Fungi-inspired art the Schuylkill Center a feast for the eyes

 Melissa Maddonni Haims's soft sculpture mimics wild fungi. (Pamela J. Forsythe/for NewsWorks)

Melissa Maddonni Haims's soft sculpture mimics wild fungi. (Pamela J. Forsythe/for NewsWorks)

Twenty years ago, inspired by the nutty, meaty flavor of Morel mushrooms, Josh Haims and Melissa Maddonni Haims took a walk in the forest to search for the notoriously elusive fungi. Instead of Morels, the couple found art.

That walk in the Wissahickon set Maddonni Haims, a fiber artist, and Haims, now a partner with Deloitte Consulting, on a creative course that has resulted in The Foragers, Fiber & Fungi in the Gallery. Their collaborative celebration of the mushroom opens Jan. 28 at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

More than Morels

Consisting of Maddonni Haims’s soft-sculptures and Haims’ photography, the exhibition is an eye-opener for those who ususally stick to the produce department for their mushrooms. The variety of color and form is remarkable: from petticoat-like tiers of ruffles cascading down a shaft of bark, to an arboreal version of measles, to sunbursts that rival any fall foliage. The nicknames are equally enticing: turkey tails, red raspberry slime and chicken of the woods.

“The exhibit is mainly comprised of finds from the Wissahickon watershed and surrounding area,” said Haims, a recreational mountain biker who as he rides, scours the terrain for interesting subjects. “I really like some of the mossy rocks. There’s a spot I know where the moss grows all year round, like a beard of silky green, in a rock overhang that is perpetually wet. It’s really incredible.”

Small is beautiful

Though Maddonni Haims is known for large-scale installations, her dioramas are, at most, tabletop-sized.

“I love the smallest, most delicate sculptures…those itty bitty bumps that you really have to look for… Recreating them was shockingly simple…To just stop and say, ‘This is finished,’ after just a few minutes was challenging,” she said.

Maddonni Haims’s creations often require ladders and many hands to set in place. Even her typical soft sculptures, crocheted and knitted pastel wedding cakes and bouquets of vibrant blooms, dwarf the petite mushroom caps and tiny toadstools at the Schuylkill Center.

“Soft sculpture is really where it’s at for me right now,” she said. “I love the process of making multiples, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Big statements in unexpected places 

Though trained as a painter, Maddonni Haims finds more meaningful expression in fiber art. “I can use these beautiful, sometimes coarse materials to create forms that are more organic, more ethereal,” she said. 

Maddonni Haims’s largest projects, yarnbombing, involve dressing pieces of the known world in knitted and crocheted wraps, drawing eyes to something usually taken for granted.

“Imagine making a scarf, a really long scarf that’s as wide as your wingspan…so big it could fit a giant. Or an elephant. Then you take that scarf and wrap it around something, like a telephone pole or a bench or a tree, temporarily of course. That’s yarnbombing.”

Yarnbombing

In spring 2014 Maddonni Haims yarnbombed a grove of 30 cherry trees on Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive, adorning the trunks with woven blocks of color, diamond patterns, and quilt squares. The project was timed precisely to coordinate with seasonal blooms.

In March, the artist will yarnbomb garden structures and trees at Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, a project in the planning for two years.

Crocheted “zippers” aid the removal of curated projects. And just as she recycles donated materials to make yarn, Maddonni Haims recycles project components: “I throw it in the washer and dryer, fold it and hold it to use again. Street work is different.”

In that case, the artist keeps an eye on the condition of pieces. “I usually carry a large scissors around with me just in case I happen by an old one. Mine or not, a nasty yarnbomb is just bad for business.”

When they forage, the couple rarely pick mushrooms, though Haims allows that last fall he brought home “a wonderful hen of the woods…It’s best served roasted with olive oil and some salt.” 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.