Parvus, Alphabetum No. XIV, 2018, photograph, fungal spores on paper

101.5x81 cm (40x32 inches) or 63.5x51 cm (25x20 inches)

Attentiveness to Becoming: Roberta Pyx Sutherland’s Inter-Species Art-Making

By Bradley A. Clements

This spring a cluster of fungi unfurled from the trunk of a tree near where I live. One day I saw none; the next morning the surface of the bark had been transformed into a new landscape. I cannot verify that this happened overnight, however: it may be that I simply did not pay enough attention until the expanding orange and peach domes demanded to be noticed. Now I check on the mushrooms daily and am amazed by their morphing growth.

Roberta Pyx Sutherland’s art came into my life similarly. I knew her name as a peer and pupil of Jack Wise, Pat Martin Bates, and Jack Shadbolt but was unfamiliar with her work until it burst into my awareness. Since then I have become more attuned to its subtleties, taking the time to look closely, observe change, wonder, and learn.

Pyx and the mushrooms with whom she collaborates draw me to notice states of becoming.[1] When seeing Pyx’s work for the first time I was enchanted by the patterns that are too easily passed by on forest paths. But, I am ashamed now to admit, I viewed them as static entities. As the child of a gestural abstractionist I should have known better. I was raised to see movement in visual art, yet the capitalist art market subtly tells us to forget this dynamism. Commodifying art urges its redefinition as an alienable, stable product, even as the art itself cries to be experienced as a relationship that expands with every viewer, every place it inhabits, every other artwork with which it shares space and time. Like the mushrooms growing outside my front door, I needed something to abruptly enter my consciousness in order to notice it. Once I had been made to notice, though, I could begin to practice attentiveness. Therein comes the recognition of becoming.

Consider Pyx’s Alphabetum series. Placing No. 1, No. XIV, and Underground in sequence, the affinity of mushrooms for one another becomes seen as if in a stop-motion animation. The form is beautiful, but the mushrooms have more to say. Moving through the series we see the spoors reach from each mushroom towards the others, stretching in their abundance until they fill the space that once distanced them. Like mycelia inter-connecting forest ecosystems, the spoors on the paper re-unite each entity. This is a reminder that mushrooms are social beings, as are we, and that everything – pine, lichen, ochre, raindrop, algae, frog, salmon, maggot, lynx, fern, carbon dioxide, human – is entangled in the same web of life.

Pyx and the mushrooms do not simply show us interconnection, they consciously practice and enact it. They are co-creators, neither able to express themselves on paper without the other; in conversation but neither in control of the other.

Anthropologist Anna Tsing researches with matsutake mushrooms and the ecosystems, pickers, buyers, and markets with whom they interact.[2] She writes of the collaborations that mushrooms facilitate. Mycelial meshworks shuttle nutrients but also information through the forest floor, even though these fungi only occasionally break into human view through the soil. Tsing attends to parallel ways in which unique and unpredictable local iterations of global relations emerge in and around us through commodity chains, migration, climate and ecosystem change, science, colonialism, violence, kinship, and spoors that float across oceans on atmospheric breezes. Tsing leads us to see how matsutake need pine forests just as humans need a livable planet, sustained by collaborations between ecosystems and their minute parts. Possibly contrary to the conservationist adage “leave no trace,” collaboration requires our active participation. It calls humans to attend to our relations: to pay mental attention to them, but also to be of tangible, reciprocal service to them. Many mushrooms teach this by thriving in deforested areas and other zones of ecological destruction. They intervene to heal these places, demonstrating the need to not only preserve pristine places but also to care for landscapes that have been hurt by greed and excess. “Leave no trace”[3] makes sense when the traces we are used to leaving are destructive, but what can we learn from mushrooms about making traces that strengthen the relations on which we depend, including our inter-species and ecological relations?

Like Tsing, Pyx focuses on mushrooms but – in so doing – notices so much more.

Has this essay strayed too far from its subject of visual art? I think not. I began by suggesting that art itself seeks to stray, despite attempts to pin it down. It crosses and blurs bounds of classification, it engages in many relations.

Art grasps our attention. Meaningful art makes us more attentive. And attentiveness can enliven the care that we have – the care that we need to practice – for all of our relations.

[1] What a strange phrase – states of becoming – given that a state frequently refers to a condition while becoming describes moving between conditions or, better, dissolving them. Situated on Anishinaabewaki (the territory of Anishinaabeg nations, in particular the Odaawaa) at the time of writing, I reflect on the verb-based language of this place, Anishinaabemowin. The Potawatomie botanists Keewaydinoquay and Robin Wall Kimmerer describe “puhpowee,” the Anishinaabemowin word for “mushroom,” as translating literally to “the force which … push[es] up from the earth overnight.” This exemplifies a deeply attuned way of thinking based in becoming rather than in states – a way of thinking that might do greater service to mushrooms, to Pyx’s prints, and to ecosystems and art more generally.

Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013, 49).

[2] Anna Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[3] Leave no trace also suggests that “we” humans are disconnected from “nature,” that we enter and leave it as we please and that what we leave “in” nature are the only traces that effect it. As remote conserved areas burn due to urban greenhouse gas emissions it becomes clear that this is not so. We must be conscious our traces and their impacts on the beings we rely upon to survive wherever we “leave” them.