Cultivating Oysters

Birnam Wood is ripe with fungi most times of the year, and i never cease to be amazed at all the different varieties growing there. Within the space of 48 hours, fungi can appear, then dry up, with only a few small traces of it ever existing. Some of the most impressive fungi was the Common Oyster, Pleurotus Ostreatus, which I found growing on a large log  just inside the entrance to the wood. This particular log has been host to a wide variety of fungi, and its occupants seem to change on a daily basis. For my show, I want to  try to bring some of the species growing in the wood into the gallery, so I managed to source an Oyster Mushroom growing kit online.


I soaked a bag overnight (which was filled with recycled coffee grounds and compost) and left it for a few days. The surface of the compost started to become very white, and small textured bobbles and stumps started to appear after a few days. IMG_7374

After a couple of days of being soaked, small white bobbles appeared on the surface
IMG_7791Tiny baby “oysters” started to form


Within hours, the babies grew into much larger mushrooms, just like the ones I had seen in Birnam Wood


IMG_7874 1

I was so amazed that these mushrooms were actually growing in my kitchen! Although edible, I really didn’t fancy trying them, so I kept them there for a couple of weeks and then I harvested them. I laid them on a plate to dry, in hope that I might be able to use the dried mushrooms for something too.

The kit is able to grow a second batch too, so I soaked it again, and this time I have cut the grow bag down so that it fits under a glass cloche, as I want to see how the mushrooms look when pressed against glass.





I need to find or make a suitable base for the cloche, but just wanted to try this out to see how it would look. I really hope the mushrooms grow, despite being taken out of their dark cardboard box and their grow bag. I have covered the cloche with a tea towel to darken their environment a little, so hopefully that might help.

If they continue to grow, and the experiment works, I will buy another kit and try this out for  part of an installation in my show. If this works I think it will be an interesting exhibit, especially if it appears that the mushrooms are pressed against the glass, trying to escape. I might even see if I could form a small hole in the glass and allow them to burst out, leaving the broken glass beside the cloche on a bench.



Romanticism, re-enchantment and retail therapy

Having a real interest in landscape, nature, folklore and mythology are great, however when it comes to narrowing down what I wanted to do for my MA I was finding that I had lost direction a bit, and had began to focus too much on the “magic and art” thread, and in doing so had lost my real passion which was in nature and the landscape around me.  A tutorial with Michele Whiting really helped me get back into the swing of what I felt was where I should be going with my final project, by bringing landscape back into it, and advising me to look at a number of books and artists, such as Mark Dion, Tania Kovats, Caspar David Friedrich and the writing of Simon Schama and Goethe amongst others.


A Walk at Dusk By Caspar David Friedrich (Getty Museum).

I had already been reading a book called The Dark Monarch which was a catalogue for an exhibition which was held in 2009 at Tate St. Ives, and the mention of Friedrich got me thinking about the 20th century artists who were inspired by him and other Romantics such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.  Artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravillious, Graeme Sutherland and others who were known as the Neo-Romantics.

RAV33031 The Long Man of Wilmington or, The Wilmington Giant, 1939 (w/c on paper) by Ravilious, Eric (1903-42); 44.2x54.5 cm; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; English,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories possible copyright restrictions apply, consult national copyright laws

The Long Man of Wilmington or The Wilmington Giant Eric Ravilious. Ravillious is an artist whose work really epitomises the beauty and mysticism of the British Landscape, choosing charming and alluring subject matter

These words by Michael Bracewell, from a chapter in The Dark Monarch really sums up what I am trying to show in my work:

“The Neo-Romantic sensibility is at one with the lowering sky and the unnaturally protracted sunset…it admits to the presences of magic as live spirits contained within nature, or as psychic vapour, colouring those hidden places just re-discovered.” (2009:15)

I took deliver of a really useful book which I ordered on Amazon last week called This Enchanted Isle by Peter Woodcock, which gives loads of information about the British Neo-Romantics, so I have begun getting stuck into it and find it easy to read, yet very informative.


I have also ordered The Spirit Of Place. Nine Neo-Romantic artists and Their Times by Malcolm Yorke, so if it’s in the same league as This Enchanted Isle I will be delighted.


