from this original shitake mold and then melted with a heat gun to change the form. I also carved the spores individually into each wax mushroom. The wax mushrooms were then cast in glass using a lost-wax process.

Q. Why mushrooms?

A. Mushrooms are loaded with a long history of foraging, ecological, folkloric, psychedelic, and pop-cultural references. To me they represent the magic of the forest. They appear to pop up over night; they are mysterious; and they play an important role in modern medicine and science.

Q. Are you a mushroom forager? When did you begin and how did you learn?

A. I am a foraging beginner. I recently joined the Oregon Mycological Society to learn more. I was first introduced to the idea of foraging about 10 years ago. I was staying with a friend in rural Pennsylvania. As we were making his family’s annual pot of morel soup, he explained that the mushrooms had come from a group of Pennsylvania Dutch women who would go out morel hunting every year and forage in silence. It was a very select and secretive group of women. This tradition and ritual secrecy around mushroom hunting stuck with me.

I was staying with a friend in rural Pennsylvania. As we were making his family’s annual pot of morel soup, he explained that the mushrooms had come from a group of Pennsylvania Dutch women who would go out morel hunting every year and forage in silence.

Foraging again reappeared in my life a couple years ago when I was visiting Finland with my mother. In Finland it is part of your right as a citizen to forage in the forest. This is called “jokamiehenoikeus“, which literally translates to “every man’s rights.”

While we were there, we stayed with a couple in Suomussalmi, a very remote reindeer-herding region on the border of Russia. Our host, Helena, made almost everything from foraged food. You would be walking with her in the woods and all of a sudden she would stop and point out some mushrooms or berries she was going to bring back for dinner.

Q. How does foraging play into your life and artwork?

A. I am still a mushroom foraging beginner but I have begun foraging wild edible plants. The more I learn about the specific wildlife in the area I live in, the more it enriches my day-to-day experiences.

Foraging and plant identification has affected my work – it has made me focus more on microcosms and hone in on details. Previously my artwork focused on the environment as a whole – I created large installations aimed at eliciting a physical response from the viewer and commenting on our culturally created vision of the natural world. Now after learning more about individual plant species I have begun making work where plant life and geological formations take on their own personas and command space.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. In my studio I am continuing my investigation into mycology, microcosms, and alchemical relationships using materials such as glass and porcelain. I am also preparing for two shows. The first one show is a collaborative naturalistic installation at SOIL Gallery in Seattle, Washington, with artists Anthony Sonnenberg and Carolyn Hopkins. The exhibition is called “Sticks and Stones” and opens on July 5, 2012. The second is a group exhibition titled “Extra Painterly Discourse” and opens on July 14, 2012, at Swarm Gallery in Oakland, California.

[Through May 2012, Emily’s pieces Deliquesce and Portal are on display at Bullseye Gallery, 300 NW 13th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209.

Get a taste of the full “Of Other Spaces” installation, which was on display at Bullseye from February 29 – April 28, 2012, in this video postcard:

Photo slideshow:

  1. Emily Nachison in the Bullseye glass studio making a mold of a shiitake mushroom
  2. Mold of a shitake mushroom in process
  3. Wax mushrooms
  4. “Of Other Portrait”: Photo of Emily with her artwork
  5. Cast glass mushroom from Portal. Photography (1 – 5) by Dan Kvitka.
  6. Mushroom model on black glass and Emily’s shoes.

See more of Emily’s work on her website: emilynachison.com]

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