As an artist I am often asked "what are you working on these days?" When I say fungi I usually get an amused and sometimes a bewildered "oh"?! Perhaps most people think of them as creepy rotters. But when I tell them about fungi superpowers they are surprised. Simply because there is no other organism on planet earth as mysterious, magical and as old as fungi. They are a symbol for transformation, death and rebirth.
Mush gods, Watercolors by Ankita Singh © 2022
So let me take a moment to talk about what makes them awesome and why we need to pay attention. They are one of the first species on planet earth known to have survived some major extinctions. It is estimated there are about 3-5 million species of fungi, and only about 10% is known to us. It's crazy how little we know about them. This remarkable organism underpins all life on earth, which makes them fit into a wide spectrum. From being climate change allies, to being a meat, leather, plastic alternative, to making our medicines, being psychotropic for our mental health and so much more. Mushrooms are both a source of inspiration and a symbol of change.
The mycelial connections, pen, ink & gouache illustration by Ankita Singh © 2022
I first heard of mycelium a few years ago in a TED talk by Suzzane Simard and I was blown away by her discovery that trees can talk and share, it stayed with me. My interest began to brew further during conversations with friends about mushrooms' mind altering properties. But it was only after listening to Paul Stamets on podcast with Joe Rogan did it really get my attention. I think Paul Stamets is a hero of our times. His knowledge, passion and advocacy for mycology provoked a deep interest. From there on there was no looking back, I went into a rabbit hole. I suppose being a former student of biotechnology and microbiology also formed a base for my inclination. I binged on several documentaries and podcasts of mycophiles like Michael Pollan, the McKenna brothers and others. The film ‘Fantastic Fungi’ mesmerized me. Louie Schartzberg has beautifully captured the enigmatic beauty of mushrooms. Reading Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’ gave me a much deeper understanding and perspective about the fungi kingdom. The more I delved the more I found myself mystified by the myriad funky fungi. And I realized that I need to explore it from both a spiritual mindset and a scientific eye. They both go hand in hand, especially in the case of fungi.
Mushrooms images from Chile, India and Peru (L to R)
Images L & R credits Abhishek Panda
I am fascinated with fungal formations in the natural world. How they grow, form partnerships with plants and the mysterious ways in which they appear for a time and cycle back into the earth. Over the last few months, mushrooms (mycelium) became one of my favorite muse of all time. The more I read & researched, I felt the need of spreading awareness and evoking an interest in people about fungi through art, a powerful medium. Different forms of art has been left behind by our ancestors some millions of years ago.
Art by our ancestors: Ancient cave paintings, Mushroom man, Algeria (left); Stone sculptures, Guatemala (right)
Through the act of creation I cultivated a deep understanding of their power and mysticism. My fungi and mushroom art series is an ode to them. The botanical mushroom illustrations series 'Into the Mycoverse' are inspired by Beatrix Potter’s vintage style illustrations. These colorful mushroom paintings celebrate their beauty and forms. The black and white fungi illustration series 'In the era of fungi' explores fungi being a medium of liberation and cosmic connectedness.
Hypholoma fasciculare, Phallus sp and Pleurotus djamor (from L to R) Watercolors by Ankita Singh © 2022
We are the mushroom, pen, ink & gouache illustration by Ankita Singh © 2022
What we commonly know of fungi are their fruit, the mushrooms. Beneath the soil lies the real marvel, mycelium. It is the vegetative part of the fungus. They can grow extremely fast and form a network of fibers known as hyphae, which can go miles and miles long. They are the underground decentralized intelligence network, sharing information via hyphae & produce mushrooms when the conditions are favorable. It is a window to understand nature.