Although I share the Neo-Romantic idea of portraying the genius loci (or spirit of place) of the landscape, my own interest in the landscape is more with the micro than the macro, so I have been considering the hidden, unseen, overlooked and unnoticed details and specimens and how I can present nature’s own works of art as exhibits. Having also been doing experiments in the lab and using scientific equipment has led me to consider the wunderkammern or cabinets of curiousity of the 17th century. I couldn’t resist buying a few books about these to feast my eyes upon!


Above and below: These two gorgeous books arrived on Friday with loads of weird and wonderful displays inside


These books have inspired me to make my own Cabinet of Curiousity to capture the genius loci of Birnam Wood. I’m thinking that this may feature as show case for all of my work and research throughout the final project, including specimens, photos and sketchbooks. Designing such a cabinet would also let me take into account some of the sensory elements that I want to include in my show, for example sound and smell, as these could be concealed within.

Magic Mirror

Lecanomancy  is an ancient divination method which was practised by Babylonian priests, who floated oil and sometimes other foodstuffs on water in attempts to see into the future. Today I decided to play around with some marbling ink to see what random patterns came to light. I found 3 circular canvas boards which I thought would be an interesting format to use, as they reminded me of circular mirrors, and this also made me think of the magic mirror of John Dee which I have been reading about lately.


John Dee’s Mirror and some of his other magic tools, on display in the              British Museum

Dee’s magic mirror is a circular obsidian Aztec cult object which was brought to Europe in the late 1520s and was subsequently owned by Horace Walpole, an English art historian,  antiquarian and politician. Dee, a mathematician, astrologer, alchemist and student of the occult was said to have joined forces with Edward Kelley (a young con-man who practised the dark arts) and used the mirror, and other tools including a crystal ball to call on “angels” to scry into the future.

Dee’s magic mirror is an object which has inspired a few artists including Damon Albarn (who wrote an operatic work Dr Dee in 2012) and Joachim Koester, who made silver gelatine prints of his photos of the mirror (see below).joachim-koester

Joachim Koester, The Magical Mirror of John Dee, 2006, silver gelatin print, 25.5 x 33.5 cm

I filled my tray with water, and again, added a small amount of water from the sample bottles I had taken in Birnam Wood, before adding some black marbling ink.


I stirred the inky mixture using  a “wand” made from a piece of a beech branch which I found in Birnam wood. Beech is renowned for its divinatory properties.  First I made some prints onto A4 pieces of paper, before moving into larger A3 watercolour paper, and then finally marbling the circular boards.

Below : some of the first experiments on paper

The first circular board I used as a recycled one – it had a few traces of pink ink on it, and ironically – as I actually predicted it (through sod’s law!) it was the best print of all! An air bubble had  created a large white oval shape within the circle, and the marbling had created a beautiful border of mystical pattern around it.


I love the result of the first one – unfortunately it was printed onto a recycled board, and traces of pink ink are showing through. It appears as if one is looking into a hole or void of some kind, which allows the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the blank space.


This piece has a smaller void – is it a doorway into another galaxy, a a magic white stone (as was used by Scotland’s own Nostradamus, the Brahan Seer) a magical megalithic monument or an aerial view of the landscape such as a loch, hill or boundary?

magicmirror1The final circle is very beautiful, but completely covered, leaving less cause for consideration of space. I have an urge to paint over this one, picking out the shapes to create more blank areas within the swirls, and omitting some of the marks with white acrylic. But perhaps that is being just a tad self-indulgent, so for the moment I will resist the temptation.

I did take some film of the swirling ink, which again reminded me of Macbeth, and the cauldron of the witches. I wonder if this could be projected from inside a cauldron onto a ceiling, and how this might look as a video installation?

Divinatory Drawings

I have been looking at the connection between art and magic lately, and had come across parsemage– a technique used by Occult artist Ithell Colquhoun. I couldn’t actually find any pictures of her attempts at the technique, but that didn’t put me off. Tonight is December 20th Mother Night – The Beginning of Yule (Sacred to Frigga) Mother Night: As the night before the Winter Solstice, this is the time when the New Year is born. Although this is a time to burn Yule Logs, instead I respectfully burned some candles whilst trying the parsemage technique, in hope that Thor, Freya, and any other deities may aid the production of some symbolic imagery during the process! In the spirit of Macbeth, I have added some of the water I collected a few weeks ago from a pool in Birnam Wood – I think this will make the process more ritualistic and help any magical imagery to develop.


