Curiosities, Art and Love for Mycology

By Nick Engle
Summer Intern '23

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion led by Danielle Stevenson, an incredibly well-versed environmental scientist, and Minga Opazo, a fourth-generation textile craftswoman from Chile. 

Timed up perfectly with my routine drive back to school in Santa Barbara, I arrived at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. Approaching the vibrantly colored building from my street parking spot, I vibrated with excitement. With just one step through the door, I had successfully escaped the cold night into a warm, brightly-lit space packed with curious people. 

I first found myself immersed in a spectacular exhibit, entitled Dirty Laundry, highlighting Opazo’s impressive work. Of the most moving pieces on display was an intricately woven sculpture featuring deep blue and verdant green recycled textiles. This work of art, unlike the rest, was alive! Oyster mushrooms of all sizes erupted from the cracks and crevices of the backpack-sized curation of forgotten woven material.


Dirty laundry art exibit


My curiosity, like a puppeteer, pulled me from the art gallery to a bustling hallway full of people intimately crowded around several folding tables.

On the first rested a wide variety of freshly foraged fungal specimens curated by Cal Poly SLO’s Mycology Club. I marveled at a beautiful white mushroom that seemed to have emerged from an egg-shaped sack, still attached to the base of the stipe, and read, “Amanita phalloides ‘ Death Cap ’ POISONOUS.” on its respective slip of paper. 

Continuing with the flow of the crowd, I arrived at a table accompanied by Alex Hirsig from Cal Poly’s School of Architecture and Environmental Design. On display were several robust bowls made entirely out of fungus. I felt their structural integrity and pondered the immense potential of mycelium as a sustainable building material. 

They announced the discussion would soon begin, so I took my seat. As someone who has long been fascinated by the natural world, I was consumed by Stevenson’s anecdotal stories of applied mycology from the moment her presentation had begun.

She showcased her innovative prowess by describing the time she encountered a concerning issue at her local bike shop. The accumulation of grease on rags, contaminated with Teflon - a notorious "forever chemical" - posed an environmental hazard. Employing her knowledge of oyster mushroom mycelium's remarkable capabilities, Stevenson hatched a brilliant plan to address the problem sustainably.

By layering the dirty rags with sheets of cardboard that had been hydrated, sterilized, and inoculated with liquid culture (a nutrient-rich broth containing a living culture of mycelium), Stevenson successfully cultivated mushrooms on a seemingly inadequate medium. As an additional precaution, she introduced earthworms to the mix, acting as bioindicators. The presence of these worms indicated that the Teflon had been successfully transformed, as worms can not inhabit environments with harmful substances. 

Minga Opazo’s portion of the presentation was equally inspiring. After years of creating textile artwork, Opazo was driven to address the pressing issue of waste management. She went on to share the stories behind some of her projects. One utilized ropes taken from areas polluted by lobster fishing, and another involved her placing a 100-pound bale of clothing waste on display at her school to publicize the implications of fast fashion.

Her work took another incredible turn after she met Danielle Stevenson. Together they begin introducing mycelium into Opazo’s sculptures. This added a new dimension to her art and serves as a potential mycological solution to the issues of textile waste.

Throughout their presentations, both Stevenson and Opazo highlighted the diverse applications of fungi across various fields. From medicinal properties to sustainable building materials, the potential of fungi seemed boundless. The audience was encouraged to envision a future where we embrace fungi as a valuable resource, harnessing their powers to tackle environmental challenges and forge new paths in science, art, and sustainability.


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