Mother mycelium, pen, ink & gouache illustration by Ankita Singh © 2022
These mycelium form a symbiotic relationship with some trees and plants roots to receive sugar and in return they provide them with nutrient rich elements like phosphorus and nitrogen, referred to as mycorrhiza (myco - fungi, rhiza - roots) this relationship acts as the thread of life, forming the wood wide web, a term coined when Suzzane Simard made her findings about the shared mycorrhizal networks. Although there are skeptics in the scientific community,
Merlin Sheldrakes says,
"The idea that there is a single kind of wood wide web at all is misleading’. Fungi make entangled webs whether or not they link plants together. Ecosystems are riddled with webs of non-mycorrhizal fungal mycelium that stitch organisms into relation".
I find this as a more holistic way of looking at it. It is interesting to note that this fascinating system is helping us better understand and model economics, epidemics, mathematics and technologies like the internet, AI & bitcoin. A great example of biomimicry. Their power and potential is unlimited. In the manufacturing industry mycelium is proving to be a breakthrough sustainable material for footwear, textiles/ fashion, plastic, packaging. This is a revolution!
Many young entrepreneurs in India have realized the potential and the gap in the market. Brands like Nuvedo, Shroomery and Shroomin are educating, growing & supplying gourmet and medicinal mushrooms like reishi, lion's mane, shiitake etc to the Indian ecosystem. Thanks to a mushroom identification Masterclass I did with Nuvedo & Hari Krishnan (Indiantoadstool), I was inspired to go for a few self driven mushroom foraging trips. I was thrilled to witness their beauty first hand, these clandestine organisms are everywhere hiding in plain sight. Spotting & identifying them was a different kind of a high!
Freshly foraged mushrooms
What also interests me are their mind altering properties and their ability to expand our consciousness. A few months back I had a vision which showed me the reality of universal love and how we are all interconnected. It was a powerful, profound experience. Many people have had similar experiences, isn't this interesting and mysterious? A question arises. Do fungi (psilocybin) wear our minds? Late ethnobotanist Terrence Mckena, a great advocate of this view, said
"Fungi have no hands with which to manipulate the world but within psilocybin as a chemical messenger, they could borrow a human body and use its brain and senses to think and speak through".
Psilocybe azurescens, Watercolors by Ankita Singh © 2022
I strongly believe these little mischievous beings can heal us, make our lives more meaningful and bring harmony to the world. It may not be for everyone but creating the right ecosystem, with the right knowledge is important rather than propaganda surrounding its use.
I am the Universe, pen, ink & gouache illustration by Ankita Singh © 2022
I am not surprised the Mayan and Aztecs called it the flesh of god. But let’s not go that far, let’s talk about something closer to home - Soma, The drink of the gods, mentioned in the Rigveda some 5000 years ago. I did some digging and found an amazing article on a Russian excavation in Mongolia. The Russian archaeologists found compelling evidence of the Indo - Iranian culture of that time, where mushrooms were a part of ritualistic use. All this was deduced through a 2000 year old textile! Although one can't say for sure if mushrooms were those sacred elements of the drink, it has to be a hallucinogenic plant. The finding is riveting. This is the text from Rigveda, one can decipher the meaning for themselves. “We drank soma, we became immortal, we came to the light, we found gods.”
Excavated textile from Mongolia. Notice the man holding mushroom in his hands.
Much of my inspiration as an artist comes from nature, I am forever its student. The way it works has enamored me, puzzled me. Phenomenon's that intrigue me the most are the interconnectedness, how there are uncanny similarities in the natural world and beyond.
The design of our neural pathways, thunder lights, the roots of a tree, veins of a leaf, mycelium and the cosmos. Is this the common design that connects us all? A visual metaphor to show us the mysterious ways in which we are all connected? Are the mushrooms trying to show us what we have forgotten? And what does it mean for our future?
Mushroom rising, pen & ink illustration by Ankita Singh © 2022
Mushrooms are magical in more than just the psychedelic way. They play a crucial role in the future of technology, our species and our planet. We are living in the era of fungi.
This blog was first published on Nuvedo as a guest blog.
**COMING SOON** limited edition prints of the black and white artwork series 'In the era of fungi'.