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Susquehanna Life

Tell Us Your Story: The Artist Fungus Cult

Spring comes to a tinder fungus.

Story and photographs by Bill Rozday

The biggest artist fungus I ever found grew on a chestnut oak trunk along the Jackson Trail, a unit of the Mid-State Trail where it passes near State College.  I brought it back to my rented room where I was waging my post-graduate job hunt, but my housemates consigned its disturbing appearance and aroma to a dark corner of the cellar: it was almost two feet across.

My mother, steeped in artist fungus lore, first applied preservative, then primer, to the underside of the growth. Upholding a family tradition, she graced the smooth surface with a watercolor painting. Her finished product complemented a 70-year-old oil courtesy of her uncle that decorated another artist fungus medium retrieved from some long-lost walk.

What’s the story?

Artist fungus painting is a cult art form arising from our Appalachian mountains, where artist fungus is widespread.  Available—perhaps increasingly so—but overlooked, its mushroom medium flourishes in Central Pennsylvania. The oaks of the southcentral region host Ganoderma applanatum, the two-foot growth I harvested; while a second species known as tinder fungus, Fomes fomentarius, favors beech and yellow birch trunks in the northern tier.  

Why paint on an artist fungus?  Yes, the Iroquois did, but isn’t that what paper is for?  There is a nativist appeal to a tender, smooth surface amidst the harsh surfaces of the woods, and the irregular margins and raised areas duplicate our mountain ridges and hollows, inviting interpretation.  Painting the immediate surroundings of the found fungus memorializes a walk in the forest.

Artist funguses have an arresting appearance.  For decades, they protrude from treetrunks, developing rippling contours and neutral colors in their dialogue with their environment.  We want to assign them functions, maybe chick-a-dee meal table, gray squirrel front porch…gnome chair.

When and how to search

Artist fungus hunting lends energy to the empty days of winter. With the forest views open, the growths reveal themselves readily. Gypsy moth-ridden oak forest, otherwise dreary, entertains with the prospect of discovery.  No environmental concern undermines the hunt, because the harvest causes no ecological harm whatsoever.

Government agencies class artist fungus hunting with berry picking or nut gathering. The fungus is considered a mushroom due to its suitability in powdered form as a stomach medicine and in diluted form as a tea material. Its transient nature, with a lifespan of a mere decade or two, supports the mushroom definition.

Calling to mind my father bringing his boot down on a cinnamon-colored growth 50 years ago, I use the same forceful motion today to gather artist fungus.  Carry a hatchet to loosen those growing higher up the trunk. The sack or backpack that rounds out the necessary equipment might hold only a single Ganoderma applanatum but a dozen or more Fomes fomentarius, which occur more abundantly and in smaller sizes. The size of the latter betrays their considerable age.  Tinder fungus develops the same permanence as Ganoderma applanatum. The 5000-year-old Ice Man discovered beneath an Alps glacier carried a tinder fungus with him.

To succeed at artist fungus hunting, follow a stream. The lowlands along the main watercourse offer the dampness that mushrooms thrive in. Steep gullies entering from the sides provide this even more so, because the pitch of the land there retains humidity. Think in terms of “hollows” and “gorges.”

Taking shape

The Internet has made this cult more relevant. A basic text search yields all manner of artist fungus priced at whatever the artist feels like charging. Some works are educational in nature, as with native-created paintings. The digital world also showcases fungus craft potential.  Inverted and mounted on brackets, then varnished, it makes an attractive shelf. When hollowed out, the wavy-figured exterior makes an appealing holder for botanical arrangements.

If current legislative trends continue, altering the aesthetics of public forest will be prohibited entirely.  That is all the more reason to acquaint yourself with these funguses through the intimate means of painting or craft work before we grant those aging gnomes complete rights to their treetrunk chairs.

Bill Rozday writes frequently about Appalachian Pennsylvania.

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