Cretacolour Charcoal dust and candles – ready for a chance encounter with “sacred” water, paper and a bit of mark making magic


Charcoal gently sprinkled into the water- “Fair is foul and foul is fair”


(below) Paper placed just under the surface to collect some of the patterns


Below are the results from the process – my divinatory drawings. I laid them out to dry on the kitchen table, taping them down to stretch them flat.


Aesthetically, I think they are divine, and would look fantastic in white mounts and frames on a large white wall. What are they trying to tell me? I’m not quite sure, as I haven’t really had  great deal of time to sit down and analyse them, but I will look at them more deeply soon.

Like the agar gel plates, these are glimpses into another world, another dimension, drawings from the other side, “…brought to you,” (as Rod Serling would say) “From the Twilight Zone” of Birnam Wood.

Happy Yule!




Phenomenal feather frost and other frozen finds

I had a lovely walk in Birnam Wood yesterday morning, it was sunny for the first time in ages, but really, really cold! I went to gather a few samples that I could experiment with in the lab at work…this time I took some soil from under the Birnam Oak, and I also scraped a bit of green lichen from the trunk too.



Above: The Birnam Oak on a sunny morning

Below: A soil sample taken from the hollow in the oak 


Below: Green lichen and moss on the trunk of the Oak 



A sample scraped from the trunk of the Birnam Oak

I walked down the path towards the river, and found a few pools where the river had flooded into the woods, so I also took a few samples of water from the pools, and sandy earth from the bank nearby.



As I was gathering samples near the river, I noticed what I thought were white birds feathers stuck to a small log. I assumed that maybe a bird had died, and the feathers had somehow got caught in the log – or maybe the log had been part of a nest and the feathers had somehow stuck to it. I stroked them, and a few fell off. I walked back into the wood, and found another smaller branch lying in the undergrowth with the same sort of feathers stuck onto it. Very strange, I thought, but I resisted the temptation to pick it up and bring it home.


An amazing sight…what appeared to be (and felt like) feathers stuck to a log



Having googled a few key words, I have discovered it is a phenomenon called feather frost, which is quite rare, and only occurs under very specific circumstances. Apparently ice filaments are  pushed out from pores in the wood as they freeze, forming what appears to be, and feels like feathers.

I also found some frozen fungi, another sight which I had never witnessed. These are the Wood Blewits (Lepista Nuda) below that I took a sample of:


Wood Blewits above and close ups of them with “icing”  below


Mother nature’s bosom?

My other finds were the last of the leaves; oak, sycamore and larch in various shades of green, yellow and brown.


These were all pressed when I reached home – a job that really has become such a chore, but a necessary one unfortunately!


My next plan is to take swabs of my sample collected in the woods, to see if I can grow anymore fantasy landscapes, or symbolic images. I won’t be able to get into the lab again until Friday morning, which will give me the weekend to grow the samples, the results of which I hope to upload in the nick of time before the crit with Les Bicknell on Monday evening.

Lab work

Recently I have been collecting a variety of fungi from Birnam Wood, picking them and storing pieces of them into small sterile specimen bottles. I wanted to do some experiments which would involve taking swabs of them and growing them on agar jelly under lab conditions. Too often we get swept away with what we see around us, but forget about all the existing entities that we don’t see….I want to explore this theme through using bacterial growths and possibly microscopic images too.

I purchased a consignment of round petri dishes from Amazon, 150mm in diameter, and was also given some smaller 100mm diameter petri dishes from Maggie Fenton, the lab technician at work. She sterilised the dishes for me, and made up some agar jelly, which was poured into the dishes to set.

I took a few different samples up to her, and she showed me how to spread sample onto the plates, and also to bury small samples of the fungi into the jelly.


The petri dishes…I ordered the largest size which would fit into the steriliser, but wished I could have used some that were much much bigger!


Some of the samples that I used from Birnam Wood


The bottles had been sitting in my studio for a few weeks, and the smell was very strong when they were opened. They were held next to the bunsen flame to kill off any spores that might be present. Samples were sucked up and squirted onto the plate, before being spread around over the agar gel.




I did 9 samples altogether, which included Common Puffball, Oyster Mushrooms, Boletus Subtomentosus and Common Bonnet . Some of the samples were applied to both a small and large plate, and were distributed both by spotting and by spreading. IMG_2847


They were then put into the incubation unit where I have left them to work their magic. I’m feeling excited about what the results might be, but realise that they may also be a huge disappointment, so I’ll just have to wait and see. I’m going to leave them over the weekend, and will return on Monday to see what has developed.