Virginia Kistler fills Sarah Gormley Gallery with fungus

The Gahanna sculpture artist takes inspiration from mushrooms in a new solo show opening this weekend in the Short North

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
“Funghi Gills, Kerfed 01" by Virginia Kistler at Sarah Gormley Gallery

Virginia Kistler loves to go hiking with her partner, and often, while meandering through the woods, they find different species of mushrooms. Previously, Kistler’s partner would photograph the fungi and send the pics to a naturalist friend for identification. But after a while, Kistler got tired of always asking for help. “Why don’t you try to identify these mushrooms,” she asked her partner, and bought a reference book just for that purpose. 

Kistler’s partner didn’t use it much, but she did, and that’s how she discovered spore prints. "Spore prints are created when you cut the cap of a mushroom and set it down on a piece of paper. Typically you leave it for at least several hours, and the spores are what is left behind when you remove the cap,” Kistler said. “Mushroom spore prints are sometimes done for identification purposes, and that's actually how I first started doing it. The color of the spore can be helpful in the identification of the mushroom.” 

When Kistler photographed the spore prints, the resulting images looked almost ghostly, so she kept experimenting with the process, eventually creating a series of large spore print photos that will be on display during a solo show at Sarah Gormley Gallery in the Short North, which kicks off with an opening reception on Friday, Aug. 6, from 5 to 7 p.m. 

Kistler, a Gahanna resident and native of Newcomerstown, Ohio (and a graduate of CCAD’s MFA program), dabbles in photography but focuses mostly on large-scale, commissioned sculptures, applying the skills she learned while working for years as a designer of interactives for children’s museums and science centers. “I used modeling software and CAD software, so I feel like that has had a huge impact on my process,” she said. “I learned a ton about fabrication and materials.” 

Growing up in rural Ohio gave Kistler an appreciation for the natural world that often makes its way into her art in various forms. “The work is really about the intersection of the natural world and technology,” she said. “We're living in the Anthropocene, and not to be heavy handed about the environmental message, but we're slowly watching everything be destroyed.” 

Detail of “Funghi Gills, Kerfed 01" by Virginia Kistler

This show at Sarah Gormley Gallery is particularly mushroom-focused, including a wooden sculpture Kistler crafted using a band saw on sections of half-inch-wide oak dowels. The gills on the underside of a mushroom provided the visual inspiration for the piece, titled “Funghi Gills, Kerfed 01,” which required countless hours of painstaking labor using a woodworking technique called kerfing. Kistler made thousands of tiny cuts in the dowel rods to make them flexible enough to mount the sculpture on the gallery walls.  

The piece also brings to mind the connection between trees and fungi, particularly the way underground threads of mycelium provide communication pathways and nutrient-sharing mechanisms between trees in a forest. “It's incredible to think about, and it’s also like, how much do humans not know about what's out there [in nature]?” Kistler said. 

"Arbor Study 02" by Virginia Kistler

Two other mushroom-inspired sculptures on display developed out of a previous commission. “I was generating an idea for a piece for a library, and they wanted it to be inspired by an Edward Hopper painting. In researching him, I found out that he would actually build little models so he could accurately depict the shadows,” said Kistler, who began experimenting with mushroom shadows. “Today, you don't have to build a model. You can use a computer. So I was playing with shadows throughout the day, and I discovered you can create shadows of different objects. They would bookend nicely because shadows in the morning and the evening are so stretched out.” 

Kistler’s sculptures also often incorporate light, sometimes in the form of backlighting, other times radiating from the edges of synthetic material. “I think about light as just another material, really,” Kistler said. “It’s a nice surrogate for humanity.”